Photo courtesy of Namal Kamalgoda

Today is the World Environment Day

 The theme for the World Environment Day 2021 is Ecosystem Restoration. The main aim of the World Environment Day this year is to garner support for a global initiative that will be launched by UN termed Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Ecosystem restoration can take many forms ranging from restoring degraded or destroyed natural ecosystems to greening cities as well as one’s own backyard. Therefore, every citizen has a role to play during the decade of ecosystem restoration if the target of restoring 350 million hectares is to be met successfully by 2030. Aim of this article is therefore, to create awareness about the need for ecosystem restoration, showcase some of the ongoing and planned work in Sri Lanka to support this imitative and to encourage all citizens of Sri Lanka to be active partners of this imitative at a personal, institutional and national level.  

Making of a blue-green planet

Planet Earth was formed nearly 4.5 billion years ago. As far as we know it is the only planet that supports life. Life evolved and flourished in water that covers nearly 70 per cent of the planet’s surface. While the oceans were teeming with life the land remained barren and lifeless for nearly 4 billion years since living organisms could not come on to land as they could not withstand the UV radiation emitted by the sun. However, the advent of a life process called photosynthesis would change the planet’s atmosphere in an unprecedented manner. Photosynthesis results in the removal of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and release of another gas called oxygen, which would convert the atmosphere from a reducing state into an oxygen rich one around 2.5 billion years ago. Further, oxygen formed another important molecule called Ozone that formed a shield around the planet to filter out most of the UV radiation, making it possible for life to invade the land around 600 million years ago. The first wave of invasion took place by algae like plants around 430 million year ago, which transformed the rocky surface of the earth to one that comprised of soil that enabled further colonization of land by plants, insects and vertebrates, converting earth from a blue planet into a blue-green planet.

Influence of man on the ecosystems

The modern man made its appearance on the earth about 200,000 years ago. Although man is one among the billions of species that would graze this planet, the impact of man on the planet is incomparable to any other species. While all other species of the planet are governed by laws of nature, man managed to evade the limitations imposed on population growth using his inventiveness, which resulted in three major revolutions – agriculture revolution, industrial revolution and technological revolution. However, each of these revolutions came at a cost. The agriculture revolution resulted in an increased conversion of the world’s natural habitats in to crop lands and at present nearly 25 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered with agricultural landscapes. The industrial revolution hastened the rate of resource use resulting in byproducts that have polluted the air, water and land. The impact of technological revolution is yet to be realized. Thus, the cumulative effect of these changes has resulted in a rapid loss of habitats, species and a change in the global climate.

A time for healing

The realization that man is pushing the planet beyond its boundaries has triggered UN to declare the period 2021 to 2030 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration to promote protection and revival of ecosystems around the world to put the world on track for a sustainable future. The global target set by UN is to restore 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This target, if successfully met, would generate $9 trillion in ecosystem services. Further, meeting of this target would also result in the reduction of greenhouse gases by an estimated 13 to 26 gigatons. The direct and indirect economic benefits are estimated to be nine times greater than the investment that will be required to meet this target. On the other hand, non-action is likely to pose serious challenges to human health, food security and overall human security. It should be also emphasized that restoration should not be limited to natural ecosystems but should also include manmade ecosystems so that salient features of all ecosystems are restored to optimal conditions to ensure they can provide maximal benefits to man and other species. It should also be borne in mind that ecosystem restoration means assisting the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed while ensuring that the ecosystems that are already intact are protected and preserved.

Why should Sri Lanka play an active role in the decade of restoration

Sri Lanka supports an unusually high biodiversity compared to any other moderate sized tropical island. The hallmark of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is signified by the presence of several species of mega fauna such as Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear and sambur that do not occur in other moderate sized islands and the presence of a large proportion of endemic species (species that are naturally found only in Sri Lanka). Therefore Sri Lanka, along with the Western Ghats of India, is listed as one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world. However, many of the endemic species in Sri Lanka are listed as Globally or Nationally Threatened due to a number of anthropogenic drivers that can be broadly categorized into those that influence habitat (loss, degradation, fragmentation and conversion) and those that influence species (Alien Invasive Species, human-wildlife conflict and overexploitation). The impact of these drivers will be exacerbated due to climate change driven processes. Therefore, restoring ecosystems will not only help conserve the globally important biodiversity of Sri Lanka but increase our resilience towards predicted climate change driven impacts.

Sri Lanka has pledged to increase its forest cover by two per cent through restoration of degraded forests and reforestation of abandoned lands under the Paris Agreement in 2015. This would require restoration or reforestation of approximately 130,000 ha, which is an extremely challenging task. However, in November 2020, the national government issued a circular MWFC/1/2020 repealing two previous circulars 05/2001 (a circular issued to transfer the management of all remaining forests under the category of “other state forests” from Divisional Secretaries to Forest Department) and 02/2006 (an addendum to 05/2001, which provided a pathway for the Divisional Secretaries to identify non forest lands for development and get them exempt from the jurisdiction of Forest Department). This circular will result in an overall loss of forest cover by about five per cent above and beyond the baseline level of forest loss of approximately 7,700 ha per annum. This type of short-sighted approach is an example of classic dichotomy between commitment and practice by the successive governments in Sri Lanka that have failed to honor commitments made both nationally and globally.

Therefore, Sri Lanka is in dire need of protecting and restoring its natural capital and the onus of achieving this task should not be placed only on the hands of national government. World Environment Day 2021 should be used as a platform to garner support from all quarters for this worthy imitative.

Charity begins at home

As the saying goes “prevention is better than cure”. First, on this day each citizen should make a pledge to oneself to reduce his/her footprint that contributes towards ecosystem degradation. The solid waste and wastewater we generate at home ends up in wetlands that leads to degradation of critical wetlands. Overconsumption results in increased demand for land conversion whether it be for food production, generation of power or provision of drinking water. Therefore, by making a conscious effort to minimize and manage our waste streams as well following responsible consumption patterns can help reduce the burden on the environment. Using whatever available space to plant trees, especially food plants that can support other biodiversity such as birds and butterflies, in our home gardens will make our surroundings attractive and these species can provide us with a plethora of services such as pollination, controlling pests and disease vectors and sequester greenhouse gasses.

Institutions too can play a major role in ecosystem restoration directly by conducting restoration projects or partner with an ongoing project. There are many successful models where private sector organizations have undertaken large scale restoration projects as part of their environmental commitment. For instance, MAS holdings has initiated a project to restore 25,000 acres through analog forestry, restoration of degraded forests, afforestation and invasive removal. Another noteworthy project has been implemented in Kanneliya Conservation Forest, named “Life Project”, that brings together 11 private sector organizations, Biodiversity Sri Lanka, IUCN Sri Lanka and Forest Department to develop a reforestation protocol to restore degraded areas around the forest reserve with native forest trees. Restoration efforts of Sri Lanka will be strengthened by a project that is being developed by UNDP Sri Lanka in partnership with Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Plantation Industries and Regional Plantation Companies to ensure conservation of 4,000 ha of High Conservation Value forests and restoration 500 ha of degraded forests within the plantations sector during the next five to six years.

Therefore, all is not lost. However, most of these initiatives are at a nascent stage and nurturing and supporting these projects during the decade of ecosystem restoration as well as developing new restoration projects that will contribute significantly towards achieving the global target will make Sri Lanka a key partner in the efforts to bring back stability to a troubled planet.

Devaka Weerakoon is Professor in Zoology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Colombo