Forestry officials responding to recent reports of large-scale destruction of land in Wilpattu National Park deny such damage, while environmentalists charge that deforestation is widespread in the country.
The Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe, denied the existence of new large-scale clearances of forest cover around Wilpattu. “We have taken action against a party who cleared a forest land recently, but it is a small plot. The large-scale clearances that are being referred to took place in 2014,” he said.
Commentary on social media erupted recently over clearing of forest land north of Wilpattu National Park for settlements. Since then, a presidential task force has been mandated to investigate.
Sathurisinghe said a survey will be undertaken in Mannar with the intention to declare a wildlife reserve. “Once the area is declared a wildlife reserve, then these settlements too will have to be removed,” he said. The forest lands had been released by the previous government for settlements. But environmentalists say it was illegal and the incumbent Government could act on that basis.
“We should also focus our energies to stop forest clearances in other areas as well,” said Hemantha Withanage of the Centre of Environment Justice. He observes that there is great pressure on officials to release forest land for so-called ‘development’ projects. “So it is important to be vigilant. Forests in the North and East will face a lot of pressure because of development.’’
A recent study, “Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Sri Lanka” done under REDD+ Sri Lanka (REDD stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) identifies three key contributory factors for deforestation — encroachments, infrastructure development projects, and private agriculture
There are other factors, too. Tree Felling – illicit or otherwise, cultivations, non-timber forest product gathering such as ‘walla patta’, cattle grazing, forest fires, gem mining are among factors that trigger the degradation of forests.
A recent survey by the Forest Department also found out that forest degradation does not necessarily involve a reduction of the forest area, instead it leads to the decline of the quality of the forests.
The REDD report indicates that several factors promote deforestation and degradation. There are plenty of examples where encroachments are made acceptable when governments give permanent deeds, specially ahead of elections. Weak enforcement and monitoring capability, poor coordination among agencies, demands due to population growth are some other reasons. However, political interference has been a major factor in deforestation, according to the report.
Land is needed for development and human settlements. But it is important to identify already degraded lands without sacrificing biodiversity rich forests environmentalists warn. The cost of losing the forest cover could be greater than the monetary value of a project, they say. “Doesa a strategic assessment and identify zones with degraded lands without rushing to axe forests,” Withanage of the CEJ urges.
Yet more trees to be ripped up under Chinese deal
More of Sri Lanka’s forest land is being marked out for ripping up under irrigation projects.
The Sunday Times learns that a large area of forest cover is expected to be sacrificed for the Maduru Oya right bank development project due to begin this year.
Maduru Oya is one of the major reservoirs built under the accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme of 1982 that planned to develop 39,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the Mahaweli ‘B’ zone in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts. While its left bank ‘developments’ have been completed, due to lack of funds, work on right bank projects did not begin.
Under the ‘Reawakening Polonnaruwa’ program the work is being revived.
President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, made a proposal to the cabinet last September. Accordingly, the Maduru Oya right bank project aims to develop drinking water supplies, irrigation, and infrastructure for the socio-economic development in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts.
The project will be financed with loans from the Chinese EximBank and the US$475 million (Rs 70.45 billion) engineering contract was signed last October between the state-owned China CAMC Engineering and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and the Environment.
Conservationists say the project would worsen environmental degradation.
The former director general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sumith Pilapitiya, points out that at least 18,000 hectares of forest land would be destroyed for new settlements and agriculture.
“The President, as the Minister of Environment talks about increasing forest cover in Sri Lanka to 30%, while as Minister of Mahaweli Development, his ministry is destroying over 18,000 hectares of forest lands. The loss of this forest land will certainly aggravate the human-elephant conflict, with elephants guaranteed to destroy crops brought under cultivation under the Maduru Oya right bank development project,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.
There are no winners in such ill-conceived projects. The country loses forest cover, the elephants lose their habitat, settlements are subject to human elephant conflict and farmers are affected when elephants raid their crops. So why are we undertaking such a project?’’ Dr.Pilapitiya ponders.
There are examples from the past. There were no winners in the Walawe left bank development project, he notes.
“We fool ourselves by making statements such as Sri Lanka is going to increase her forest cover to 30% and destroying what little forest cover we have,’’ Dr Pilapitiya said.