The International Day of Forests was celebrated in March. The theme was “Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being” and never before has there been so much reason to draw society’s attention to these precious natural resources: the forests that cover one third of the surface of planet Earth. .
Forests act as safety nets for vulnerable people around the world, providing sources of food and income when supply chains are disrupted. Covid-19 has served as a wake-up call that the health of humans, animals and the environment are interconnected. Countries, including Sri Lanka, are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organize positive activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting campaigns.
Unjustified and unlimited deforestation and unsustainable use of forests increase the risk of diseases caused by pathogens that pass from animals to humans. About 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases and almost all recent epidemics are believed to be caused by wildlife. When forests are destroyed to expand the agricultural landscape and when the demand for wild meat as a luxury item leads to overexploitation, contact between humans, livestock and wildlife increases. And the risk of the next pandemic too. Under these circumstances, there is a clear message that healthy forests lead to healthy people.
The United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration began this year and is an opportunity to increase forest restoration on millions of hectares, to heal degraded lands, offering many people the opportunity to benefit from green jobs and income-generating opportunities. Forest restoration is one of the priority areas to mitigate the effects of climate change. Restoration and sustainable management of forest resources will help absorb air pollutants and waste, rebuild natural habitats and sustain life on planet Earth.
The world has lost 420 million hectares of forest cover over the past three decades, mainly due to deforestation and conversion to other unjustified land uses, mainly due to the expansion of agricultural activities. This destruction endangers the health of the world’s population, releases greenhouse gases, threatens the continued existence of extinct plants and animals, and endangers the livelihoods of those who depend on forests for their livelihoods. .
We must end the practices that lead to the large-scale conversion of forests for agricultural purposes by recognizing that it is possible to feed the growing world population without destroying or cutting down the shelter of the thick forest landscape. Law enforcement authorities should crack down on illegal wildlife trade. We must invest in restoring degraded forests and landscapes to restore healthy ecosystems, as the United Nations has specified.
About two billion hectares and an area twice the size of China have been degraded due to extravagant use, drought, and unsustainable forest and land management practices and systems. Many countries have prioritized the restoration of degraded forest lands. The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel initiative launched by the African Union is an example.
By 2030, the project aims to restore 100 million hectares of drylands in Africa with native tree and vegetation species, greening landscapes while isolating 250 million tonnes of carbon and creating 10 million green jobs. More than 60 countries and entities have pledged to restore more than 210 million hectares of degraded land similar to almost two-thirds of India’s land area.
Forests are home to around 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity with over 60,000 tree species. About 1.6 billion people depend on forest resources for their food, shelter, energy medicines and income-generating activities. The world loses 10 million hectares of forest each year, which is similar to the size of Iceland, accounting for 12 to 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change.
Land degradation affects two billion hectares, an area larger than South Africa. Many medicines come from forests. About 25 percent of drugs used in developed countries are herbal, while in developing countries like Sri Lanka it can reach 80 percent. It has been estimated that some two billion hectares of degraded land worldwide (twice the size of Europe) have the potential to be regenerated.
Sri Lanka is blessed with a wide range of forest ecosystems due to different topographical, climatic and soil conditions. The main forest types in the country are dry monsoon forests, lowland rainforests, humid monsoon forests, mountain forests, riparian dry forests, savannah and mangrove forests.
However, recent technical and media reports point to a rapid increase in deforestation and degradation of forest resources in the country. At the start of the 19th century, almost 70 percent of the country was covered by forests. Forest cover fell to 29.7 percent, or about 1.95 million hectares in 2017. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, forest cover fell further to 28.39 percent (1.86 million hectares) of total land area. Primary forests are said to be the most affected variety.
Most of the forest cover in Anuradhapura district, the largest with 717,900 hectares, is of secondary origin. Traditional agriculture since ancient times has resulted in the clearing of the original forest which was left to regrow as secondary forests. Crumbling irrigation reservoirs in the forests are proof of this. There was a drastic decrease in natural forests in the district after the 1950s due to large-scale shifting cultivation, illegal logging and informal development.
About 70 percent of the natural forest cover was cleared during the period 1950-1980. According to information from the district land use planning office, in 2017 the forest cover of the district was 220,827 hectares while in 2019 it was 214,590 hectares. Although there is a decline in the cultivation of chena, illegal logging is practiced in the district.
The continued decrease in forest area has also affected the loss of wildlife habitat and the lack of fodder and water threatening the survival of wildlife. The growing conflict between humans and elephants in the north-central province is the best proof of this. According to forest and wildlife conservation authorities, the main reasons for the destruction of forest land are: extraction of firewood, illegal logging of trees for timber, destruction of forest corridors elephants and the lack of technical research on forest destruction and preservation.
Forest fires and development works involving the construction of large dams and roads have reduced the diversity of plant and animal species. Illegal livestock farming reduces grazing or feeding grounds for wild animals and causes soil erosion.
The Court of Appeal ruled in a recent judgment known as the Anuradhapura Wilpattu judgment that relocating displaced people to more than 3,000 hectares on the Mannar side of Wilpattu Park since 2009 was against the law. The judgment is a revelation which upheld the rights of peoples to the environment.
Recent studies by the Institute of Policy Studies have revealed inconsistent forest conservation policies, as well as new initiatives to increase agricultural production or other development megaprojects can encourage encroachment and deforestation. Last year, the government canceled three circulars that protected 10,000 hectares of forests identified as other state forests. These areas are not classified as protected areas even though they represent five percent of the country’s forest landscape.
A recent UN report includes a detailed account of the drivers of deforestation in Sri Lanka. The report identified the drivers of deforestation from a past, present and future perspective. Most of the drivers are socio-economic. According to wildlife and forest conservation sources, land encroachment, development megaprojects and expansion of agricultural projects have been identified as the most immediate drivers of deforestation. Along with population growth, local and global demand for land and crops is increasing. People pressured by these drivers encroach on protected areas.
The goals of increasing local agricultural production to ensure food security while limiting the importation of products such as sugar and milk encourage the expansion of agricultural businesses. Demand for gemstone mining and the development of infrastructure such as the construction of highways are identified as drivers of deforestation and forest cover degradation.
Awareness programs can be of immense help with lasting impacts on forest restoration and conservation. Private companies can adhere to minimal deforestation policies or implement compensation policies such as tree replanting. Replanting endangered and endogenous species in degraded natural forests and private lands would support reforestation efforts.
Environmentally friendly programs
It is salutary that the Ministry of Environment has launched environmentally friendly programs such as Mihimawata Kan Demu, Sobha Ama and Surakimu Ganga which aim to revive forest cover and other natural environmental aspects at a cost of Rs. 32 billion. Its goal is to plant two million saplings in river basins. According to Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, 100,000 seedlings have been planted.
On the instruction of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa under the auspices of the Ministry of Wildlife and Forestry Conservation, Wildlife and Forestry Conservation Departments, an ecosystem conservation and management project was launched. The project includes environmentally friendly innovations.
According to the Forest Sector Master Plan 2021-2030, more attention is given to reforestation and rehabilitation of degraded forests, among other components. However, the lack of resources in the forestry and wildlife conservation departments, mainly manpower, advanced equipment, transportation, and insufficient authority given to divisional or provincial staff to expedite operations. Lawsuits against vandals affected the implementation of reforestation activities.