|Potential Threat to Sinharaja World Heritage Site|
Green Gold Rush in the 21st Century:
Sinharaja, the jewel in the crown of Sri Lanka’s natural forests, was once rescued from the jaws of destruction by a highly controversial selective logging project implemented in the 1970s primarily for the manufacture of plywood to make tea chests and furniture. At that time, this epic feat was achieved thanks to a collective effort by a cohort of dedicated environmentalists, religious leaders and scientists, both local and overseas, who were able to convince the then government that the long-term benefits by conserving this magnificent forest far outweighs the short-term foreign-exchange saving/earning project, whose sustainability was questionable. Looking back over 34 years, this decision to save Sinharaja from selective logging at the scale it was planned had not only been a visionary accomplishment, but was also a forerunner to several land-mark decisions taken by the successive governments towards conservation and sustainable development of our natural heritage for the benefit of current populace without compromising the survival of the future generations.
The second threat to the survival of Sri Lankan forests, even more serious than the first, came as a contentious Forestry Master Plan in 1983. It proposed the creaming off of all the remaining natural forests under the guise of sustainable timber management. It was, in a way, a multiplied version of what was proposed for Sinharaja in the 1960s and implemented in the 1970s. Thanks once again to the conservation-minded public opinion that prevailed at the time, the original master plan had to be withdrawn amidst strong public voice against it. Instead, a natural forest conservation plan was prepared by the very same consultants, which was later approved by the government. The public opinion both local and international, against the original master plan was so strong and convincing that the revised master plan recommended a moratorium on selective logging of all natural forests, which is even valid to date. Another conservation friendly outcome of this revised plan was that the Forest Department of Sri Lanka established a separate unit known as the Environmental Management Division, mainly to address the issues of conservation of natural forests like Sinharaja.
As a result of all this, Sinharaja and most other conservation forests received much public attention. In particular, their biological value was disseminated far and wide, both nationally and internationally. Sinharaja became a house-hold name in Sri Lanka. Its biodiversity and conservation value has been included in educational curricula at the school level and other higher educational levels, and even in some international institutions. Consequently, its conservation value has well and truly permeated the society, in general.
The most recent reports on income generated from tourist visits for education and recreation to our protected area system as a whole has shown impressive economic gains. However, the real value of its services to Sri Lankans as a prime Natural Wilderness Area and to the world at large, as a World Heritage, is still very much under-valued, but just beginning to emerge. Continued studies, discoveries and research in Sinharaja over the past decades have increased our knowledge on its biological wealth, to some degree. A lot more remains yet to be revealed, particularly from little explored eastern Sinharaja.
Declaration of Sinharaja as a National Wilderness Heritage Area and its subsequent listing as a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO WHS Criteria xi and x of 2005 is now glorified history on which we are still basking. The darker yet unseen side of the story is that threats of encroachment primarily for tea and cardamom cultivation, construction of dwellings, illegal removal of plants and animals, pollution of waterways in the immediate surroundings from agrochemicals are ‘worming in’ at an accelerated pace from all sides of Sinharaja forest. The earlier threats to conservation of natural forests came as major internationally funded projects at a national level. The current threats to Sinharaja and other forests in the region are at the local level, unknown to the rest of the world, unless one is a frequent traveler to these areas or proficient in browsing the web and comparing recent satellite images with those of the 1990s taken by the forest mapping project under the British ODA (now DFID) project.
All these are happening while impressive progress has been made on paper on the implementation of recommendations of the Forestry Master Plan through a series of internationally funded projects. In comparison, in the field however, there is little evidence that forests like Sinharaja are effectively protected, in accordance with the recommendations in the Revised Forestry Master Plan. On the positive side, it is a fact that visitor facilities have been improved in the major forest areas like Sinharaja, KDN and Knuckles. Yet, the protection and restoration/rehabilitation aspects, in my opinion, have not kept pace with similar impetus. It looks as though much of the efforts of the Forest Department in recent times had been channeled to cope with the ever increasing influx of tourist traffic at the expense of protecting the forests from unauthorized activities.
This brings us to the main topic of this article. There have been a number of newspaper articles, editorials, press statements and the like recently on a new road being cut on the eastern sector of the Sinharaja range from Illimbekanda to Sooriyakanda to join the villages in Kalawana PS with that of Kolonne. Unlike the western sector of Sinharaja, its eastern counterpart with all its aesthetic beauty and charm has been a neglected area for a long time by the conservation agencies as well as scientists, although the biodiversity of this area could be as rich as that of the lowland western sector, based on recent studies particularly of amphibians, reptiles etc. For a long while, since the 1980s, we have been campaigning to annex the remaining forested areas of the eastern sector of Sinharaja range to the National Wilderness Heritage area of Sinharaja, at every workshop that we attended, almost every publication we wrote on this subject and also in local newspapers and other media based on field visits to most areas in this Rakwana Hill range, at every opportunity we got.