Deforestation is an alarming issue in Sri Lanka, as the vibrant green landscapes of this paradise island slowly disappear, leaving behind barren patches of land. Although the fight against deforestation may seem daunting, there are individuals like Rajah Inguruwatlege, a determined banana farmer, who refuse to surrender.
A Valiant Struggle to Protect Nature
In the town of Eluvankulam on the west coast, Inguruwatlege recently cleared 10 acres of forest on his own land, legally. However, his actions have unintentionally disturbed the natural habitat of elephants. These magnificent creatures, forced out of their native homes due to deforestation, pose a significant challenge for farmers like Inguruwatlege.
To ward off the wandering elephants, Inguruwatlege resorts to using dynamite. The explosions are not meant to harm the elephants, but rather to scare them away from the crops. It’s a delicate balance, as he knows that angering them will only worsen the situation.
The Aftermath of a Long-lasting Conflict
Deforestation in Sri Lanka gained momentum after the end of a brutal civil war in 2009. Surprisingly, the war inadvertently protected the country’s trees from destruction, as the rebels valued the forest cover for their guerrilla activities. However, with the war over, farmers and small-scale loggers began exploiting the forests for profit.
The impact of these activities is staggering. According to the United Nations, Sri Lanka’s tree cover has plummeted from nearly 70 percent in the early 1800s to just 29.7 percent today. Large-scale agriculture and infrastructure projects, such as dam construction, contribute significantly to this loss. The once-thriving forests have been replaced by artificial growth like coconut and rubber plantations, which fail to provide suitable habitats for diverse plant and animal species.
Devastation Beyond the Surface
The consequences of deforestation extend far beyond the destruction of flora and fauna. The removal of trees leads to barren soil on hillsides, resulting in landslides during monsoon seasons. Rivers suffer from reduced flow due to sediment buildup in their channels. Ananda Mallawatantri, the country representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), describes the cumulative effect of deforestation as a major cause of flooding.
Effective Solutions Are Needed
While enforcing stricter laws to combat deforestation may seem like an obvious solution, experts argue that it’s not that straightforward. Many deforestation activities occur on private lands, beyond the government’s jurisdiction. Despite having comprehensive environmental laws, corruption and a lack of local capacity hinder implementation.
Political will also plays a significant role. Local officials often sympathize with poor farmers, who see expanding their agricultural lands as essential for their families’ survival. Adding half an acre of tea cultivation, for example, can significantly improve their livelihoods. Under pressure to please their constituents, politicians often prioritize short-term gains over environmental conservation.
The Path to Recovery
To combat deforestation, Sri Lanka’s federal forest department aims to increase tree cover to 32 percent, with a focus on improved forest fire monitoring. However, critics argue that without substantial budget increases for local oversight, progress will be limited.
On the other hand, large-scale defoliators face pressure from international environmental groups and public outcry. For instance, the Dole corporation ceased clearing land near Somawathiya National Park to prevent the displacement of hundreds of elephants following protests. These instances underscore the effectiveness of political pressure in curbing deforestation.
A Ray of Hope
Organizations like the Environment Foundation Ltd. are actively involved in legal battles against individuals and agencies encroaching on forests. Although their efforts have resulted in over 400 legal cases, eliminating smaller land grabs remains a challenge.
Ultimately, the battle against deforestation in Sri Lanka requires a comprehensive approach. It demands not only the enforcement of existing laws but also addressing corruption and improving political will. Striking a balance between the needs of farmers and environmental conservation is crucial for the long-term preservation of Sri Lanka’s forests and the diverse ecosystems they support.
As the sun sets over the cleared patch of land where a small village once stood, there remains a flicker of hope. Through collective efforts and unwavering dedication, the fight against deforestation in Sri Lanka can still be won.