Sinharaja: Mother Nature’s precious gift | Daily News
Tomorrow (march 21) is International day of Forests:

Sinharaja: Mother Nature’s precious gift

Forests cover one third of the Earth's land mass, performing vital functions around the world. Around 1.6 billion people—including more than 2,000 indigenous cultures—depend on forests for their livelihoods, medicines, fuel, food and shelter.
Forests cover one third of the Earth's land mass, performing vital functions around the world. Around 1.6 billion people—including more than 2,000 indigenous cultures—depend on forests for their livelihoods, medicines, fuel, food and shelter.

The fact that Sinharaja forest reserve is a precious gift to us from the nature is nothing new. It is an evergreen tropical forest located in the Wet Zone of the country, stretching across the Districts of Galle, Matara and Ratnapura with an extent of approximately 1,185 hectares.

Considering its importance as a catchment area, its biodiversity, socio economic importance and the immense contribution made to the environmental system of the country, as per the recommendations of the Department of Forest Conservation, it was declared as an International Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 and subsequently, considering its significance to the nation and its importance as a scarce natural resource, it was proclaimed as a National Heritage in 1988. It was also declared as a Forest Reserve.

Taking all of the aforesaid factors into account, a special management staff has been appointed for its proper management and safety. However, during the recent past, an incident which led to controversy was the circulation of a news item revealing the construction of a roadway dividing the Sinharaja forest reserve.

What really transpired was the reconstruction of a roadway which was in existence for over 50 years. How did it happen, what is its history? When probing the history of Sinharaja forest reserve, it is revealed that an entrance has been built only in 1963. This entrance is from Waddagala to Kudawa. Thereafter, the potential of the reserve to manufacture wood was examined and according to the information gathered from such study and through the recommendations made by UNDP/FAO in 1968, the capacity for selective felling was recognized and wood cutting was permitted by the Government at the time.

With the assistance of the Canadian Reid Collings Associate (Ltd), Plywood Corporation of Kosgama was established and to obtain the necessary wood for the corporation, an extent of 5000 hectares in the Sinharaja forest reserve was allocated for felling.

In order to transport wood, trucks, backhoes and bulldozers were used and roads with a width of 12 metres were built to meet the transportation purposes. This led to a colossal environmental damage and due to public dismay during the time, wood felling was permanently halted. However during the period of 1971 to 1978, felling was again carried out in an area of approximately 2,500 hectares.

The wide roadway systems seen today in Kudawa, Wathurawa and Dorana Ela were all constructed to transport wood. No such new roadway has been recently built and only a renovation of Waturawa- Dorana canal system, which was severely affected by the landslides and heavy rainfall of 2017 has been carried out.

There is a reason behind this.

One of the objectives of UNESCO World Heritage programme as well as the Bio Diversity Sphere programme was facilitating environmental education and experimentation, maintaining the reserve to optimize the services and benefits given by it.

The Waturawa-Dolana canal system (1.5km) is the entrance to Sinharaja forest reserve and over 100,000 locals and foreigners visit Sinharaja by making use of this roadway every year.

This roadway is located outside the World Heritage site, the renowned Sinharaja forest reserve. Moreover, this roadway was severely damaged due to reasons such as landslides, felling of trees and other obstructions.

In order to carry out the necessary repairs, funding was granted by the World Bank Programme for the Management of Environmental Systems and, a contract service chosen by the Department of Forest Conservation carried out all such repairs.

Dhammika Wattegama, Controller of the Sinharaja forest reserve explained: “When it is raining, the reserves receives a rainfall of over 50 mm, Sometimes that escalates to almost 200-300 mm. Due to this heavy rainfall, potholes of about 4 or 5 inches could be seen on the road. It is not only this road, but this rainfall floods even the roadway used by the locals of the area to come to the village.

During this period, there is no travelling facility and we felt a dire need to rebuild this road. There is literally no way to direct foreigners to obtain immediate treatment in the event of an accident or injury. Locals are compelled to carry them on their back for a very long distance. We have also been relentlessly requesting the authorities to at least construct a roadway that would allow those who come by wheelchair and clutches to at least reach the main security point from the entrance.”

Accordingly, the project took steps to meet these demands and to mitigate the effects of any environmental damage. A separate person was appointed to execute duties and responsibilities of supervision. Using small vehicles to transport wood, minimal emission of sound, preventing the storage of garbage, keeping land excavation at a minimum were some of the chief measures undertaken.

Therefore, the wide publicity given by media during the past days, stating that a new entrance has been built across the Sinharaja forest is a complete falsehood.

Dhammika Wattegama explained further: “In addition to this road which was repaired, we had requested for the construction of our forest roadway, which was spanning across the village bordering on the Sinharaja reserve. But villagers only reside over a one kilometer distance on that road, beyond that, one side of the road is bordered by Sinharaja and the other side is covered by private lands.

Thus there are several lopes on those private lands. Although lope owners and several who were depending on the same wanted to construct this road anew, our attention towards such construction was drawn only up to one kilometre. Since these individuals did not have any means to construct the roadway, this had to be done through the sponsorship of the project.

Except for this roadway which consists of our focal check point, there are a number of roadways and places to enter Sinharaja avoiding the checkpoints. Lope owners around the area usually show visitors short cuts instead of the official roadway.

There have also been instances where rare insect and plant species were unlawfully stolen by creeping in to Sinharaja from those places. Just as I undertook my job here, I managed to catch and take legal measures against a foreigner who was attempting to steal butterflies from the reserve. Once this road is built and a check point is placed outside the forest road, it will be difficult for them to engage in such unlawful activities. Instead of this road, if the other road was built, it could have been easy for them to continue with their illegal activities. This was the reason as to why a wrong image about this road was given. Some of our tourist guides also assisted this process. We have instructed them to teach the tourists as much as they can about the unique flora and fauna of the forest. However during the period where a large number of tourists visit the reserve, some tour guides rush in their attempts to take new batches of tourists by accompanying the tourists only for a short distance and letting them observe the flora and fauna for a short period. Nevertheless this incident is now a part of history. The Sinharaja forest reserve belongs to the future – and to future generations.”

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