Blending country’s biodiversity with development | Daily News
Vana Ropa national tree planting programme

Blending country’s biodiversity with development

In the discourse on the merit gained in planting groves, the Deva asked the Buddha ‘In whom does merit grow by day and by night? Who are the people that are well established in the Dhamma? Who are the people that are endowed with morality? Who are the people that are bound for the deva realms?

In answering Deva’s question, the Buddha said “They who plant orchards and gardens, who plant groves, who build bridges, who set up sheds by the roadside with drinking water for the travellers, who sink wells or build reservoirs, who put up various forms of shelter for the public, are those in whom merit grows by day and by night. They are the people that are established in the Dhamma, that are endowed with morality and that are bound for the deva realms.”

End of Vanaropa Sutta - discourse on the merit gained in planting groves

We are informed that the Cabinet of Ministers, at their meeting held on 16 September 2015, made a decision to launch a national tree planting (Vana Ropa) programme in the month of October 2015 at the District and Divisional Secretariat levels within the whole island. It is proposed to implement awareness programmes on environmental conservation, soil conservation projects, and various activities at provincial level in the month of October each year.

The Cabinet proposal was submitted by the President Maithripala Sirisena as the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, to implement this programme through all public institutions together with the active participation of private and non-government organizations. The inaugural ceremony of the Vana Ropa programme was held on October 01, 2015 at Karagahagedera in Hettipola Road, Kuliyapitiya and another ceremony was held in Kothmale on the 11th of October with the participation of the President.

The Ministry of Environment and Mahaweli Development should be congratulated for proposing this well thought out programme with an inspirational thematic caption taken from Buddhist scripture. Furthermore, the timing of this island-wide programme is propitious when both major and minor development projects involving clearance of existing forests are already making serious inroads in to our natural forests including regenerating forests in an unregulated manner, as reported in media.

The awareness activities of the Vana Ropa programme is to be executed according to a weekly thematic schedule over the month of October by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. The thematic emphasis of the first week of October for this Vana Ropa programme is to ‘Ensure forest conservation’, the second on ‘enhancing greenery in human settlements - urban forestry’, the third on ‘promoting partnership with the non-stakeholders such as NGOs and the public sector’ and that of the fourth week to ‘encourage various segments of the society to take part in creative forestation initiatives’.

According to a communiqué issued by the ministry, the Vana Ropa programme will include various activities including the development of strategies towards the increase of national forest cover. This programme intends to increase the current forest cover of 29% by further 180,000 hectares to 32% through a three year national programme during 2016-2018. Moreover, it underscores that the tree planting programme be conducted by government and coordinated effectively with the public sector and non-government partners.

In addition to the extent, it also aims at increasing the quality of the forest cover, conserving Sri Lankan biodiversity and natural ecosystems, utilization of waste lands for tree planting, promotion and management of commercial forest cultivation with contributions from private and non-government organizations. The organizers are proposing to implement awareness programmes on environmental conservation, soil conservation projects and other related activities henceforth as an annual event in the month of October.

If one reads the text of the Vana Ropa sutta with an ecological mindset, it is the ecosystem services that sustain human well being, that are enshrined in it. “They who plant orchards and gardens, who plant groves, who build bridges, who set up sheds by the roadside with drinking water for the travellers, who sink wells or build reservoirs, who put up various forms of shelter for the public, are those in whom merit grows by day and by night”.

We need to examine how this proposed broad-based tree planting programme should be carried out in an ecologically sustainable manner so that it will contribute to improving ecosystem services for survival and well being of humans as well as other organisms depends.

Security from natural disasters and pollution

Among the ecosystem services that are expected to be enhanced through tree planting in a deep ecological sense as proposed in the Vana Ropa programme are i) provisioning of food, clean water, wood, fiber, medicinals, ii) regulating climate, floods, quality of air, soil and water, incidence of pests and diseases, availability of pollinators and fruit dispersers. In addition, the tree-planted landscapes also would be facilitating biomass production, cycling of nutrients etc. thus improving the quality of air, water and soil. Such sylvan landscapes also provide aesthetic beauty, spiritual welfare, recreational and educational virtues as an important contribution of their ecosystem services.

It is in this spirit that the Vana Ropa Sutta should be interpreted in modern context as to how planting trees/groves in a truly deep ecological sense that would sustain human well being. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic values of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the inter-connected and hence inter-dependent web of life. It recognizes that we are all embedded in, and ultimately dependent upon, the cyclical processes of nature.

The ecosystem services in essence could be appreciated for their important role in improving human well being - basic material for good life, health food and water security, security from natural disasters and pollution, by providing clean air and water and finally good social relations that include mutual respect and helping others - ‘health, wealth and happiness’ both in materialistic and spiritual sense. In the Sri Lankan traditional cultural landscape of world-renown Kandyan Home Gardens and the dry zone cascade (Ellangawa) systems of agriculture, it is still evident that the safeguards of ecosystem services for the well being of humans as well as other beings have been well preserved.

The ecosystem services in its modern perspective, were ‘rediscovered, restored, reassembled and repackaged ‘by the United Nations in 2005 as Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report. It has evolved first as Millennium Development Goals 2000 - 2015 (distilled and condensed to eight goals from eradicating poverty and hunger to combating diseases while ensuring environmental sustainability in development) and subsequently expanded in to 17 goals known as Sustainability Development Goals for the period 2015 - 2030 under the UN theme of ‘Time for Global Action - For People and the Planet’.

In the light of these national and international developments, let us address the four main themes of the Vana Ropa national tree planting programme of the Ministry of Environment and Mahaweli Development which is to be staged on a weekly basis, in an ecological context.

1. The theme of the first week’s programme is conservation of peculiar ecosystems, promotion, maintenance and protection of their nearby forest covers under the theme of ‘Ensuring Forest Conservation’. Assuming that this programme is setting a stage for a well-conceived long-term forest conservation programme for three years from 2016 - 2018 as a start, there is a wealth of ecological information already available to initiate action.

The target set by the Ministry of Environment and Mahaweli Development to increase the natural forest cover from 29% to 32 % by 2018 to meet both national and international obligations is indeed a formidable one for several reasons. The foremost is that the figure of 29% of natural forest cover of the country is based on the estimations made from satellite images taken in 2008 and 2009 and the current situation of natural forest cover in late 2015 has deteriorated further in most districts, particularly those in the North and East, since the dawn of the peace in the country. Over 45,000 ha of natural forests and regenerating forests are either already released and cleared or slated for clearance for national level developmental programmes by the Forest Department.

Among these are 31,700 ha of natural forests in different stages of regeneration have been released for irrigation and water resources management projects that are currently under way viz. Moragahakanda (5482 ha), Kalu Ganga (7,593 ha), Uma Oya (1,228 ha) and Maduru Oya right bank development (17,400 ha). Similarly, another 14,154 ha of forests have been ear-marked for a further set of irrigation projects (Yan Oya, Kiul Oya, Lower Malwathu Oya, Morana, Upper Elahera, and Kalugal Oya) on which environmental impact assessments are currently being done. In addition, over 1,700 ha of land in Mulathivu (380 ha), Mannar (1,204 ha) and Vavuniya (132 ha) administered by the Forest Department have been released for resettlement of displaced persons in the Northern Province. Consequently, a current forest cover of 29.7 % is a gross overestimate of its present status. The annual deforestation rates of 0.3 to 1.1% puts Sri Lanka in the category of ‘low forest cover but high deforestation rate (LFHD)’ in the global pattern of historical deforestation.

Consequently, Sri Lanka is facing a challenge in redefining the vision for Sri Lanka’s forests at this crucial phase of rapid development while engaging in a global initiative to move towards a ‘green economy’ in a changing climate. While aiming at increasing the national forest cover from 29% (which is the existing natural forest cover as per 2008/2009 forest cover assessment) to 32%, there is a systematic depletion of natural forest cover at the same time for the purpose of development programmes some of which are indicated above. Secondly, there are also increasing trends of ‘leakage’ in all parts of the country due to forest encroachment in an imperceptible manner. These are being amply demonstrated from time to time by both print and audio-visual media. Therefore, realizing this targeted challenge within a short period of time of three years is indeed an uphill task. Thirdly, there should be a proper ecological understanding in planting trees for the sustenance of aforesaid ecosystem services and a mechanism to evaluate the success of tree planting programmes.

The first week’s theme of ‘Ensuring Forest Conservation’ through which conservation of peculiar ecosystems, promotion, maintenance and protection of their ‘nearby’ forest covers is an ecologically a priority area, implementation of which is long overdue. An IUCN/WCMC/FAO report titled ‘Designing an optimum protected areas system for Sri Lanka’s natural forests’ (popularly known as the National Conservation Review - NCR) and published way back in 1996 provides a sound basis on valid scientific criteria for developing an optimum system of conservation forests for maintenance of ecosystem services that includes biodiversity conservation, watershed protection and to meet cultural, economic and social needs. While the forests of the Northern and Eastern provinces were not surveyed during this assessment due to prevailing situation at the time, those of the Department of Wildlife conservation were also not included in this pioneering project. However, subsequently, the DWLC forests too, were assessed and it is learnt that proposals have been made to survey those forests remaining in the Northern and Eastern provinces to identify their conservation priorities.

The National Conservation Review (NCR) of 1996 is considered as the most detailed, comprehensive and innovative evaluation of its kind carried out in any tropical country at that time (1991-1996). The findings of this report are even more valuable in today’s context of conserving ecosystem services. In summary, this report recommends conservation of 104 contiguous forest units for watershed protection and biodiversity conservation of which 70 units are given top priority in the report. It mentions that every effort should be made to ensure that the largest forests and their ‘nearby’ smaller forest units are designated in their entirety as conservation forests. Foremost among these are Bambarabotuwa (5 units), Central Highlands (16 units), Gilimale-Eratne, KDN (6 units), Knuckles/Wasgamuwa (11 units), Pedro (three units) and Sinharaja (14 units). Based on the NCR survey, 42 forests will be needed to be protected much of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity in addition to those already designated as protected areas.

A desk-top survey could be initiated at the Ministry/Forest Dept. to see how much of this ecologically evaluated NCR recommendations have been implemented twenty years on as a starting point of the first week’s theme of the Vana Ropa programme - ‘conservation of peculiar (meaning perhaps unique) ecosystems, promotion, maintenance and protection of their nearby forest covers’.

Although most of these forests have since been very much degraded and decreased in extent all round over these long years due to rampant encroachments, still there are important forest areas outside the present protected area system. A case in point is those forests around Eastern Sinharaja in the Rakwana-Deniyaya hills. Considering their ecological significance, a report has been submitted to the then Minister of Environment recommending the conservation of the forests adjacent to Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area in 2011, yet, this still has not been implemented. The same is true for the other large forests as well.

If steps could be taken during the first week’s programme to prepare strategies to incorporate as much wilderness areas still remaining outside in the neighbourhood of protected areas as possible into the conservation forest system based on sound ecological surveys such as NCR and subsequent updates and to develop appropriate ecological corridors as a link between isolated forest fragments, then it is in the right direction in achieving the target of 32% of natural forest cover in the true spirit of Vana Ropa Sutta. This Vana Ropa programme need to be extended further to areas in the Northern and Eastern regions as soon as possible where water conservation is as important as conservation of biodiversity and other ecosystem services. Protection of environment is enshrined in our constitution and it needs to be given priority for which environmental impact assessment mechanisms are set in place before initiating any development activity.

2. The theme of the second week of the Vana Ropa programme is to increase the greenery and granting its benefits to the public through tree plantation in populated areas under the theme “Enhance greenery in human settlement - urban forestry”.

Sri Lanka possesses two of the best examples of ‘enhancing greenery in human settlement’ in the form of Kandyan home gardens and dry zone gently flowing cascade (Ellangawa) systems, both of which have evolved over centuries but gradually declined since European occupation commenced in the 16th century. Both these traditional systems of agro-forestry have been a composite of well proven sustainable mosaic of ecosystems providing a whole range of ecosystem services and enhanced greenery to rural and also urban landscape.

There is a growing interest among the urban as well as peri-urban and rural communities at present to improve their sylvan environment. The Governments, over the years, have been promoting planting of utility tree species in home gardens through a range of national, regional and local tree planting programmes.

An encouraging feature in this respect is that the tourism trade too, has been indirectly promoting the establishment of spice gardens and providing accommodation as ‘home stays’ in such home gardens at least in some districts. This trend is picking up both in the tourist industry sector and also, more importantly, in the international scientific agendas for sustainable development as proven examples of greening human settlements.

The Kandyan Home/Spice Gardens distributed predominantly in the districts of Central Highlands symbolize the human ingenuity in crafting a delicate balance between optimal economic diversity with ecological sustainability, enriched by religio-cultural traditions passed down over generations. These ecologically complex multi-storied and multi-species forest gardens are still continuing to-date as producers and exporters of a repertoire of traditional health foods consisting of leafy and tuber - forming vegetables, fruits, spices, beverages, medicinals, timber, fuel wood and sugar supplements among others. These traditional health foods are produced in home gardens with remarkably low inputs of agrochemicals and they provide high level of nutritional and dietary diversity while medicinal species, spice and timber species provide substantial additional income to the households. These systems have proven to be excellent business models for sustainable organic farming.

Likewise, almost defunct networks of cascade system of irrigated agricultural systems which were widespread and evolved during the period of Rajarata civilization from 200 BC to about 1300 AD in much of the seasonally dry lower plains of the country are also world renown for their longer-term sustainability. The ellangawa or gently flowing cascade system is an exquisite exposition of an irrigation engineering marvel of greatest antiquity. These wetland-centred ellangawa landscapes, at their best, is an embodiment of integrated and inter-dependent mosaic of different ecosystems created, nurtured and co-evolved with human ingenuity reinforced with their freely sharing traditional knowledge systems. They are well-integrated irrigated agricultural systems, unmatched for their engineering sophistication underpinned by eco-cultural refinement of their sustained management over centuries.

They too, like the Kandyan home gardens have complex agro-ecological landscape mosaic. The most intriguing feature of the ellangawa or the gently cascading system of water flow is that it starts as a simple modular unit, which repeats itself but at increasing scales, along the natural flow of the water courses and eventually scaling up to the largest of reservoirs exploiting the naturally anastamosing river systems in something akin to a modern day fractal system. In the ellangawa system, the smallest fractal unit of the village tank/reservoir-centred landscape graduates in to an interplay of the largest waterscape cum landscape. It has a tree girdle (gasgommana) around its water spread as a watershed and as a silt trap and also as a natural water filter in this intricate cascade system. Even the water flowing out from a smaller modular reservoir unit to the one below that after the former’s usage in traditional farming and household activities, the water was released to the latter after passing through an elongated meadow known as Kattakaduwa around which trees such as Mi, Kumbuk, Lunuwarana, Thimbiri, Wal Beli and Wetakeyya apparently to reduce the levels of alkalinity and other water soluble salts. The ellangawa cascade system is also becoming a successful business model in ecotourism trade.

These historically and culturally well proven systems of ‘greening human settlements’ should be given a pride of place under this second week’s theme of increasing the greenery and granting its benefits to the public through tree plantation in populated areas. A good example for this is that at a recent research seminar, it was reported that the Batticaloa town and its surroundings were flooded several times over the last year. One of the main reasons being that there are eight major streams that deposit water to the Batticaloa lagoon and during heavy rains there is an unregulated inflow of a large quantity of water in the form of flash floods into the urban landscape. One of the major causes for this unregulated flow of water in to the lagoon is apparently that the small and medium-sized reservoirs of the ancient ellangava systems are now defunct in their traditional regulatory role. Denudation of their catchments in Polonnaruwa, Ampara and southern regions of Trincomalee district have worsened the situation.

Re-establishment of at least some of these critically important ellangawa systems with their sylvan catchments with a broader public and private sector participation would be an insightful ecological solution to this recurring problem of frequent flooding in urban landscape.

Current global trends have highlighted the unsustainable use of natural resources around the world. In response, increasing attention is now being paid to knowledge in traditional land use systems that have evolved from local communities’ long-term efforts to adapt to their surrounding environments and enjoy their bounties in a sustainable manner. Harmonious interactions shaped in such areas have created complex mosaics of different land use types, and contributed to both human well-being and biodiversity.

In this context, the two elegantly integrated agro-ecological heritage systems viz. Kandyan home gardens in the hills and gently flowing cascade systems in the lower plains of Sri Lanka described in somewhat detail above are excellent models to follow under the theme of ‘greening human settlements’ in the Vana Ropa tree planting programme. Landscapes of this nature are known as ‘socio-ecological production landscapes’ highlighting the important role that both social and ecological components they play in shaping and sustaining areas where production activities are undertaken.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a new programme known as ‘International Partnership for Satoyama Initiative’ was mooted in 2010 in which the basic elements are very much in line with those of our two agro-ecological heritage systems. The vision of the Satoyama Initiative is to realize societies in harmony with nature, comprising human communities where the maintenance and development of socio-economic activities including agriculture and forestry align with natural processes. By managing and using biological resources sustainably and thus properly maintaining biodiversity, humans will be able to enjoy a stable supply of various natural assets well into the future. The Ministry of the Environment being the national focal point for implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Vana Ropa programme, if developed along the lines described above, could link up with this International Satoyama Initiative. It would no doubt be mutually beneficial and bring international recognition to our traditional agro-ecological systems on par with Satoyama system of Japan.

Most of the hilly Kandyan districts have become urban landscapes with haphazard and unplanned development along steep hill slopes. This leads to their increased vulnerability to landslides/earthslips which are a common feature nowadays after an extended period of heavy rainfall. With the changing climate, these high intensity rainfall patterns are predicted to be more intensive as well as frequent in the future. As such, one option the disaster managers have is to have appropriate tree covers in strategically designated landslide-prone areas.

In fact, the National Physical Plan 2011-2030 - the roadmap for national development - proposes reforestation of areas in the ‘Central Fragile Area’ having slopes with a gradient over 60% in six districts - Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kandy, Matale and Badulla. Those lands presently under cash crop cultivation need to be gradually converted to tree-dominated home garden systems in order to safeguard valuable environmental services such ecosystems have the potential to offer.

This being the main catchment area of almost all major rivers of Sri Lanka, the choice of species for reforestation needs critical scientific evaluation in the light of emerging evidence from other countries as to the negative impacts of raising fast-growing exotic monoculture tree plantations in prime watersheds. Suites of home-garden utility species need to be developed and promoted for this fragile urban and peri-urban landscape through programmes under the theme of greening the human settlements. The loss of the farmers’ income from cash crops could be compensated by formulating a system of payments for the valuable ecosystem services these home gardens render.

A good modern day example of this is the New York, USA whose main water source is in the Catskill/Delaware watersheds in upstate New York. The land owners living in these watersheds are compensated for conserving ecosystem services for the well-being of downstream populations by provisioning naturally flowing potable water without having to use a more expensive option of an artificial water purification system.

In Sri Lankan context, the sylvan home gardens are a part of our traditional history. The most recent land use cover estimates of Sri Lanka by FAO in 2009 shows that 15% of the total land area are home gardens and there is great potential in increasing tree cover in these home gardens. The selection of tree species for planting should be done carefully taking in to account the optimum ecosystem services they could offer. Therefore, the theme of the second week of the Vana Ropa programme - enhance greenery in human settlements- is part of our rich heritage and there is much more heritage value in it than just enhancing greenery in our rural and peri-urban landscape.

3. The third week programme is dedicated to make the non-government organizations and the public sector, active partners of tree planting process under the theme “Promote Partnership with the non-stake holders”.

Under the theme of promoting partnership with non-stake holders defined as public sector and NGOs in the Vana Ropa programme, they too, could participate inter alia in both enhancing greenery in human settlements as detailed under theme 2 above and also in creative forestation initiatives described under the fourth week programme. Among the main public sector institutions mandated by government as stake-holders in planting trees are those that come under the Ministries of Environment and Mahaweli Development, Plantations, Agriculture, Irrigation, Lands, Wildlife and Sustainable Development while there are a number of other governmental and non-governmental agencies that could be considered as non-stake holders with whom partnerships could be promoted for tree planting programmes. Within the Government sector, there are agencies under the Ministries of Disaster Management, Upcountry Infrastructure and Social Development, Rural Industries, Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, Urban Planning and Water Management, to name a few. which strictly speaking are non-stake holders but can engage in an ecologically insightful and creative forestation programmes.

An important ecological consideration that need to be foremost in promoting tree planting by both stakeholders and non-stakeholders is that any tree planting programme should be critically evaluated for the ‘bundles of ecosystem services’ they offer and not merely large scale tree planting for production of timber, bio-fuel or carbon sequestration projects, particularly in sites where other services such as conservation of water, biodiversity and soil take precedence.

The conservation of ecosystem services such as water purification and soil formation in the ‘Central Fragile Area’ of the country too, is of utmost importance at a time when there are downstream concerns over the quality (agrochemical residues and CKDu,) and quantity of water flowing down these river systems. With the Government initiative to provide pipe-borne water to majority of both urban and rural populations, most of which are dependent on water derived from major river systems, the quantity and quality of water are of vital importance especially during the dry periods when both these attributes suffer.

Selection of fast-growing tree species for large scale, or even for community driven small-scale forestry programmes, for the provision of timber, bio-fuel and sequestration of carbon in Sri Lanka’s ‘Central Fragile Region’, will undoubtedly escalate already existing competition both for land and for water with other environmentally friendlier land uses such as restored native forests and mixed species forest gardens. Such ecological impacts are already evident especially in areas where water is seasonally scarce as experienced in the Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Matale, Kandy, Ratnapura and Kegalle districts. Therefore, establishing such plantations in the hydro-catchments without ecological underpinning and site-species matching research would lead to both adverse ecological and economic consequences, in the longer term.

4. The fourth week of the Vana Ropa tree planting programme is towards directing of various groups of the society in creative and sustainable tree planting activities under the theme “Encourage various segments of the society to take part in creative forestation initiatives”.

As the other three themes, this theme too, is well designed to increase awareness of tree planting among different groups of the society and to encourage their participation in what the Vana Ropa programme calls ‘creative forestation initiatives’. In these too, the emphasis should be on the provision of ecosystem services for human well being which demands a paradigm shift from classical plantation forestry. According to recent estimates of the Forest Department there are about 25,000 ha of Eucalypt/Acacia plantations mostly in the Central Fragile Region and some sporadic timber/bio-fuel woodlots in tea plantations. Creative forestation initiatives are needed to transform these commercial timber/bio-fuel plantations into multi-species and multi-functional analogues of natural forests. For this purpose, a sound ecological understanding of natural montane forest and their restoration strategies are urgently needed.

The monoculture plantations established to meet the societal demands at that time are now needed to be transformed to meet the demands of the 21st century which include the bundles of ecosystem services of which timber, bio-fuel an carbon sequestration are just a few. Sri Lanka which is primarily a country of small holders with a rapidly decreasing land to man ratio, setting aside lands for a few commercial purposes at the expense of bundles of other tangible and non-tangible ecosystem services they can offer, such as soil, water and biodiversity conservation, climate-, disease- and flood regulation, landslide prevention etc. cannot be justified. Creative forestation initiatives are indeed, needed for such paradigm shifts. 


There is 1 Comment

There were three main ecosystems the degradation of which has been going on since idependence and the regeneration of these systems to reach their climax would take decades if allowed to follow the natural succession. However this could be accelerated by sivicultural techniques and irrigation. I think the forestry department carried out meaningful programe in the 1950 and unfortunately rate of deforestation exceeded the reforestation which was estimate at about 10,000 acres per annum. To conserve the existing forest cover was impossible with the increasing population. I doubt a meaningful reforestation program cannot be implemented without investments running into millions of rupees and I wonder the government is committed for such an undertaking if so a masterplan ought to be designed. The objective of this plan should include the following as priorities,,,,Project gestation identification of project araes and setting up the infrstaructure. This program could run concurrent with and the vana ropana program could be a component of the main project. I am sure the government will not find it difficult to raise monies for a project that is feasible

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