Forest Dept. to moot programmes aimed at increasing forest cover

World Environment Day was celebrated on June 5
By Malaka Rodrigo, reporting from New Delhi

World Environment Day was celebrated worldwide, last Sunday, June 5. Sri Lanka’s National Environment Day was held at Pinnawala, while India was selected as the Global host. The event in Pinnawala included a tree-planting campaign and an exhibition at raising awareness of forests resources, to go along with the theme “Forests: Nature at Your Service”.

At the beginning of the last century, about 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s land area was under natural forest cover. This reduced to 23.88 per cent of the total land area by 1992, and according to Forest Department data for 1999 and 2007 – the closed canopy natural forests had dropped further between these periods from 22.55 per cent to 22.22 per cent .

The Green Economy Report launched in India on World Environment Day: 2011 has been declared the International Year of Forests.

The department has conducted a comprehensive forest cover survey in 2010, and are in the final stages of releasing these results. Environmentalists fear that the forest cover could have declined further, due to encroachments for agricultural activity and settlements and tree felling for timber.

But the recent report ‘Forests in a Green Economy: A Synthesis’, unveiled at this year's World Environment Day (WED) celebration in New Delhi, by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), reveals that the economic, environmental, health and social benefits of protecting forests are, in fact, much higher than their short term value for timber and other land use. The report underlines that natural capital such as forests can represent up to 90 per cent of the GDP of the rural poor, and the dangers of destroying forests for quicker output.

Another study by The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) also numerically calculated the value of services provided by forests, proving that their values are much higher than their timber value or agricultural output from cleared lands, in the long run. Natural services offered by forests, include stabilising water cycle, preventing erosion and providing refuge for biodiversity.

To mobilise public and private investments in forests, the UNEP report emphasises new concepts - the role of the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD+). PES is a scheme of voluntary transactions aimed to compensate land owners for providing ecosystem services to society, such as carbon storage, watershed protection or biodiversity conservation. Forests also absorb carbon dioxide which is a major greenhouse gas believed to be triggering Global Warming. A new market mechanism called REDD+, aiming at providing financial incentives to countries, for protecting their forests, is also highlighted. Sri Lanka’s Forest Department has already started the initial evaluation to be a part of the REDD+. A report, ‘Forest Carbon Asia’, published last month, revealed that Sri Lanka too may have opportunities to benefit from this programme, and stressed the need to go through the process carefully.

This year has also been named the International Year of Forests and the Forest Department is planning a few programmes to increase Sri Lanka’s Forest cover. The Forest Department Hill Top Reforestation is the main project this year. The hills in the central highlands were cleared for many reasons, triggering erosion, and earthslips. These hills are also the most important catchments areas of the country, as many of the rivers that flow across the country, are born in the central highlands. The initial study for site selection was completed, and the department expects to start replanting from the next rainy season commencing in October. The Forest Department also said that it will grow endemic plants as much as possible.

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