Circular MWFC/1/2020 issued on November 4, 2020 by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation has caused widespread concern. It revoked four previous circulars (5/2001, 02/2006, 02/02/03/301 and 05/98) and transferred the administration of Sri Lanka’s other state forests (OSFs) from the Forest Department to district and divisional secretariats. It seeks to make all OSFs [...]


Bleak future for our rainforest biota


Left, a lowland rainforest landscape on the edge of Kanneliya Conservation Forest, with tea in the foreground, regenerating forest and cleared land in the middle distance, and rainforest in the background. Right, two species of the shrub frog genus Pseudophilautus: P. poppiae (top) is found only in the Rakwana hills and P. hypomelas (bottom) is unique to Adam’s Peak (images: L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe).

Circular MWFC/1/2020 issued on November 4, 2020 by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation has caused widespread concern. It revoked four previous circulars (5/2001, 02/2006, 02/02/03/301 and 05/98) and transferred the administration of Sri Lanka’s other state forests (OSFs) from the Forest Department to district and divisional secretariats. It seeks to make all OSFs available for “economic and other productive activities”, a move that conservationists, researchers and environmental lawyers fear will lead to the clearance and destruction of these forests.

Some media reports assert that more than 700,000 ha of forest could be at stake.

The potential consequences for the conservation of Sri Lanka’s biota (fauna and flora) are grave. Particularly at risk are the highly threatened rainforests of the wet, southwestern portion of the island, the so-called Wet Zone.

Sri Lanka’s biota is globally important because of the large number of endemic species (species unique to the island) that are concentrated in the Wet Zone’s rainforests. These forests, for instance, contain a staggering 94% of the 830 flowering-plant species endemic to the island. Remarkably, many Sri Lankan endemic species are not only confined to the Wet Zone, they are unique to small, highly localized parts of this zone. A spectacular example of this is the shrub frog genus Pseudophilautus, which is represented in Sri Lanka by 79 species (62 living and 17 extinct), all endemic to the island. Most of these species are found only in specific parts of the Wet Zone.

Sri Lanka’s forest-living species are largely or entirely dependent on natural forest, (particularly forest with a continuous or ‘closed’ canopy) for their survival, and are highly threatened because of drastic forest loss and fragmentation. Forest fragmentation involves the disintegration of large continuous forest tracts into many smaller forest fragments (patches) that are isolated from each other by non-forest habitat, such as agricultural lands, roads and settlements.

The most reliable source for recent forest cover data is a Forest Department mapping project that ran from 1991–1995. This showed that in 1992, Sri Lanka’s closed-canopy natural forest cover accounted for just 24% (15,828 km2) of the total land area (in comparison, forest cover stood at 84% in 1881 and 44% in 1956). The Wet Zone, which covers less than 20% of the island, contained just 2,135 km2 of rainforest in 1992 and this was distributed across numerous isolated fragments (forest patches). Forest clearance over the last 25 years has almost certainly caused further forest loss and fragmentation.

Virtually all of Sri Lanka’s natural forests are owned by the state.  These forests fall into two major classes, those that are legally designated and those that are not. Broadly speaking, the legal designation of a forest involves the legal demarcation of its boundaries and the enactment of specific legal provisions to ensure its conservation (e.g. restrictions on access). Sri Lanka’s legally-designated forests (collectively known as its protected areas network) consist of areas under the jurisdiction of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (national parks, nature reserves, strict nature reserves and sanctuaries) and the Forest Department (forest reserves, conservation forests and one national heritage wilderness area).

Most of the natural forest area that is not legally designated consists of OSFs and proposed reserves (PRs). In both the Wet and Intermediate Zones, OSFs occur on steep, rocky and/or inaccessible terrain, making them largely unsuitable for agriculture—this has been a major factor in their survival thus far. OSFs vary greatly in size and quality, ranging from small, heavily degraded patches (100 ha or less) to substantial areas of forest extending over several thousand hectares. PRs are essentially OSFs that are administered by the Forest Department as forest reserves; these areas were earmarked for notification as reserves, but legal demarcation of boundaries never took place.

Much of what is currently known about the biodiversity of OSFs comes from the National Conservation Review (NCR), a trail-blazing FAO-funded project that was carried out in the 1990s by the Forest Department in collaboration with the World Conservation Union and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The NCR showed that the Wet Zone’s remaining rainforests were vital either for biodiversity conservation or watershed protection and that, at a minimum, a network of 104 individual forest fragments, covering 516,795 ha or 7.8% of the total area of the island, should be conserved. Apart from a few small fragments, this system includes virtually all of the Wet Zone’s rainforests, with 65% of the 104 forests being either OSFs (35%) or PRs (30%).

Circular MWFC/1/2020 has removed OSFs from the administrative control of the Forest Department. This coupled with the absence of any other legal protection for OSFs has substantially increased the likelihood that these forests will be exploited for agriculture, settlement and/or the value of the standing timber. The OSFs of the Wet Zone are particularly at risk because they occur in the most densely inhabited parts of the island, where pressures on land are severe. The destruction of these forests is likely to have disastrous consequences for Sri Lanka’s rainforest biota. It will cause further decline—possibly even loss—of endemic rainforest species and will almost certainly further damage forest ecology. The clearance of OSFs may also adversely affect water availability; increase soil erosion, leading to the increased occurrence of landslides and flooding; and have negative impacts on local climate.

The challenges we face in conserving Sri Lanka’s rainforests, both protected areas and OSFs, are enormously complex. These forests are profoundly affected by the human settlements, agriculture and roads that surround them. A major challenge is to reconnect forest fragments to form larger forest areas, for example through the establishment and maintenance of forest corridors. Another significant challenge is to recognize that for conservation to succeed, local people must take a leading role and draw tangible benefits from it. These challenges have to be tackled urgently, and there is no simple solution.

A whole raft of different measures are required. While many of these measures are applicable to the natural forests of the Intermediate and Dry Zones, additional measures will be required for the conservation of large mammals, such as the Asian elephant and Sri Lankan leopard. Many Dry and Intermediate Zone forests, including all those in the north and east, still remain to be surveyed in detail for their biodiversity and soil conservation value; this requires urgent attention.

In the Wet Zone, a high priority is to upgrade the legal status of OSFs and PRs. Effective measures have to be taken to reduce the clearance of natural forest. One option would be to release suitable non-forest lands from large-scale commercial plantations and state bodies, such as the Land Reform Commission; other measures include improving agricultural productivity and diversifying rural economies. Concerted efforts should be made to increase forest cover through reforestation, for example by promoting the cultivation of agroforests. Conservation efforts must ensure that a substantial part of tourism revenue from protected areas is invested in surrounding communities. It is also important that research on these various aspects of conservation and on Sri Lanka’s biota is actively fostered and supported.

Political vision and commitment are required to bring about transformative changes of this kind—that is the need of the hour. Instead, with the introduction of circular MWFC/1/2020, we find ourselves on a very different trajectory, one that could set back biodiversity conservation by many decades. The future of Sri Lanka’s unique and irreplaceable rainforest biota appears singularly bleak.


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