Day of reckoning for 67,132 trees as funds, patience and time run out on 16 years of unpaid worker payments. The State Resources and Enterprise Development Ministry decided to chop down and sell nearly 70,000 trees on Government-owned plantations, after the Labour Dept said they would sue estate management companies for 16 years worth of [...]


State-run estates see the wood from the trees to settle dues


Day of reckoning for 67,132 trees as funds, patience and time run out on 16 years of unpaid worker payments.

The State Resources and Enterprise Development Ministry decided to chop down and sell nearly 70,000 trees on Government-owned plantations, after the Labour Dept said they would sue estate management companies for 16 years worth of unpaid worker dues.
Meanwhile, experts conceded that it has been a longstanding practice to fell mature, cultivated trees in estates for economic purposes. However, they warned, it must be done with caution, and that, a simultaneous replanting campaign is imperative.

This is the first time, such a large quantity of trees would be harvested in one go. The total number of trees to be cut down is 67,132. They are distributed across 36 estates in the Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy districts, and mostly growing among tea bushes.
“The fact is, 67,000 represents a large number,” said W.A.J.M. De Costa, Professor of Crop Science in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Peradeniya. “We must consider whether it would be mass felling or controlled felling, where you avoid adverse consequences on the environment, while reaping economic benefits. Striking a balance is important.”The trees are eucalyptus, grevillea, pine and albizia, aged between 30 and 40 years, said D.D. Amaratunga, Additional Secretary (Development) of the Ministry. He said it was the best time to harvest them, as leaving them for longer would cause the middle of the trunks to become hollow.

The trees are to be sold to the State Timber Corporation (STC) for an estimated Rs 3 billion. A joint Cabinet paper submitted by the Ministry of State Resources and Enterprise Development, the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy, seeks permission to secure a 50% advance payment from the STC for the timber. This is to circumvent regulations preventing Government institutions from paying more than 20% as advances.

All the trees have been designated as suitable for felling, under the five-year Forestry Management Plan drawn up for the estate sector, said Mr Amaratunga. However, investigations by the Sunday Times revealed that the Ministry had originally sought to cut down a significantly higher number than finally sanctioned.

In the Matale district, for instance, the District Secretariat received for approval a lengthy list of trees grown on several estates. After tree-to-tree inspections conducted by the District Environment Committee (DEC), the list was “considerably shortened”. Some trees did not fall within the five-year Forestry Management Plan, while others were found to be on the banks of water bodies or on the sides of main roads.

“Had we approved those trees, water resources would have been affected,” said a DEC member, on grounds of anonymity. “Cutting roadside trees would have caused the asphalt to wash away, while it could also have been damaged by the dragging of heavy trunks and the movement of vehicles.”

The Ministry had even sought to chop down 50,000 trees in one estate called Opalgalla, belonging to the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation. This was rejected outright by the District Secretary. “We didn’t even look at that list, because it fell completely outside our ambit,” said the source.

“One estate told us that, they were not worried if we did not approve the cutting of certain trees, because they could get it done by higher authorities,” the member continued. “That is not our concern. We did our job.” “We could ask to harvest even a million trees, but it’s up to the DEC to decide,” said Mr Amaratunga. “In the Nuwara Eliya district, we had a list of 100,000, but only 12,000 were approved.”

It was revealed that, among the trees to be cut, were teak and mahogany, although these were few in number. The Ministry would need to conduct Environment Impact Assessments for the cutting of many of these trees, because they were grown on estates of more than five hectares in extent, DEC sources said.

This was why the Ministry of Environment was also enlisted, pointed out Mr Amaratunga. He maintained that all the trees were located below 5,000 feet, and that, less than 4,000 of them will now be cut down in the Matale district.  The Government says it will respect the laws. Still, environmentalists urged that vigilance be exercised to ensure the State does not abuse its authority and overrule regulations put in place to protect the ecosystem.

Care must be taken that politicians do not “slaughter everything and take the spoils”, stressed Jayantha Jayawardene, Managing Trustee of the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust. As a former planter, Mr Jayawardene said the cutting of trees on estates was acceptable, if carried out judiciously. Harvested trees must be replaced with seedlings. These must be looked after for two years, to ensure sustainability. (The Ministry of State Resources has said 475,292 saplings will be replanted simultaneously with the felling).

Prof. Costa said a tree has a natural lifespan of 30 to 40 years, at which point, it was best to cut them down. The species that have been identified for harvesting are fast-growing. “If the felling campaign is well managed and organised, you can carry it out without much damage to the environment and impact, in terms of carbon sequestration and absorption,” he said.

However, if the trees were among tea bushes, felling them would impact negatively on the tea plants and the environment. Regardless of where they were, Prof Costa said, felling must be accompanied by an immediate replanting campaign. Young plants absorb more carbon dioxide as they grow.

The question, ask environmentalists, is whether the Government could be entrusted with doing the right thing.

Deadwood State plantations owe 1.74b in EPF, ETF, Gratuity since 1997

The three State-run estate companies- Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB), Elkaduwa Plantations and the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC), together owe workers Rs 1.74 billion in Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) and gratuity payments since 1997.

The Labour Dept notified the companies that it could no longer provide grace periods for the settlement of dues. “They said, they had given concessions many times, and that, this has come to the last stages,” said D.D. Amaratunga, Additional Secretary (Development) of the Ministry. “They said they could go to courts.”

Some of the 4,000 workers were now too old and feeble to fight their cases. “Their children come on their behalf,” remarked Mr. Amaratunga. “They have submitted so many petitions to so many people including ministers, officials and unions.”

There are already several actions before court, and the risk of further litigation prompted urgent meetings between the State Resources Ministry and the Ministry of Labour. The Plantation companies were bankrupt and paid even their monthly wages with great difficulty, sometimes getting cash injections from the Treasury. The Ministries decided that the only way to settle the outstanding dues was to cut and sell the trees.

The State Resources Ministry has been tasked with turning around- or, in case of failure, liquidating- 21 unprofitable Government institutions. These include the three plantation companies which manage 36 estates. They are predominantly cultivated with tea but include some rubber, coconut and minor crops. “We have to decide now whether to save these companies or to liquidate them,” explained Mr. Amaratunga. The State Resources Management Corporation has drawn up a one-year business development plan for the companies.

Of the three, JEDB owes workers Rs 885 million; SLSPC Rs 664 million and Elkaduwa Plantations Rs 193 million. The State Timber Corporation’s advance payment for the trees will be immediately deposited with the Labour Dept to reduce the arrears. The JEDB owns 16 estates on a total land extent of 11,758 hectares, the SLSPC 11 estates on 9,691 hectares and Elkaduwa 9 estates on 4,086 hectares.

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