If a forest is clear felled and the ground bulldozed, indeed it becomes a blank slate for development. But today, development with a prerequisite of a treeless landscape, is outdated. Trees are the currency of modern development. In this era, any development without an acceptable tree: land ratio is immediately termed ‘unsustainable’. As global societies [...]


Colonies of greed: The plague of outdated developers


If a forest is clear felled and the ground bulldozed, indeed it becomes a blank slate for development. But today, development with a prerequisite of a treeless landscape, is outdated. Trees are the currency of modern development. In this era, any development without an acceptable tree: land ratio is immediately termed ‘unsustainable’. As global societies accept, ‘sustainable’ is the coolest tag, developers also need to understand that it is actually, quite easy to reach for.

As far as the eye can see: A vast vista of forested hills

Development must happen to build economies for burgeoning populations. However, to develop by killing the proverbial goose, is a failure to see the real gold that is Sri Lanka. Tourism has been touted as the future of Sri Lanka. But to grow tourism, allow it to benefit larger communities, we have to understand what attracts tourists to Sri Lanka. For this, leaders and administrators need to comprehend that in Sri Lanka, it’s  just two things that the global traveller looks for — local culture and nature.

Sri Lanka’s culture is embedded in its rural landscapes; backdropped by lush forests, lakes and rivers. Nature is, leaving the land in its natural state. Lands left in their natural state are forests, where wildlife thrives. Wildlife tourism revenue, particularly elephants that attract the largest numbers of tourists, certainly fattens our coffers. But wildlife needs uninterrupted forests that are not fragmented by roads and fenced off for ‘development’. To maintain the income generated by tourism, Sri Lanka must protect its forests, not decimate them.

Removing trees or failing to plant a substantial number of trees on a distressed site, is just not cool. Every developer needs to move a step forward, break from the centuries old notion of a ‘bare land to begin with’ and instead, envision the new landscape with trees. How difficult is that? Quite easy, if that is a fixed goal and mandatory in your development design. The advantage of developing by rewilding and conserving natural ecosystems, is proven. For me, designing Jetwing Vil Uyana, Sigiriya, was a lesson in the benefits of transforming distressed agricultural land into a wilderness and thereby, creating a high revenue generator. It has been accomplished and is not a gamble any more.

Alongside this vision of a sustainably designed development, must be an understanding of the economic advantage of retaining trees and forests. Some trees have timber value; ready cash and then it’s all cleaned to start afresh. But before a forest is cut, the function it serves is infinite. The toxic exhalation of the rest of the planet, a forest breathes in — inhaling carbon dioxide to release oxygen. Just as a woodcutter views a forest as a single unit to be harvested, it is a single living organism, but extending far beyond just timber. With interconnected canopies and roots of the trees and shrubs, it is melded further by ferns, moss and fungi. In the spaces around and within, like electrons moving in an atom, are the animals, birds, insects and every minute mortal between; feeding and propagating, inhaling and exhaling as one. As a forest’s canopy system filters the power of the sun and shades what could be a parched earth, it holds water with its root system. In a nutshell, the creature that is the forest, breathes life with its ability to feed, process and sequester water and toxins with equanimity. Collectively, the vast range of services that a forest provides are known as Ecosystem Services.

Today, the phenomenal economic value of Ecosystem Services is not rare knowledge. The whole world is talking about the value of a standing forest and it is computed and easily accessible information. Only the deeply ignorant are limited to the minimal value fetched by a linear foot of timber and empty land lots for sale. But today, the averagely intelligent, the moderately educated and even the minimally exposed, have understood that if humanity is to go on living, we have to keep the remaining forests standing. Not the deception of ‘reforesting’ as even rewilded forests take decades to mature and be of use. Even worse is the deceit of exotic monocultures (Kaya/mahogany, pine, eucalyptus etc), which present a variety of environmental problems, like any alien does. Those who have risen above mental mediocrity, understand that beyond protecting standing forests, we have to rewild every little patch of available, exposed land.

When land is exposed, unshaded by tree cover, it dries. The heat of the sun reaches deep beneath the soil, and groundwater evaporates. And groundwater is what must be protected at all costs. No one understood this better than the ancient kings of Lanka. The irrigation systems that were devised under their rule, changed landscapes, inundated entire forests and wreaked havoc in long standing ecosystems, but the underlying principle was groundwater storage. Development was not at any cost.On the contrary, while it could cost many habitats, it was not at the price of dropping our groundwater tables. This was a result of meticulous tank design, which permitted viable stands of catchment forests. This is evident, as Lankan rulers built sprawling cities, monasteries in pristine forests, and waterways that irrigated extensive paddy lands, but always prioritised maintaining or even raising, our groundwater tables. These were our judicious rulers, who knew that the quality of the land they reigned upon was their greatest resource. Centuries later, these great Kings are still respected for the gift of fertility they gave to generations of Lankans.

To empower a people is, to give them guidance in what will benefit them for generations. It is not throwing quick-cash schemes at them, which will leave their children poor in a devastated land. Instead, the options of rewilding degraded state lands to increase wilderness for tourism, grow medicinal forests to revive traditional medicine, food forests of indigenous species that cater to niche markets, to reduce our imports and increase our exports, mandate high percentages of renewable energy for private and public enterprise… the possibilities are endless.

For that, we need to look beyond the colonial narrative of clearing forests for development. We have to grasp that development by a century-old definition has left us poorer by current appraisals. The ravaged landscapes of Lanka is what colonial nations built their economies with — taking the money and running back to their own countries. We have still not assessed the financial loss of massive expanses of montane forests felled, for the tea and rubber plantations; the cost of manually replacing ecosystem services of flood control, erosion, soil nourishment, watersheds….  It is over 70 years since we were released by our colonial masters and well past time to get over our ridiculous colonial hangover. But it seems like we have not evolved beyond outdated colonial concepts of extraction with little concern for the land left behind (we really could do better), and found indigenous solutions for development like India, Kenya and Europe.

True leadership is a sincere concern for a land and its people, which requires advised and considered decisions. It is not greed- driven visions of cash crops and irresponsible industry that this country cannot sustain, which will benefit a few but eventually impoverish us all. In a country like Sri Lanka, where models of exemplary forest conservation by our kings date back more than 2000 years, it seems incredible that we are on the brink of being led to irreversible desertification.

(The writer is an Environmental Architect & Conservationist)

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.