The Rain forests of Sri Lanka
by Ranil Senanayake, Chairman, RRI
@ The Island - 01Feb2006
The rain forests of Sri Lanka, concentrated in the South Western quarter of the island have been designated into three forest types, Montane Forest, Sub Montane Forest and Lowland wet evergreen forest. These forests held genetic stocks from the mountains of Gondwanaland and carries that history even today. These forests remained largely untouched by the 3000-year-old history of human agricultural activity on the island. The hydraulic civilizations that shaped the landscapes of the lowlands left a comprehensive record that attests to this fact. The biodiversity status of these forests was retained till the advent of industrial, export enterprises.
The first large scale deforestation of the rain forests of Sri Lanka began at the inception of the British Colonial period around 1700-1800, when forests were felled for timber export and the plantation industry was in its infancy with small monocultures of cinnamon for the east India trade. As cinnamon grew in the lowland rain forest ecosystem, these became the first ecosystems to be affected. However, the crop was raised in patches between rain forest and was of relatively low impact. The large scale felling of forests began after 1820 when all land without title was deemed ‘crown land’ belonging to the British Crown and sold to commercial interests. This move of placing cheap land at the disposal of investors bore rapid results; the ‘coffee boom’ of 1835 saw a rush for land that is claimed to be only equalled by the rush for land during the gold rush in the US. (Tennant 1856). The intensity of this activity is reflected in the government land sale figures, which show that over 290,000 acres of rain forest and cloud forest were sold for coffee growing in less than 10 years.
The early colonial landscapes saw the creation of new ecosystems; ‘agroecosystems’ that usually had exotic organisms as the dominant species. They contained large areas of monoculture; first coffee, then tea, rubber and coconut; these ecosystems replaced the more diverse indigenous forms. Coffee and tea replaced montane forests, rubber replaced lowland rain forest and coconut replaced lowland rain forest and evergreen forest. A further problem with these crops was the fact that large quantities of firewood were required in processing for export. The source of firewood was from the forest ecosystems of the landscape. Thus, this period saw a reduction of indigenous landscapes not only as a consequence of forest clearing, but also as a consequence of timber and firewood extraction. Much of the original agricultural endeavour at this time did not pay any heed to good management practices. Thus large areas began to loose topsoil, became impoverished and were abandoned to become fire maintained grasslands. Indigenous landscapes were transformed, the new landscape containing far less natural forest.
The amount of rain forest and montane forest remaining in the country was about 15% at the end of the colonial period and the re-emergence of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as a sovereign country. Unfortunately the post-colonial landscapes, did not fare much better under the new management.
The last quarter century of post-colonial activity has seen a great erosion in both anthropogenic and natural elements of its landscapes. Biologically this period has seen a tremendous increase in the input of biocides. The rate of human deaths from biocides had reached 6,083 during the period 1975-1980, hospital admissions for poisoning by biocides reached 79,961 during this period. The effect on the environment has also been catastrophic. Studies on the ichthyofauna, confirm the loss of species due to the applications of biocides to the environment.
Another landscape feature that precluded native forest re- establishment was the establishment of monoculture plantations of pinus and eucalyptus as the replacement ecosystem. This feature does not serve the same ecological function as the indigenous forest or the village. These landscape elements have also been seen to affect site conditions negatively.
It is not that the destruction of the rain forest or their valuable attributes was not appreciated. Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister Hon. D. S. Senanayake stated in 1945 that:
"It is of importance to remember the part played in the conservation of water by the forests of the country. With the evidence daily accumulating of the wisdom of our forefathers, we need scarcely doubt that it was not merely the idea of making the mountain country difficult to approach by the foreign invader that caused them to preserve unfilled and un- cleared the dense vegetation of their mountain slopes. We may readily believe that they deliberately left these untouched in order to provide that abundant supply of water on which they might draw for the benefit of man."
He cites reports from as early as 1902 on the effect of replacing the wet forests with plantations :
"By the establishment of estate plantations, the flood waters cannot be contained in the river channel, but are spread over the riparian land and do much damage. If such damage affected only a small area it would not, of course, matter much, but it has to be remembered that the tea and rubber estates are on the hills, and uplands, which are the principal sources of supply to rivers draining two-thirds of the Island; (Senanayake opp cit)
Today, the meagre 15% of remnant wet forest that was recorded at the turn of the last century has been whittled down to a disturbing 3. 10%. When the biodiversity status of these forests are concerned the figures are even more frightening. The wet forests are comprised of three distinct ecosystems. The montane forests, comprising such formations as cloud forest with a total land area of .05%; the sub-montane wet forests with a total land area of 1.04% and the lowland wet forests with an area of 2.14%
The truly frightening aspect of today’s situation is that within the geographical zone of occurrence, the remnant patches are being whittled down or further fragmented through processes of ‘development’ and land distribution.
In order to make a meaningful contribution to the wet forests of Sri Lanka, two critical areas of activity have been identified by RRI. One is the recording of the remnant forest patches and data on their status; the other is by creating corridors that will connect these patches.
In Sri Lanka, forest patches usually represent the only habitat for rare, indigenous or endangered species. Most remnant forest patches will go unrecognised because they are not a part of any scheduled or protected area and is cut over or ploughed up. The ability of the area presently scheduled or under protection, to provide habitat to all the species represented in Sri Lanka is poor, due to the fact that there are so many different ecosystems arising from past geologic history (Senanayake, 1994). Many relict ecosystems still exist as small patches of refugial forest, they are scattered over the landscape and are not scheduled, recognized nor included in areas under protection. Often as is the case in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India and many other countries, these remnant forest patches abut village land. The development of silvicultural systems analogous to the natural forest can provide a land development technique that can expand their effective area. (Senanayake and Jack 1998). However, the first priority in terms of endangered or restricted forest ecosystems is to identify the resource. The forest patches on a landscape have to be identified and catalogued if any potential for future ecosystem rehabilitation work is to be retained. Thus the Tropical Forest Register (TFR) is an area of interest in our work.
The building of connectivity is done through the purchase or equity ownership of private land within the demarcated area that has biodiversity and/or ecotourism potential within the corridor. Where there is an owner interested in developing along the conservation needs of the corridor, the creation of Conservation Easements will be considered. The first phase of travelling in the project area and mapping out in the Kanneliya- Sinharajah corridor has been completed. Land for purchase for the corridor has begun.
Senanayake D. S. 1945 Agriculture and Patriotism. Woodlands, Sri Lanka.
Senanayake F. R. 1994. The Evolution of the Major Landscape Categories in Sri Lanka and Distribution Patterns of Some Selected Taxa: Ecological Implications. In Ecology and Landscape Management In Sri Lanka (eds) W. Erdelen, Ch.Preu, N. Ishwaran and Ch. Santiapillai. Verlag Josef Margraf, Weikersheim.
Senanayake, F. R. and J. Jack 1998 Analog Forestry. Monash University Publications. Monash Univ. Clayton,. Vic. Australia.
Tennent E. 1856 Ceylon, an account of the Island, physical, historical and topographical. Vols 1 & 2. Longmans, London.