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THE LEGENDARY SINHARAJA 

MAN & THE FOREST

In a non-industrialised country like Sri Lanka, wilderness areas have long been subject to the activities of man, and Sinharaja is no exception. The long history of human habitation in and around today's MAB Reserve in fact compounds the problems of managing and conserving the forest. Scattered about the borders of the reserve are some 39 or so villages. Most of the ancient hamlets are to be found along the southern boundary of the Reserve, on the banks of the Gin Ganga with a few located on the north-western side. 

  A village scene in Sinharaja

Village Settlements

Only two, viz. Kolonthotuwa and Warukadeniya are lovated within the Reserve itself. The topography of the region seems to have influenced the pattern of human settlement, and those around the Reserve are mainly along the valleys and river basins. Numerous ancient footpaths exist on the periphery of the Reserve while there are three which cut across the interior of the forest, one along the western boundary (Neluwa - Pitakele - Kudawa - Weddagala) a second along the eastern boundary past Beverley Estate and Denuwakanda and the third traverses the centre of the forest (Watugala - Kumburugoda - Panapola) (Figure 12).
 

Figure 12. Village settlements of the Sinharaja
       
1. Pitadeniya 7. Pelawatta 13. Watugala(1) 19. Radagoda
2. Pitakele 8. Potupitiya 14. Watugala(2) 20. Madugeta
3. Kudawa 9. Denwakanda 15. Pitadeniya 21. Tambalagama
4. Ketalapatala 10. Kiriweldola 16. Nilweligama 22. Kosmulla
5. Kongahakanda 11. Kiriwalagama 17. Kolonthotuwa 23. Gigurawa pahala
6. Koskulana 12. Mederipitiya 18. Warukandeniya 24. Gighrawa Ihala

The people

The local inhabitants are for the most part Sinharaja by race Buddhist by religion. Judging from studies done on village life on the north-western boundary, the villages of the area are not very large but consist of about 20 to 50 families living in a fairly close-knit community. The family structure is that of an extended family with parents, children and grandparents living together. Although the older generation of villagers have not had much formal education, the young are literate. Primary schools have been established just outside the boundaries of the Reserve. Secondary schooling is available only in the larger village of the region which are 5 to 10 kilometers away. Modern health facilities too are only found in the larger towns such as Kalawana which is 16 kilometers away from the forest. The villagers however are relatively healthy and physically fit.

The houses have a small floor area, averaging 25 square meters, and are constructed of wattle and daub. A house usually consists of a verandah, 1-2 rooms and kitchen, or perhaps, more simply of one single room divided into different areas with thatched screens. The roof is thatched with leaves of Beru (Agrostistachys serumica) or with bamboo leaves. (Ochlandra stridula). Lately however, coconut leaf thatch and clay tiles have begun to gain popularity as roofing material.

The staple food is rice. Yams such as sweet potato (Ipomoea batata) and manioc (Manihot utilissima) ; bread-fruit (Artocarps incisus) and jak-fruit (A. heterophyllus), grown in home gardens, are often used as substitutes for rice. Other plants commonly found in home garden are vines of betel (Piper betel), black pepper (P. nigrum) and passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) ; fruit trees such as papaya (Carica papaya) and plantain (Musa paradisica) are also grown by the villagers. For his other needs the villager walks great distances to the closest town. Various forest plants are also used for food, medicine and small wood needs.

 

Exploitation of the Forest

A main source of livelihood of the villagers in the area is the production of jaggery, a crude local sugar. The sugar so made is sold in weekly markets and shops of the area. Juggery is a basic ingredients in many traditional Sri Lanaka sweets and there is a ready market for this product all over the island. The sap needed for the manufacture of jugger is obtained from tapping the infloresence of the kitul palm (Caryota urens).

Tapping of the Kitul palm (Caryota urens)

Giant rattan palms (Calamus ovoideus)

 

Wewal (rattan) is one of the forest products obtained from Sinharaja by villagers. It is used to manufacture baskets, furniture and handicrafts. Two species, thudarena (Calamus ovoideus) and thambotuwel (Calamus zeylanicus) are the ones mainly found in this forest.  


The villagers also exploits other plants products. Leaves, fruits, seeds and mushrooms are sources of food for the villager as are the fish and animals. The fuel used by the villagers for cooking, making jaggery ect. is firewood gathered from the forest and the surrounding scrub. although many trees species are used for this purpose, there is a marked perference for the wood of Hedawaka (Chaetocarpus castanocarpus and C. coreaceus). The villager also collects and sells products from a number of other plants. Dried cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) for example is a spice sold at a very high price. Resinous exudates from Nawada (Shorea stipularis) and other Shorea species are sold as fumigating agents. Another resin, from the trunk of Kekuna (Canarium Zeylanicum) is used both as a gun and a water proofing agent. Numerous plants used in the native "ayurvedic" system of medicine are also collected and sold by the villager ; of particular significance is the stem of Weniwel (Coscinium fernestratum) used by most Sri Lanka as an antidote for tetanus. The slender stems of a number of trees such as those of the Keena (Calophyllum) species are used in the construction of ladders and as handles for agricultural and domestic utensils. Even lianes, such as Bandura (Nepenthes distillatoria), Pattikka (Artabotrys zeylanicus) and Mala labu (Cissus acumintus) are used form circular footholds on the kitul palms, to facilitate climbing. Timber for house construction is also obtained from trees in and around the Reserve.
 

Wild cardamomum 

(Elettaria cardamomum)

Weniwel

(Coscinium fernestratum)

A rare orchid of medical value "Wanaraja" Anoectochilus setaceus

Insect trapper - (Nepenthes distillatoria)

The "Pitcher Plant" locally known as BANDURA, family Nepenthaceae is a creeper on shrubs and treelets. The leaf tip modified to form an elongated sac (a pitcher) filled with a liquid while traps insects to be digested by the plant. The thickened stem of the plant is used for tying, in the construction of wattle and daub houses and ladders by the natives. Usually grow along forest margins and disturbed sites. 

Brilliantly coloured fruits of an epiphte (Freycinatia walkeri) 

A primitive grass with sticky seeds (Leptaspis cochleata)

In order to supplement the produce of his home garden, the Sinharaja villager also engages in the age-old practice of chena (slash and burn) cultivation. From earliest times, this has been the method by while Sri Lankans have cleared the forest so that permanent human settlements could be established. In the Sinharaja, the vegetation is usually cut down in December, and the cleared vegetation fired in February-early March. By March, crops are sown, to be harvested in late August.

One non-agricultural but commercially motivated activity found in the Sinharaja region is that of gemming. This too seems to have been a traditional pastime for as far back as 1873 scientists who visited the Sinharaja complained of the numerous gem pits that scarred the land in and around the forest. In the past, gemming was a sporadic activity carried out by villagers. Today, however, though gemming is forbidden in the Reserve, it is carried out by organized gangs employed by gem-dealers.

Although recent studies indicate that the villagers do not depend on the Sinharaja as a primary source of income, the fact remains that to the villager the forest is an easily accessible storehouse of wealth awaiting exploitation. Most of the people living in the region are poor and often have large families. Their level of education too is low. In addition, employment opportunities e.g. in industrial enterprises are very limited in the region. Tourism is confined to visits by naturalists or bird-enthusiasts, and hence does not provide much employment for the villager. It is therefore not surprising that the village views the forest as something that belongs to him, a place which could give him some sort of livelihood. Thus, although activities such as chena cultivation and gemming are ecologically destructive practices, the claims the villager has to the forest are legitimate and cannot be ignored. Any conservation plan for the forest therefore would necessarily have to take into account the needs and wants of the people of the region.

Read CONSERVATION & MANAGEMENT OF SINHARAJA


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