WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

 

THE LEGENDARY SINHARAJA 

CONSERVATION & MANAGEMENT

In the past, the Sinharaja was protected largely because of its relative inaccessibility. Now the forest is no longer off the beaten track and hence there is an urgent need to protect it. The post 1978 commitment to protect the forest arose after evaluating the pros and cons of the attempt to exploit it for short term gains. Since 1978, the Forest Department under the Ministry of Lands and Land Development has given high priority to the protection of the Sinharaja, and the Department has been allocating increasing amounts of money for this cause. In 1987, this allocation was a record 4 million Sri Lanka rupees ($ 130,000). Begin one of the few nature reserved in Sri Lanka which has been conserved at an international level, the Sinharaja has also attracted considerable funds from other national and international organizations.

Although legally, the Sinharaja is relatively well protected, legislation alone cannot ensure true protection. Of the many constraints affecting the protection of the Sinharaja, the socio-economic ones relating to the people in the vicinity are the most important. The other resource dependants are foresters, research scientists and a few local and foreign nature enthusiasts who visit the forest. The major threat however comes from the many illegal activities that take place within the Reserve.    

 

 

 
 

  A village scene in Sinharaja

Encroachment

An every increasing number of people living in the villages along the periphery of the forest are encroachers, whose rights to tenure of the land are largely undefined. Although this pressure on the land by a burgeoning population is an island-wide phenomenon not confined to the Sinharaja alone, illegal encroachment is probably one by the Forest Department in protecting the Reserve.

Many of the encroachments are also likely to have been legally approved by land settlement agencies. This is mainly due to the absence of a clearly demarcated boundary. Many villagers and locals still identify the Sinharaja with the vast area over which is once spread and hence do not understand the species legal status granted to the MAB Reserve. As they have traditionally used the forest in many ways, they are not aware that they are encroaching.

In 1978, in order to help contain this problem of encroachment, the Forest Department begin planting Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea) to establish a conspicuous buffer zone. Since 1985 it has concentrated upon establishing a living boundary using four rows of pines. More recently Betel Nut Palm or Puvak (Areca catechu) has also been used for this purpose. As this palm has traditionally been used by the villagers themselves to mark out their own private lands, this type of demarcation may perhaps help to mitigate their resentment against the Pines. 

Timber and Fuelwood Extraction 

Timber extraction is not permitted within the Sinharaja MAB Reserve ; furthermore felling is not permitted within a distance of 1 mile from the boundary of the Reserve. However, selective felling is permitted in other forests surrounding the Sinharaja and is carried out by the State Timber Corporation, mainly through hired private contractors. These activities have led to the Reserve more accessible to illicit timber merchants. Alleged malpractices by the bona fide contractors themselves too have been reported. Here too the lack of clearly demarcated boundaries and adequate supervisory field staff are serious setbacks to enforcing the law.

Private land owners along the periphery of the Reserve are also known to be illegitimate users of the timber resources within the forest. On the pretext of felling and transporting timber which is on their own land, these land owners also request permits to transport illicitly felled timber out of the forest.

Collection of timber by the villagers for their domestic purposes does not seem to make a significant impact on the Reserve's resources. However, the villagers contribute indirectly to the depredation by being the hired labourers used by unscrupulous timber merchants. To the villager, firewood is the most important forest product both because it is used for his own family as well as for the commercial production of jaggery. The search for firewood is now as increasingly arduous task for the villager and if efforts are not made to provide the villagers with an made to provide the villagers with an alternate source of firewood, their attention will soon be directed towards the readily available trees within the MAB Reserve. In fact the selective removal of favoured species such as Hedawaka (Chaetocarpus castanocarpus and C. coriaceus) for firewood could even lead to their extinction.
 

 

Management

Restricting human traffic, both of the local villager and the outside, and controlling exploitation ultimately depends on successful management. Perhaps the most promising omen for the future well-being if the Reserve is the Conservation Plan for the Sinharaja Forest formulated in 1985. Funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), this plan includes one of the most basic requirments of conserving a protected area i.e. defining clear objectives and a strategy of action based on available knowledge. Worked out by state department officials, research scientists, and non-governmental personnel, the plan is a realistic evaluation of the constraints while have negated conservation efforts so far. While proposing workable solutions, it has also identified priority areas needing immediate attention.

The case made for centralizing the administration of the MAB Reserve, and for vesting a single officer with administrative powers over the whole area has already been implemented. Since 1988 IUCN has funded a Project Officer for Sinharaja. The plan also reiterates the need to provide the officers with suitable accommodation, vehicles, firearms, firefighting equipment and communication facilities. While the Management Plan would help provide the administrative framework for future conservation of the forest, attention should also be paid to suggestions advocating the extension of the boundaries of the Reserve on the North-Eastern side to include the plateaux of Handapan Ella plains and Tangamali plains. This area includes still largely undisturbed forest and grassland. Opportunities such as this, to create or expand protected areas, are becoming increasingly rare and plans should be drawn up for such an expansion as soon as possible.

Collection of Minor Forest Products

A considerable number and variety of minor forest products are collected by the villagers although such collection is prohibited. The only activity permitted to a limited degree is kitul taping.

Of the activities engaged in by the villager, the one that poses a serious threat is the collection of rattan or cane. This too like timber extraction is manipulated by unscrupulous merchants. The manufacture of rattan products is an island-wide craft, and the demand for raw cane in areas outside the sinharaja where it is scarce has dramatically increased its illicit collection.

The method employed for the removal of rattan from its natural habitat is also very wasteful. The more accessible lower portion of the climber is cut, and this results in the still utilizable upper section withering and dying on the supporting tree. There is also overexploitation of the younger plants. which too could soon lead to the complete eradication of this resource.

There is still a small population of mature climbers of the large diameter rattan growing within the immediate vicinity of the Field Research Station. Their value cannot be over-emphasised especially as they are now the sole source of seeds for the large propagation programme currently established in the Sinharaja.

The seasonal collections of other plants products such as wild cardamom, resins, medicinal plants, edible fruits, mushrooms ect. create very little disturbance. Sometimes however such activities could be detrimental as in the case of the collections of bark from Nawada (Shorea stipularis) and Hal (Vateria coppalifera) to be used as an inhibitor in the fermentation of kitul sap. These trees are often debarked to such an extent that they die as a result of this practice.

 

Poaching and Camping

Poaching of wild animals such as sambhur, mouse deer, wild boar, giant squirrel and purple-faced leaf monkey is done on a small scale. Occasionally leopards are killed in traps set for these animals. These trap-guns also create serious hazards to researchers and other explorers.

Traditionally, chena cultivation is practised mainly along the southern boundary of the Reserve. Meanwhile camping in convenient sites for kitul tapping often leads to the short-term clearing of small areas and the establishment in anthropogenic plant communities, poaching, illegal timber and rattan extraction and felling of favoured firewood species in the vicinity.

Gemming

The search for precious stone or gems is a serious problem. Often wellorganised gangs financed by wealthy gem merchants are responsible for the activity. Large marshy areas are dug up and the vegetation destroyed. The open pits left after gemming are a danger to both man and wildlife. 

Administrative Constraints

The lack of a uniform land use policy and the multiplicity of government and semi-governmental agencies involved in land-use planning in Sri Lanka have been major administrative setbacks to the protection of the Sinharaja. The forest is also spread out over two provinces, three districts and several minor administrative areas, and hence administrative decisions often become complex manoeuvres.

Among the agencies involved in the administration of the Sinharaja are the Land Reforms Commission, the Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation, the Janatha Estates Development Board and the Tea Small Holding Authority. The Government Agent, the chief administrative officer of a district, is responsible for the allocation of land on the periphery of the Reserve.

The staff, equipment and facilities now available for policing the Reserve are far from adequate. A Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of the Western Division based in Ratnapura (44 kilometers away), and the DFO of the Southern Division based in Gall (120 kilometers) are responsible for administering the Reserve. These DFO's have a total of 7 officers (3 Forest Rangers and 4 Beat Officers) under them to help to protect a Reserve of 8,800 hectares. Since 1988 the IUCN conservation programme has funded a resident Project Officer. The staff are stationed at the north-western end, at Kudawa, and have only one single four-wheel drive vehicle available to them. Patrolling of the boundaries is made more problematic because the only routes available for patrolling are mainly footpaths. Furthermore there is no illegal timber felling, Gangs engaged in illegal timber felling, gemming and rattan exploitation are often, gemming and well organized and armed. There is also the grave danger of fire hazards now that the peripheral areas are under Caribbean Pine, but the Kudawa Office does not contain adequate equipment or manpower to prevent such fires.

The Villager's Attitude

The villager unquestionably acknowledges the need to protect the forest. However, many of them do not comprehend the need for the strict rules laid down for the protection of the MAB Reserve, the sudden increase of outsides e.g. researchers and explorers, into what was their domain. The relationship between the villager and the accepted authority, the Forest Department is one of mutual avoidance. There is a need therefore for dialogue to be established, and the villager's co-operation sought to help preserve the forest. A start has been made by March for Conservation while has carried out very successfully a series of educational programmes and other activities in the Kudawa area. This has even resulted in a village Conservation Society being formed and is perhaps one of the best omens for the future involvement of the villager with the Sinharaja. 

Notwithstanding the many measures taken to protect the Sinharaja, the future still holds a measure of uncertainly for this Reserve. Wilderness areas like the Sinharaja are often subject to the activities of those who week to exploit them on a commercial scale. The greatest threat, by far, to the Sinharaja is the ever-increasing demand for timber and plywood for construction and other purposes. As the logging project of the 1970's demonstrated, policy makers are often only too ready to take the easy way out and advocate the destruction of existing forests for development purposes. Further problems are posed by the demand for land by a rapidly expanding population. With the declaration of the Sinharaja as the first National Heritage Wilderness area grater legal security has been provide for its protection. Its excision is permitted only with the concurrence of the President and the Parliament of Sir Lanka. Meanwhile its recent declaration as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO brings it further international recognition.

 Needs of the Villagers

For more than two thousand years, the Sri Lankan villager has taken what be needs from the forests around him. Although, most Sri Lankans today are aware that the Forests of the island have been reduced to an almost meagre level, need and poverty drive them to exploit this ever-shrinking source. The people must be provided for, and the most humane way of doing this would be to provide them with exploitable areas.

It therefore becomes imperative that buffer zones be created and planted with those species used most frequently by the villagers of fuelwood and timber. Kitul, rattan and cardamom should also be given particular emphasis. The villagers must be encouraged to continue traditional agro-forestry practices while growing permanent cash crops such as rubber, tea, pepper, cinnamom and cloves. Other income generating activities such as poultry farming and bee-keeping, and livestock rearing could also be introduced. The buffer zones would not only help to give the villager what he needs but would also protect the inner core of the strictly protected Reserve.

Establishing buffer zones would also help to mitigate the resentment caused when state agencies declare inviolate, land that people regard as their common property. Legal enactments and governmental protective measures aimed at safeguarding a forest often alienate the people who live on the peripheries of the forest, and the measures therefore become counter-productive. If the Sinharaja is to be effectively protected the co-operation of the villager must be actively sought. In this context the need for relevant educational programmes cannot be over-emphasised. The Programmes should aim at adding to the villagers knowledge of the nature of the forest ecosystem, and its value to the nation and the world. The villagers knowledge of the forest must be respected and the importance of their help in managing the forest effectively conveyed, thereby making them partners in conservation efforts. A start has been made in the Kudawa area and the effort has proved that villagers are indeed willing proved that villagers are indeed willing to be involved. Plans should therefore be drawn up to set up similar programmes in other villages of the Sinharaja region.

A possible future threat to the forest is the increasing number of visitors. Although over-visitation is currently not a major problem, the flow of visitors would certainly increase in the future. As far as possible, a wide cross-section of people ought to be encouraged to visit this unique Reserve. The routes of the visitors however should be restricted, and so organized that they would be able to see the variety the forest offers. This could be accomplished not by expanding the network of motorable roads but by establishing nature trails, designed to cover all aspects of ecological importance be set up while traverse representative areas of disturbed and undisturbed forest, while others could provide or far visiting areas of species interest. However, care should be taken to prevent the Reserve from being converted into public picnic grounds.

Education and Research

Although this is one of the main objectives of conservation, very little use of the Forest was made for education and research until quite recently. However, today the North-Western area is being actively used for this purpose. It is important that this trend continues, and maximum use be made of the whole Forest as a natural resource laboratory. This will provide one of the main justifications for its protection.

The importance of educational and awareness-creating programmes cannot be over-emphasized particularly because of the role they play in fostering local support. Due to higher standards of literacy and education, the youth of these villages are especially receptive to conservation ideals and are capable of fully understanding conservation strategies and objectives.

In the past, forestry officials and administrators as well as research scientists have not taken any special interest in the problems of local people. This must be replaced by a more sympathetic attitude towards the villagers way of life and values, so that a dynamic and meaningful partnership could be established linking the technical expertise and scientific wisdom of the forester and researcher.

Research studies in Sinharaja, in the past, have examined the basic ecological characteristic of the flora and fauna. Applied research on plants of medical and commercial value, is currently in progress, yet there is a vast amount more that needs to be investigated. Systemic geological and geographical studies too need to be established and socioeconomic and demographic data relating to the local population must be collected. The work done in different fields must be integrated, and researchers encouraged to collaborate with one another. The work done in Sinharaja should be publicized regularly and made available to the scientist as well as to the interested non-scientist.

The research done in the past few years is the result of the determined and dedicated efforts of a few pioneer scientists. Their regular visits and enthusiastic activity have contributed much to the protection of the Sinharaja today. It is no secret that these pioneers worked in the face of very grate difficulties with no facilities at all. Although research facilities exist today, they are still very basic and are available only in the North-Western end of the Reserve. Provision therefore must be made for proper research facilities, and for setting-up research stations in other parts of the Reserve as well. This will reduce the one area available. At the same time it will contribute to better protection of the other areas as well. 

As awareness spreads, the desire for more knowledge also grows. Dissemination of knowledge therefore and become a useful tool in helping to preserve the forest. Thus it is desirable that an Information Centre be set up. This could be regularly update as research brings new discoveries to light. The Centre could also include a herbarium and a museum and be the distribution office for literature on the forest. Such activities could begin in the North-Western part of the Reserve and be expanded to other parts as well. This will also provide employment opportunities to local youth as nature guides for expedition into the forests.

However well co-ordinated plants may be, nothing can succeed if funds are not available. Fortunately for the Sinharaja the activities carried out have received generous carried out have received generous funding from many international funding from many international organizations such as the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the International Foundation of Science (IFS) is Sweden, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. The current programmes executed by the IUCN are funded by the Norwegian Development C0-0peration (NORAD). The one local institution while ahs generously supported research activities in the past, and still continues to support them actively is the Natural Resources, Energy and Science Authority (NARESA). The growing awareness of the need to conserve natural resources, both nationally and internationally, favours the granting of increased funding for work in places such as the Sinharaja Reserve.

The Future

Today the Sinharaja stands as a symbol of inspiration for conservationists and scientists in Sri Lanka. Within the course of ten years, this patch of forest once threatened with total destruction has been transformed into a productive natural resources research laboratory. Scientific and economic reasons have now been brought in to justify its conservation. No less important are the aesthetic reasons. The impressive beauty and rich vitality of the forest are also reasons why the Sinharaja needs to be protected. Recognition of all these factors has led to the present protected state of the Sinharaja today. It is to be hoped that a similar fortunate fate awaits the other forests of the wet-montane regions and coastal lowlands of Sri Lanka, such as the Peak Wilderness, the Horton Plains, the Knuckles and the Hinidum Kanda.                       

 


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka