Sinharaja, the only rainforest reserve in Sri Lanka, is in the news again. And this time around, a road building project has become the bone of contention.
Young environmental activist, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reforms (MONLAR), who was in the thick of many battles fought on the Sinharaja front during the last two decades, gave a snapshot picture of the struggles that were to save Sinharaja.
“There were many attempts to exploit and commercialize Sinharaja in the past. The attempts to enact the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) in 1998, road building and hotel construction projects adjacent to the forest reserve around 2007 and the mini hydropower plant project in the Koskulana river within the buffer zone in 2015 that was legally busted are just a few of those battles the environmental activists of this country fought tooth and nail in the past.”
LRC lands or the lands that come under the Land Reforms Commission constitute most of the forest cover in the immediate outskirts of the strict nature reserve. Chamikara also pointed out that in the past there had been numerous political projects that tried to alienate these LRC lands among the political stooges, but they had been thwarted by the timely intervention of the activists.
Sinharaja – the treasure
A low land virgin rainforest, Sinharaja is nestled between the hilly borders of the Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces. Relatively small in extent, it covers approximately 11,000 hectares, thus intensifying its status as a biodiversity hotspot. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that more than 60% of the trees in Sinharaja are endemic and many of them are rare. It is also the home for a number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and mollusks. There is a quite an exhaustive list of species that are point endemic (endemic to Sinharaja alone). These include Ceylonthelphusa savitriae and Perbrinckia rosae among the freshwater crabs (both critically endangered), Taruga fastigo or Morningside tree frog and Pseudophilautus simba or Sinharaja shrub frog among the amphibians (both critically endangered), Ceratophora erdeleni or Erdelen’s horn lizard and Calotes desilvai or Desilvas’ whistling lizard among the reptiles (both critically endangered) and Cinnamomum sinharajaense or wild cennamomum, which is considered vulnerable to extinction among the plants.
History of Sinharaja’s Legal Status
Sinharaja forest first received legal status far back in 1875 when it was declared as a reserved forest by the British colonial ruler in terms of Ordinance No.24 of 1848 (Ordinance to regulate the felling and removal of Timber grown on Crown Lands). Over a century later, in 1978, it was named an International Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Ten years later, it was declared a National Heritage and Wilderness Area under the National Heritage and Wilderness Areas Act No.3 of 1988 of Sri Lanka. The same year UNESCO inscribed it as a world heritage site.
The controversial road construction project extends for 1.6 km from the Kudawa entry point, one of the three main Sinharaja entry points (the other two being Morning side and Pitadeniya). It is one of the components of a bigger project to be financed by the World Bank to the tune of Rs. 45 million. This entrance is also considered the most popular access route, and according to the Forest Department statistics around 30,000 visitors reach Sinharaja through it annually.
Over visitation of forest reserves and natural parks is already a big problem in the country. Chamikara identifies this as a direct effect of the infrastructure development projects, carried out with foreign loans in the past. Identifying Yala, Minneriya, Wilpattu, Lunugamwehera, Uda Walawe and Bundala as examples, Chamikara enumerated a number of ill-effects of opening these national parks to popular tourism indiscriminately.
“A large number of vehicles enter these parks. Some will have just one or two passengers when they actually have seating capacity of about ten. The increased vehicular movement is responsible for the killings of animals in accidents. Vehicular fumes have polluted the air within the parks and contributed to the deaths of animals from respiratory problems as revealed by post mortems.
“The purpose of a national park or a nature reserve is to protect, nurture and conserve its biodiversity. Encouraging mass tourism has negative effects. Also they need to be preserved as watersheds and for their archeological importance, where applicable”.
Duplicity of the authorities on over-visitation
Not that the forest authorities and the World Bank are unaware of the over visitation issues haunting the country’s nature reserves and national parks. It comes from the horse’s mouth.
A report titled, “Sri Lanka: Eco-Systems Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP)” published by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Forest Department, and Department of Wildlife Conservation (dated January 22, 2015) and available on the World Bank’s website, puts it very lucidly: “Some protected areas are experiencing over visitation already and this is detrimental to the ecosystem. In protected areas such as Yala National Park, Minneriya National Park, Horton Plains National Park, Uda Walawe National Park and Sinharaja World Heritage Site, where visitation may be close to or exceeding the carrying capacity, the sub-component will support studies to establish the optimum number of visitors based on carrying capacity limits or alternative means to manage the visitation”. It further states, “In the cases where over-visitation is identified and considered detrimental to the long-term sustainability of fauna and flora in the protected areas, the project will assist the Department of Wildlife conservation and forest department in implementing programmes for ensuring visitation within the carrying capacity of these”. (This section appears under the sub section on nature based tourism in protected areas, in page 51). ESCAMP is the tool through which the World Bank funds this particular contentious project.
Although this is the position of the authorities (in January 2015), a project proposal titled “Development of Nature Based Tourism in Sinharaja and Buffer Zone, Rathnapura district” developed by the forest department (dated 01.05.2017) seeks to promote further tourism in Sinharaja through World Bank funding. The project proposal also identifies absence of attractive entry point, inadequate accommodation facilities, poor access roads, problems in interpretation service and less participation of local communities in tourism as the major draw backs of nature based tourism in Sinharaja. According to the report, a sum of Rs. 216,270,000 has been noted as the total cost of the project to be disbursed over five years and this entire amount will be provided by the ESCAMP project of the World Bank.
If the World Bank and the government are committed to promoting tourism in Sinharaja region, then the above report alone can help achieve that end. It has already identified the potential and probable avenues in the immediate locality. The lack of participation of local communities, inadequate accommodation facilities (for tourists) and problems in interpretation service are some of the shortfalls noted in the report. Thus, a well designed community empowerment and participatory project would be the ideal remedy, which could be carried out at a fraction of the cost earmarked for the controversial project. The funds could be disbursed among the villagers in the surrounding areas to improve their housing standards to provide home-stay facilities to the tourists. Also the youth could be taught English and given training in guiding. This will help boosting the living standards of the local communities in a sustainable manner while augmenting the local economy.
Road development and over visitation
Commenting on the impact of road development and over visitation of the sensitive eco systems, Chamikara spoke on the dangers posed to the threatened species living therein. “It poses a direct threat to the micro habitats of these species. This applies to some of the species like the Le Medilla (Aspidura brachyorrhos) and some amphibians found in Sinharaja. Even certain owls like the Paduwan Bassa (Serendib Scops Owl or Otus thilohoffmanni), which is a very rare species, has its habitat close to these trails. The impact of a vehicular roadway like the one to be built in Sinharaja could have for up to 500 meters from the edge of the road, which is called the “edge effect”.
Road building or repair
However, Anura Sathurusinghe, the Conservator General of the Forest Department maintains that the project in question is not a road building project, but a road repair project.
He admits that the repair work is underway in an already existing road that once was 12 to 15 feet wide. Later, the road was neglected leading to the present dilapidated state, which prompted his department to seek financial assistance from the World Bank for its repairs, claims Sathurusinghe.
He dismissed the need of a preliminary assessment. “This is outside the world heritage site so we don’t need any prior environmental assessment”. He maintains that the clearing the road way was carried out with extreme care and none of the big trees were cut.
Having already busted the myths about the tourism panacea, Chamikara classifies the types of tourists who frequent the habitats like Sinharaja as eco tourists, nature tourists, green tourists, wildlife tourists, hikers and mountain trekkers. They trek through the nature trails within the forest and generally cause least damage to it.
“They are nature lovers and keen to learn and interact with it. They don’t damage or disturb the nature. However, the kind of project the World Bank and the authorities envisage for Sinharaja could be very disastrous as it tries to promote leisure tourism there. It is not a place for that kind of activity.”
Ven. Wekadawela Rahula Thera of the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies (CENS) holding a press briefing, on 21 January in Colombo, questioned the Forest Department on its mandate. He said emphatically, “The Forest Department is there to protect nature. But today it has taken a destructive path by undertaking projects of this nature. They readily embrace projects of this nature for the need of money”.
He further emphasized that the buffer zone of Sinharaja reserve was as important as the nature reserve and any development activity should not be undertaken there. “This is common sense, whether it is laid down in law books or not. They should realize that our forest cover is only 16.5% of the land area of the country and is further depleting. What is needed urgently of the forest department is not to go behind World Bank money, but to redemarcate Sinharaja boundary and help further replenish it”.
Roman Husaraski, a PhD student from the Krakow University in Poland who spoke at the press briefing said, “The tourists who visit locations such as Sinharaja are extremely cautious about the highly sensitive nature of these ecosystems. They are committed to follow the “Leave No Trace” principles. They come to see and experience the nature with least damage to it. We come not to see roads, but to see the forests”.
The urgent need of re-demarcation
Chamikara mentioned re-demarcation of Sinharaja as an urgent task of the Forest Department. In 2004, a Presidential Task Force recommended incorporating all land within 500 metres from the boundaries of Sinharaja, Kanneliya and Knuckles reserves along with other forest cover not included in the existing demarcation, into the reserves. Even Cabinet approval had been obtained for this. But for all these 14 years nothing tangible has happened in this regard complained Chamikara.
“If this is implemented, Sinharaja reserve will extend over 20,000 hectares. Then none of these projects will be ever be possible. That’s the very reason why they don’t carry out this all important task”.
The World Bank official responsible for the project was not available for comments as she was overseas.