It was worrisome to read the news item in our sister paper ‘The Sunday Times’ that the Cabinet had approved a proposal by State Resources and Enterprise Development Minister Dayasritha Tissera to cut down trees in state-owned plantations and sell the timber to pay statutory dues such as Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) and gratuity payments to the employees of those plantations.
This reminds us of the incidence in many villages where farmers who fall into debt to the village grocery seller due to poor seasonal harvest, resorting to cut valuable trees in their home gardens such as coconut or jak, to anyhow settle their debts.
But the felling of trees in the state-owned estates to pay EPF and ETF dues is much more serious as it jeopardises the country’s natural assets and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers employed in the plantation sector.
This situation has arisen as state sector plantation enterprises; namely the State Plantations Corporation (SPC), Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB) and Elkaduwa Plantations Limited find it unable to meet these payments from their own resources due to recurring colossal losses.
One would remember that the plantation sector was the major revenue earner before the opening of overseas jobs and the garment industry in Sri Lanka in early eighties, and even then it still retained a frontline rank as the third largest income source of the country.
Sri Lanka was more famous for its unique brand of tea and was also a stiff competitor in the rubber market at that time. However, at present, it is pathetic to see the same plantations are felling trees for their very survival and not to draw any additional revenue for the public exchequer by this move.
Now that the Cabinet approval has been given, very soon trees in many plantations would vanish and if there wouldn’t be a proper mechanism to monitor the felling in the remote areas, where most of the estates are situated, trees would be subject to wanton destruction.
The news story on this Cabinet decision further says that the State Resources and Enterprise Development Ministry had been told by the Board of Ministers to formulate its own replanting programmes using environmentally friendly plants.
However, paying out of EPF and ETF contributions is a continued process and these state enterprises would have to cut more and more trees in the coming years to pay the same dues unless they turn these loss- making institutions into profit making ones.
Clearly it would take at least a decade for re-plantation programmes to bear fruit and provide the ministry with more trees to cut, sell and pay EPF dues in the future.
Therefore, the authorities cannot rely on cutting trees for ever. They have to formulate a programme to make the plantation industry a profitable venture or adopt another inventive way to make it viable. On the other hand, persistent cutting of trees could disturb the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers of Indian origin living in these plantation areas possibly triggering another ethnic problem.