Undertaking the theme ‘Minimising of air pollution through sustainable forest management’ on ‘World Environment Day 2019’, President Maithripala Sirisena made a quite a surprising statement at a ceremony held at BMICH. He said that his government would soon ban carpentry sheds popularly known as ‘wadu maduwas’ and thus instructed carpenters and sawmill owners to find new jobs within five years. These utterances have raised concerns among people across the country, especially among people engaged in carpentry.
The Mayor of the Moratuwa Municipal Council Saman Lal Fernando and another councillor yesterday (June 11) commenced a fast unto death outside the council building in protest against the President’s proposal which would ban registering new carpentry shops in the future.
It is apparent that carpentry has become one of the most popular livelihoods in Sri Lanka while also becoming one of the main traditional occupations. The people in the Moratuwa area- where there are plenty of sawmills and carpentry workshops- have already agitated against this move by threatening to go on hunger strikes if the President didn’t revoke his statement.
- Chainsaws could cause huge damage to forests
- Environmentalists and carpenters are of the opinion that banning of mobile sawmills is commendable
- After registering, a special licence and a number will also be issued for identification purposes
- The Government should implement a proper forest conservation programme to control deforesting instead of taking ad hoc decisions
When considering as to why the President took such a decision, he himself pronounced that it was in a bid to protect the environment - in particular, owing to the depletion of forest cover.
As a further measure to put an end to this destruction, the President said that he would also prohibit the import of chainsaws, tree cutting machines and maintaining of carpentry shops.
President Sirisena went on to say that if these measures were taken and implemented for a ten years, the forest density of Sri Lanka could be increased to an environment friendly 32% from the current not so satisfactory 28%.
Let’s examine to what extent this becomes a fair-minded decision in a move to minimise tree cutting and to conserve the environment.
Traditional sawmills won’t be banned: Govt.
Mahaweli Development and Environment State Minister Ajith Mannapperuma told the media that the prevailing sawmills were adequate for the country and added that setting up new sawmills would be banned.
He said that traditional sawmills would not be banned under the proposed amendments and that only mobile sawmills would be banned with effect from December 31, 2022.
The President is to amend the 1896/26 Timber Mill Registration Special Gazette dated 2014.12.03, the ministry said in a statement. The Government announced that new sawmills or carpentry workshops would not be registered in future. However, those carpentry workshops that are currently functioning, which amounts to about 300, will be able to continue functioning.
If the Government is looking for a quick solution to this problem, we suggest that it scraps the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) as soon as possible
Controlling sawmills is the last segment of forest conservation
Speaking to Daily Mirror, Lawyer and Environmental Protection Activist Jagath Gunawardena said that it was conceptually erroneous to penalise a legitimate business like carpentry in order to stop an illegal trade like tree cutting.
In order to conserve forests in Sri Lanka, the following steps can be followed.
- Import furniture with zero tax
- Creating woodlots
- Make forest conservation effective by controlling sawmills
“What is going to be implemented is something that should be done when all the steps mentioned above have become unsuccessful. Sawmill is the last segment of the process. Hence, closing of sawmills is not the solution and rather what should be done is to cease the ways and means that boost tree cutting,” Gunawardena said.
“We can add new value to the lumber industry by opting for sustainable solutions like creating woodlots and forest plantation,” he added.
Meanwhile, when asked his opinion on the registering of chainsaws, Gunawardena said that he totally agreed to it and it was an effective move because chainsaws could cause huge damage to forests.
Banning mobile sawmills a good move
Environmentalists and carpenters are of the opinion that banning of mobile sawmills is commendable and a good decision.
Environmentalist Gunawardena said that he totally agreed to the decision of banning mobile sawmills as their use was illegal.
The Environment State Minister said that currently there are around 300 mobile sawmills registered in the country. “A Mobile sawmill is something that evolved five years ago. At the moment, the licence for the registered mobile sawmills can’t be banned thus they will be banned with effect from 2022,” he added.
Withanage said that mobile sawmills were a great danger and it was really good that they would be banned.
Useless move as far as deforestation is happening legally
Deforestation in Sri Lanka is one of the most serious environmental issues that has appeared rapidly for past few years. Sri Lanka’s forest cover, which was around 49% in 1920, has fallen to approximately 17% by now.
Although Sri Lanka’s forest cover is said to be 28% of the land area, the actual percentage is estimated to be about 17% besides the area that covers rubber, pinus, eucalyptus and teak trees.
Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage told the Daily Mirror that the loss of forests in Sri Lanka was primarily a result of massive projects like Port City, Uma Oya, the construction in Wilpattu, and the Rideemaliyadda Sugar Factory where plenty of trees were felled.
“The Government should first regulate such activities rather than going for a move of this nature which deprives the livelihood of people engaged in carpentry,” he said.
The rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2016 was growing 1.46% per annum. Sri Lanka’s natural forests are in severe danger due to deforestation; for purposes like massive development projects, large scales of plantations and resettling programmes, Withanage said.
“Natural forests are mainly situated in the dry zone of the island. Now, the natural forests are being gradually cleared for particular reasons with the utmost approval of the Government,” he added.
How about importing furniture?
The President said that the people would have to import items as deforestation and tree cutting would be fully banned.
Gunawardena said that he did not see any wrong in importing timber and logs, but however importing furniture was not a good move and it would also reduce job opportunities.
However, CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage said that Sri Lanka would not get furniture with best quality when they were imported.
“Imported furniture is of low quality and also expensive. Therefore, ordinary people can’t afford to buy furniture at such costs,” Withanage said.
“Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are nations that exported timber for us,” Withanage added.
Sri Lanka’s natural forests are in severe danger due to deforestation; for purposes like massive development projects
Chainsaw machines should be registered
The Government announced that all the chainsaws used to cut trees should be registered and the holders should obtain a licence for them.
Accordingly, the registration process of all chainsaw machines being used in the country happened between February 20 to 28 and the deadline for registration was extended till March 15.
This was according to a decision taken on the orders of President Sirisena.
The President said that when laws to register chainsaws were made effective, 82000 chainsaws had been registered island-wide within three weeks.
He said cutting of hundreds of trees using chainsaws in many parts of the country around the year was a common sight everywhere. “If you want to stop cutting of trees in a haphazard manner, you must do something about this,” the President added.
This decision aims at controlling deforestation caused by illegal felling of trees using chainsaw machines, and regulating the felling of trees.
Accordingly, all state-owned, semi-government, private-sector institution or privately owned Chainsaw Machines, should be produced at the nearest police station before a registration permit is obtained.
After registering, a special licence and a number will also be issued for identification purposes.
However, CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage said that according to a research they had conducted, they found that about 32,000 to 35,000 of chainsaws were coming to Sri Lanka.
“It is only 50 percent of chainsaws that have been registered while the rest is still to be registered,” Withanage said.
Nevertheless, he said that the registering of chainsaws was a good move and added that it was essential that the Government carries on with this same spirit to conserve forests which would be in jeopardy.
Banning carpentry sheds can result in huge price hike in furniture: Civil society
The President’s decision to ban carpentry sheds within five years has raised fears that there would be a huge price hike in furniture items in the market, President of the National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection (NMCRP), Ranjith Withanage said. He said that furniture had become an essential item for home owners as it is the first item on the agenda after they complete building or moving into their place of abode. Therefore this begs the question what damage this move by the Government could do to the furniture industry and to those struggling to make supply meet demand.
The Government should implement a proper forest conservation programme to control deforesting instead of taking ad hoc decisions that would hurt many industries that are already struggling to survive.
If the Government is looking for a quick solution to this problem, we suggest that it scraps the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) as soon as possible. The reason for this is that the CEA had become an authority that is only concerned about making money and maintain silence in the face of deforestation that is taking place on a large scale, he added.
When Daily Mirror spoke to some of the carpenters living in Moratuwa and catchment areas, Shantha Rodrigo who maintains a carpentry shop said that carpenters were not informed in this regard and feared losing their occupation.
“We all depend on this industry. There are nearly 20 workers working with me. It is not only we as carpenters who will suffer but also people who transport, load and shift logs are also at risk,” he said.
There are nearly 20 workers working with me
“We have been engaged in carpentry since our childhood. We don’t know to do any jobs other than this. Hence, we humbly request the authorities to let us carry on with our work,” he added.
Nishantha who is a worker at Shantha Rodrigo’s carpentry shop asked as to how they would live without carpentry shops and asked how they could possibly find another job in five years.
“I have four children. I have to feed them. I don’t know any other work to do,” he said sorrowfully.
Edward, who is also a carpenter by profession, said that the President’s questionable decision would desert a lot people leaving them with one option i.e. committing suicide.
“I have been engaged in this field for twenty years. We have not had such a threat for the last twenty years,” he said.
Nimalsiri working in the same carpentry shop said that the authorities should consider the alternatives prior to banning of carpentry sheds.
“Six of my family depend on the wage I earn from this. If I lose this, what should we do,” he asked.
“There is a decrease in business as well. We have not received sufficient orders after the announcement of this move,” he said.
Susantha Kumara said it was good that new carpentry shops would be banned, but authorities should not ban the existing ones.
Nipuna Chamath, who is engaged in transporting dry rots, told Daily Mirror that he did not attend school as he had been engaged in carpentry since he was an adolescent. “It was good to ban mobile sawmills but they should not ban traditional wadu madu,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pradeep said he would not think that this would be implemented in the long-run and added it was another ineffective move.
“We as carpenters do not get fixed salaries unlike government servants. They get the salary even it they do not work. The case is different with us. We have to sweat to earn the daily wage of Rs. 1000,” he added.
In conclusion, it is worthy to note that there are more things to be done before banning carpentry sheds which would deprive the livelihood of poor people. As an example, the President should see the high individuals who are engaged in tree cutting with utmost approval and intervention of politicians. In addition, strict actions should be taken for illegal tree cutting. Last but not least, I would like to propose that it was better to bring in laws that make it mandatory to plant three plants when cutting one tree.