A thing of beauty is a joy for ever, its loveliness increases; t’will, never pass into nothingness -John Keats
A rain forest is not just wild beauty. Along with the beauty comes great diversity in plants and animals. Rain forests play a major role in keeping our planet healthy. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen that we depend on for our survival. The absorption of CO2 helps to stabilize the Earth’s climate.
Rain forests also help to maintain the world’s water cycle by adding water to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration which creates clouds. Water generated in rain forests travel around the world.
Rain forests store water like a huge sponge. In fact, it is believed that the Amazonian forests alone store over half of the Earth’s rain water.
They draw water from the forest floor and release it back in to the atmosphere in the form of swirling mists and clouds. Without rain forests continually recycling huge quantities of water, feeding the rivers, lakes and irrigation systems, droughts would become more common, potentially leading to widespread
famine and disease.
Tree roots bind the soil together, while the canopy protects the soil from heavy rains. When a tree dies and its trunk falls to the forest floor, it decays and the nutrients it contains are recycled. However, if trees are removed from the forest, the nutrients are removed with it. The unprotected soil is then simply washed away in heavy rains, causing floods in lowland rivers, while leaving upland rivers dry.
In the 1920s, our country had 49% forest cover. But by 2005 the forest cover had fallen by nearly 26%. According to the FAO, 28.8% or about 1,860,000 hectares of Sri Lanka was forested in 2010.
The Sinharaja Reserve, the last remaining patch of rain forest in the country situated in the southwest, wet zone of the country covers an area of approximately 8,864 hectares of land.
Over 60% of its trees according to UNESCO are endemic with many of them considered rare. The reserve is also home to much endemic wildlife especially birds. The Sinharaja reserve also contains over 50% of the country’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.
The forest’s terrain encompasses a series of ridges and valleys that are crisscrossed by an intricate network of streams.Ensconced in the Sinharaja are a number of human settlements, one among which is the village of Lankagama, which has existed for around 500 years or more and co-existed with nature.
A road/footpath linking the village to the town has also existed over a long period of time. After the British colonialists cleared the forests to set up their ‘tea gardens’, these villagers have grown and supplied tea to the tea factories which are around 18 km distant.
Cut off from the town centres save for the footpath - a non-motorable road- villagers are forced to trek long distnces, in the event of sickness. There is no other means of transport to meet educational needs or to transport produce to markets.
This problem was sharply brought into focus, last month when an environmentalist charged a road was being built within the Sinharaja to cater to the private needs of an influential personality.
The hue and cry raised, regarding the construction of the road in the Lankagama area, resulted in President Rajapaksa ordering a temporary halt to construction activities.
Lankagama an ancient village existed prior to the British era.
The British cleared the forests, creating an environmental disaster. The towns and plantations in the hill country were all part of the great rainforest. They were built after the forests were cleared.
How does one strike a balance? Are we to clear the towns and plantations and replant the forests? After all the traditional villagers were existent prior to the arrival of the British.
They lived in harmony with nature... Is it wrong to provide them with a motorable road to cater
to basic needs?
Should we treat them as ‘children of a lesser God’?
Man must learn to co-exist with nature. For years inmates of the traditional villages did just that. To punish them for misdeeds of a foreign power is unjust.
Perhaps we can better protect the Sinharaja by pressuring the authorities to implement the Cabinet decision of 22 July 2014 -to claim and connect a half-a km buffer zone for the Sinharaja forest- to prevent releasing lands within the Sinharaja to hoteliers, plantation companies and other investors, who jeopardize the future of the forest which is also World Heritage Site.