Make all adjoining forest areas a part of Sinharaja - Then build the road to Lankagama

Sajeewa Chamikara

Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform

According to a study by the Forest Conservation Department in 2010, low country rain forests cover only 1.9% of the total land area of Sri Lanka. This is 123,302 hectares. Of the total land area of Sri Lanka; montane rain forests covers and sub montane rainforests cover only 1.1%. That is a land area of 73,271 hectares. Therefore only 3% of the total land area of Sri Lanka is covered in rainforests. That is a land area of 196,573 hectares. Out of these, only 65% have been declared protected areas, the rest are under the control of the Land Reclamation Commission (LRC.).

Due to the dwindling forest cover, even the Sri Lankan wet zone has been affected by changes to annual rainfall patterns and water shortages. This makes protecting the remaining rain forests of paramount importance. This is why we demand the government to make all the rainforests, around the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area, into protected areas. Road expansions should only take place after such a declaration. Road expansions before making the adjoining forests into protected area would only lead to the destruction of the unprotected forest areas. Otherwise is quite likely that tea cultivations and construction of hotels would follow the road expansion. This is the prism in which we view the road development project to Lankagama. Given the massive misinformation and disinformation that is taking place; it is vital that the general public understands why environmentalists oppose the road development project.

If policy makers do not understand the reasons why we object, it is highly likely that the entire ecological system will collapse ushering in serious issues to the general public. We have already seen the impact ad hoc decisions made by policy makers. For example between 1900 and 2000 the lizard population of Sri Lanka was decimated. A global survey in year 2000 found that in the period between 1900 and 2000 the word had lost 34 species of reptiles. Out of that number 21 species had disappeared from Sri Lanka. While later research has found two of the 21 species believed to have been extinct; it is now clear that the other 19 species are gone for good. The main reason for this is the destruction of rainforests due to various activities including tea plantation.

Lankagama Road development project

Under the Lankagama Road development project, a 15 foot wide road that spans 18 kilometers, which falls through Madugete, Warukandeniya and Lankagama Grama Niladari divisions in the Neluwa DS area will be developed. Some parts of this road go through forest areas. This road goes through forest lands that belong to the LRC, private lands, state lands that belongs to the Forest Conservation Department and land that falls under the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Areas. Moreover the road goes through several subsidiaries of the Gin Ganga. It is also identified that 1,320 meters of this road goes through land that fall within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

Why the road development is illegal

Sinharaja was declared a National Heritage Wilderness Area by National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act (No. 3 of 1988.) According to section 3 the act "no person other than the Competent Authority shall enter, or remain, within, any National Heritage Wilderness Area except (a) for the purpose of discharging any official duty on the instruction, or with the written permission, of the Competent Authority; or (b) under the authority and in accordance with the conditions of a written permit from the Competent Authority.” Meanwhile section 04 of the act prohibits the cutting of any plant or trees, making any fresh clearing or construction of any road. Section 12 states that any person who acts in “contravention of any provisions of this Act, or any regulation made there under shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction by a Magistrate be liable to a fine not less than ten thousand rupees.” Such a person can also face a prison term between one to two years and or subject to both such fine and imprisonment. Such provisions have been enacted because it is impossible to estimate the damage to a sensitive eco system like the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area. These provisions are now been blatantly violated in the construction of the Lankagama Road development project. Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area and all adjoining forest areas have been declared a soil conservation area by Extraordinary Gazette No 1550/9 issued under section three of the Soil Conservation Act, no 25 of 1951. This was declared due to the fact that there is a serious risk of landslides in this area. When carrying out development activities in such an area, one needs to take approval as per the National Environmental Act. The aim of this is to ensure the sustainability of the project.

Gazette Extraordinary No 777/22 of 24th June, 1993 issued according to section 23Z of the National Environmental Act, no 47 of 1980 (amended) states that one needs to take approval, based on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA,) to convert of forests covering an area exceeding 1 hectare into non-forest uses. In order to implement the Lankagama Road development project; the implementers will have to remove a large stretch of forest land and thus needs to take approval, based on an EIA. The Gazette Extraordinary adds that one thus needs to take approval, based on an EIA to also carry out any development activity within 100 meters from any National Heritage Wilderness Area. The Gazette Extraordinary also says that an EIA is also needed to carry out any development activity within an area declared as a soil conservation area.

The Lankagama Road development project is been carried out violating all the above mentioned legal provisions. This makes it an illegal development project and it also challenged the rule of law. This also has an adverse effect on the people’s faith in the Forest Conservation Department and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA.)

Adding new forest lands to the Sinharaja reserve

There are a large number of LRC lands adjoining the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area and a number of these lands have been cleared to plant tea. On August 04, 2004, the then cabinet decided to claim and connect a 500 meters buffer zone for the Sinharaja forest. This decision was taken as the Land Reform Commission (LRC) under which most of the land falls, had been releasing lands to hoteliers, plantation companies and other investors, thus jeopardizing the future of the world heritage site. This had led to the loss of habitat of endemic species and catchment forests. The LRC land was to be taken on the basis of compensation been paid on a later date. It was expected to claim 2,490 hectares of forest land.

These forests were Murakele estate (50.4 ha) Fab Estate (181.3 ha) Ilumbakanda estate (567 ha) Morning Side estate (55.4 ha) canter estate (130 ha) Gaze estate (137.5 ha) Gonhela estate (137.9 ha) Ebaros estate (35.4 ha) Bakware estate (109.9 ha) Kondurugala estate (99 ha) and Dambahena estate (8.6 ha) of Ratnapura District; Enasal estate (436 ha) Kurugala estate (188 ha) Beverly estate (28 ha) and Hemagiri estate (40 ha) in Matara District and Homadola estate (304 ha) in Galle District. These are lands that were released to various plantation companies by the LRC. Although the Cabinet had approved the reclamation of these lands, the Forest Conservation Department had not been able to do so, even though 16 years had gone by. Each passing year without action leads to the expansion of tea and Cardamom plantations.

The environmental minister of the previous government, former President Maithripala Sirisena signed a gazette that calls for the annexation of 13 proposed forest reserves to the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area. With this the total land area of the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area would expand to 30, 000 hectares. This gives approval to absorb proposed Ayagama, Delgoda, Dellawa, Delmella-Yatagampitiya, Diyadawa, Kobahadukanda, Morapitiya-Runakanda-Neluketiya Mukalana, Warathalgoda, Silverkanda, Handapanella, Gongala and Paragala reserves to the Sinharaja National Heritage Wilderness Area. Although Sirisena had signed the gazette almost a year ago, it still hasn't been published.

Preventing the absorption of new forests to Sinharaja

Although former President Maithripala Sirisena had signed the gazette over a year ago, not only has it been published, regional politicians and their business partners are making plans to use the LRC lands adjoining the Sinharaja to expand roads and to use them for large commercial endeavours like establishing tea plantations and hotels. The people that live around Sinharaja, who had been promised of improved facilities, are being misled by these people. These elements are planning to take over large swaths of LRC lands and for that purpose, prevent the absorption of new forests to Sinharaja.

Sinharaja was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1989. This was the first natural heritage site declared by UNESCO in Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is a tropical rainforest which is important for environmental, ecological, hydrological and geological reasons. This forest is one of the main reasons why Sri Lanka is considered one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots identified in the world. The importance of this forest has been recognized for a long time and steps were taken to ensure that this area is not subjected to human activities.

During the British colonial administration a part of the Sinharaja forest system was declared a protected area in 1875 under the waste lands ordinance. Gazette notification no 4046 of May 08, 1875, issued under the waste lands ordinance, declared 2,428 hectares of the forest system as a reserve. This was expanded to 6, 153 hectares on May 21, 1926. Realizing the vital link between the Sinharaja forest system and the people who live close to it, Sinharaja was declared an International Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1978. It was declared as a National Heritage Wilderness Area on October 21, 1988 by gazette notification 528/14 when the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act (No. 3 of 1988) was passed. This is the country's first and only National Heritage Wilderness Area. With the above mentioned gazette, 11, 187 hectares of the Sinharaja forest system was declared a protected area.

The biodiversity of Sinharaja

Sinharaja forest reserve covers about 0.17 of the total landmass of Sri Lanka (65,610 square kilometres.) 38% of terrestrial species (animal species that live on the dry lands), reported in Sri Lanka are found in Sinharaja. 37% of the endemic animal species and 53% of endemic plant species in Sri Lanka are found here as well.

Researchers have also found that there are 40 species that can be found in Sinharaja alone. Out of this 15 are flowering plants and 25 are animal species, out of which there are 11 lizard species, nine amphibious species, three freshwater crab species and one spider and mammal species each.

Sinharaja is also vital in ensuring that Sri Lanka receives the Southwestern monsoonal rains and that the rain received is converted into ground water. It also ensures that the water needs of those living nearby are met and that small scale tea plantations receives the rain they need. The Sinharaja forest is one of the most important watersheds in the island, with several streams draining into the ‘Kalu Ganga’ and ‘Gin Ganga’ rivers. The people who live in these river basins received adequate water for drinking and other daily needs.

Sinharaja is also a unique ecosystem. It comprises a canopy typical to the Tropical Wet Evergreen Rainforests and three unique climax vegetation types: Hora community, Na-Dun community, Milla-Diyapara-Hedawaka-Welipanna community. A unique plant community composed of the two endemic species Rath dun (Shorea gardneri) and Yakahalu (Shorea trapezifolla) exist in the Sinharaja Estate and Enasal Estate owned by the State Plantation Corporation. Sinharaja Estate and Enasal Estate are not a part of the protected forest area. the fact that plant communities composed of the two endemic species are in a forest area, adjoining Sinharaja, but without any protection is indicative of the general attitude of the Forest Conservation Department. These areas are being cleared steadily for tea plantations. By the time these forest lands are taken over the unique species that live in them might be gone forever. 495 out of the 926 endemic flowering plants of Sri Lanka as well as 13 of the 25 endemic plants are recorded from the Sinharaja Forest. Fifteen endemic species of flora that are found in the forest can only be found there. 340 woody plants are also recorded in Sinharaja, out of which 192 are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Researchers have also found 42 species of ferns in the Singharaja forest. 10 of these species are endemic to Sri Lanka. Among the ferns are, Pathrakoku (Cyathea crinita), Gini hota (Cyathea walkeri), Wal Meda (Angiopteris evecta), Baru Koku (Blechnum orientale), Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus) and Maha Hedaya (Huperzia phlegmaria). Moreover the smallest fern species recorded from Sri Lanka, the epiphytic Microgonium motleyi, can also be found in Sinharaja. Meanwhile, over 80 of the 189 orchid species found in Sri Lanka are found in the Singharaja forest. Some of the rare Endemic species of orchids are Vanaraja (Anoectochilus setaceus), Iruraja (Zeuxine regia), Mahapadma (Podochilus malabaricus), Kudapadma (Podochilus saxatilis), Jatamakuta (Flickingeria macraei) and Wesakmal (Dendrobium maccarthiae). Moreover nine species of rattan too are found in Sinharaja when the total number of rattan species recorded in Sri Lanka is 10. Thambotuwel (Calamus zeylanicus), Thudarena (Calamus ovoideus), Narawel (Calamus delicatulus), Kukuluwel (Calamus pachystemonus) and Mawewel (Calamus thwaitesii) are among the rare and endemic Calamus species found in the Sinharaja Forest. In the streams that run through Sinharaja one can find eight rare and endemic aquatic plants. Among these are five ketala species; Lagenandra praetermissa, Lagenandra lancifolia, Lagenandra koenigii, Lagenandra thwaitesii, Lagenandra bogneri and three water trumpet (Athiudayan) species; i.e. Cryptocoryne beckettii, Cryptocoryne thwaitesii and Cryptocoryne bogneri. Aponogeton rigidifolius, a rare and endemic Kekatiya species has also been recorded from these streams. The aforementioned species present only a fraction of the total plant diversity present within the forest.

There is also a significant diversity in animal species found in Sinharaja as well. 448 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and butterflies are found in this forest reserve. Out of these, 144 species (32%) are endemic to Sri Lanka. Sinharaj and the Sri Pada areas are the only places where one can see all 33 birds species endemic to Sri Lanka. Nine amphibian species found in Sinharaja are endemic to the forest. 11 species of reptiles seen in Sinharaja can only be found there. One mammal (kunuhik meeya- Crocidura hikmiya), three fresh water crabs (Ceylonthelphusa savitriae, Perbrinckia quaratus and Perbrinckia rosae) and one spider species (Onomustus nigricauds) too can only be found in the Sinharaja forest. The fact that there are 25 animal species found only in the Sinharaja forest shows how rich it is in biodiversity.

Nine of the amphibian species found in Sinharaja are Critically Endangered according to the 2012 IUCN red list. They are Sinharaja shrub frog (Pseudophilautus simba), Cheeky shrub frog (Pseudophilautus procax), Papillated shrub frog (Pseudophilautus papillosus), Handapan Ella shrub frog (Pseudophilautus lunatus), Enasla Estate tree frog (Taruga fastigo), Golden-eyed shrub frog (Pseudophilautus ocularis), Poppy’s shrubs frog (Pseudophilautus poppiae), Elegantshrub frog (Pseudophilautus decoris) and Karunaratne's narrow-mouth frog (Microhyla karunaratnei).

11 reptile species endemic to Sinharaja are also Critically Endangered. They are; the endemic fossorial snake, Deraniyagala’s shield tail (Rhinophis tricoloratus), Eranga Viraj’s shieldtail snake (Rhinophis erangaviraji), an arboreal snake, Sinharaja tree snake (Dendrelaphis Sinharajensis), Erdelen's horned lizard (Ceratophora erdeleni), Karu's horned lizard (Ceratophora karu), Morning Side Sivruwanlana katussa (Calotes dersilvai), Sinharaja Bent-toed Gecko (Cyrtodactylus subsolanus), Sihin maha Kele Hoona (Cyrtodactylus cresenes), Godagedara's day gecko (Cnemaspis godagedarai), ALankara Dewaseri Hoona (Cnemaspis pulchra), Merrillge Singithi Hikanala (Lankascincus merrill) and Sameerage Singithi Hikanala (Lanakascincus sameerai). Meanwhile the rough-nosed horned lizard (Ceratophora aspera) which was earlier believed to be endemic to the Sabaragamuwa hills, has now been identified as endemic to Sinharaja forest. The species in other mountains in Sabaragamuwa have been identified as different to those in Sinharaja. Two nonvenomous shield tail snakes of the Rhinophis genus have also been discovered recently and the research report is to be released soon.

e It is the responsibility of all Sri Lankans to step up and protect this unique and important ecosystem that makes Sri Lanka a biodiversity hotspot. According to article 28 (f) of the constitution it’s the duty of every person in Sri Lanka to "to protect nature and conserve its riches." We would like to remind all Sri Lankans that they must come forward to fulfill this duty by protecting Sinharaja for future generations, to ensure that all forests that are adjoining are absorbed into Sinharaja and to protect it from any attempts to destroy it.

■ Fauna diversity of Sinharajaya

Fauna Number of species* Endemic species Point Endemic species in sinharaja
Number Percentage%
Fish 26 14 53.8 -
AMphibians 38 31 81.6 9
Reptiles 82 46 56.0 11
Birds 155 33 21.3 -
Mammals 45 11 24.4 1
Butterfiles 109 9 8.3 -
Total 455 144 31.6 21

*This does not include species that live in the coastal areas

Comparison of the diversity of fauna species in Sri Lanka and Sinharaja

Fauna Total number of species Number of endemic species
*Sri Lanka Sinharaja Percentage % Sri Lanka Sinharaja Percentage%
Amphibians 120 38 31.7 106 31 29.2
Reptiles 236 82 34.7 154 46 29.9
FIsh 91 26 28.6 53 14 26.4
Birds 404 155 38.4 33 33 100.00
Mammals 93 45 48.4 21 11 52.4
Butterfulies 245 109 44.5 26 9 34.6
Total 1189 455 38.3 393 144 36.6
*This does not include species that live in the coastal areas