Photo courtesy of WNPS
Today is International Day of Forests
“According to Global Forest Watch, in 2021 Sri Lanka lost 13.3kha of natural forest. The same source indicates that between 2013 and 2021, 100% of tree cover lost was of natural forests (202kha). Though the figures for 2022 are yet to be calculated and confirmed, from the multitude of media reports during the course of the year, it is feared that this trend has increased rather than changing for the better.” Groundviews, January 25, 2023
We know this and we know that despite all of their expressed concerns and intentions that the policymakers have little thought of doing much to reverse this trend. Rather than bemoan this inactivity and do nothing more, conservation groups have been attempting to do what they can to reverse some of these trends and bring trees and natural habitat back to where they once were. This has only been possible with the financial generosity of corporate entities and individuals and of the assistance of the relevant statutory bodies. They all see the sense in these projects which try to ensure the preservation of the environmental integrity of this small island and of its future health and wealth.
Corporate Environmental Responsibility (CER)
CER, an important component of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), refers to a company’s responsibility and duty to avoid damaging the natural environment through its practices and processes. Its main components are eliminating waste and emissions, maximizing the efficient use of resources and productivity and minimizing activities that might damage the opportunity of future generations to enjoy these natural resources.
However, in countries such as Sri Lanka where the political authorities have largely abrogated their responsibility to protect the environment, wildlife and wild places, corporate entities must, and some already do, invest more in CER not just to make up for their own carbon footprints but to preserve more. After all the future health and wealth of this land and its people are essential in ensuring a sustainable customer base for a company’s products. Unhealthy and impoverished populations can buy little.
This additional CER can be achieved either individually or in partnership with relevant statutory bodies, and conservation/environmental organizations with every project led by the accumulated knowledge of science and research.
Many years ago, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) began a tree planting programme in Diyakothakanda on the outskirts of the precious Sinharaja Forest. This was land that was once part of the forest but had since been degraded. Initially it had limited success but in recent years, with the input of recognized scientists and the investment of generous corporate and private sponsors, it has met with resounding success. Most importantly, it has also engaged with the local community not only with providing the necessary labour for its planting and maintenance programmes but also with local schools and schoolchildren who assist with the planting and learn, first hand, of the importance of conservation and of the wonders of their rainforest neighbor.
This revitalized initiative, now referred to as the Reforestation of a Rainforest (ROAR) Project, is a long term responsibility. Rainforests take millions of years to evolve and it would be impossible to recreate them in a human’s span of life. However, if the primary conditions for their growth are created and conserved then nature will do the rest. By using a technique called Relay Floristics, ROAR, after clearing the land of invasive species and other scrubs and weeds that had taken over the degraded area, initially planted early succession species that provided favorable shelter for the growing of primary forest species. Then in it is a question of maintenance and patience, as rainforest species take many decades, even centuries, to establish and grow to their full heights in these natural nurseries for them.
If a short term measure of success is necessary even now, after less than a decade of dedicated effort, the wild inhabitants of the adjacent rainforest are beginning to move in to this small, five acre pilot plot of land. Sambhur, mouse deer, porcupine, wild boar and even the extremely rare and highly endangered pangolin have begun to frequent Diyakothakanda. Add to this the exponential increase in birds and butterfly species now seen there and it is clear that the habitat has been significantly improved.
A non-profit organization that relies on member subscriptions and with committees of dedicated volunteers, ROAR relies on contributions from corporate entities, social organizations and, lately, a significant financial contribution from one of the WNPS’s members to keep it operational.
In the 1990s the legendary Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Lyn De Alwis, predicted that the future success of conservation and protection of wildlife in Sri Lanka would depend on the greater awareness and engagement of the corporate world to assist an inadequately funded DWC to meet its responsibilities. As a start, he pleaded with individuals who had the resources and who were committed to conservation to buy lands adjacent to protected areas and to let them go wild to act as natural buffer zones to protected areas also having similar habitat to the main sanctuary. This would aid the protection of the main area while providing additional, similar habitat for them to spread into. Although a few individuals did, it was not in sufficient number to make a real difference.
In 2020, the WNPS set up a non-profit company Preserving Land and Nature (Guarantee) Ltd. (PLANT) with the mission of owning, preserving or assisting in setting aside privately owned lands with the active participation of the owners for the benefit of all wildlife and nature on behalf of future generations. The ultimate aim is to establish contiguous, or adequately connected, ranges/corridors of natural habitats and ecosystems between established protected areas to safeguard Sri Lanka’s precious biodiversity.
Once again, consistent with its long tradition of working with statutory agencies, non-governmental organizations, scientists, researchers, students and corporate bodies, the WNPS relies on the shared work and commitment of them all to develop best practices and drive this initiative to success.
In just two years, PLANT is engaging with a rapidly growing number of corporate entities, businesses, landowners and individuals, some of who have already successfully implemented environmental projects of their own. They have all committed land, funds and resources to this initiative and 2,500 acres of land have already been set aside and millions of rupees have been channeled for conservation. As with ROAR, PLANT also engages with local communities and schoolchildren, for they are this country’s future. PLANT sets up plant nurseries and works with scientists and researchers on the right approaches necessary for each unique habitat.
In just one of its projects, at Minuwanewlla, over 150 endemic species have been identified; such is the value of these fragmented areas. Admirable although this effort is and much achieved in this very short time, much, much more of lands and sponsors are necessary to make a real impact in ensuring the future connectivity of our wild places and for the survival of our wondrous natural species.
An integral part of restoring habitat is the clearing of invasive species that have taken over the degraded areas once filled with natural foliage. These invasives not only prohibit the growth of native species but are largely inedible to local herbivore species. With no predators to control them, they spread rapidly and lead to even greater degradation of the land.
The Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO) have successfully engaged with private sponsors and the local communities in projects to initially clear the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks of the alien species Agada and are no engaged in the Lunugamwehera National Park in clearing it of Lantana camara and Eupatorium odoratum. As with degradation elsewhere, these areas have become infested due to human interventions in natural processes. Minneriya and Kaudulla are homes to the world famous, seasonal elephant gathering. Bad water management practices meant that in the dry season, the meadows of the receding reservoirs that were the magnet for herds of elephants are now inundated throughout the year. Without grasslands, elephants have to move elsewhere in search of food causing other problems, mainly increases in human-elephant conflict and endangering the gathering and the large economic benefit it brings to the local communities and the country. In Lunugamwehera, bad management practices have led to the spread of alien species and with it a loss of suitable fodder for herbivores, mainly elephants.
Once again, there were no shortcuts involved in removing these species and they had to be taken out by hand. This involved the employment of local communities, especially those who lost their regular employment due to the restrictions necessary during the Covid pandemic and the resultant collapse of the economy. In addition, FEO engaged with local schools for participation and education and continue to do so.
In both cases herbivores, including elephants, have returned to the cleared areas. The main financial sponsors of these projects were some corporate entities, but a large number were private individuals responding to appeals made by FEO. Without their generosity, none of what has been achieved could have been. The people do care.
Much more to be done
These are only three examples of how conservation organizations and the private sector can work together to achieve conservation actions of substance; initiatives that are practical, achievable and will make a difference. There are several more that do the same. However for complete success, an additional partnership with the relevant statutory agencies is vital. The Forest Department and the DWC are responsible for all the protected areas and their inhabitants that come under their jurisdiction; the DWC for all wildlife, anywhere and everywhere. The active engagement of these departments in these projects is essential for it would be difficult for NGOs and the corporate sector to achieve these goals on their own, especially for those projects within protected areas. These departments should consider these initiatives as aids to their efforts and ensure that the relevant laws of conservation are being upheld at all times in their implementation. These bodies, especially with their field staff, are sources of much knowledge, skill and dedication – invaluable resources.
It is sad that in this day and age and advanced knowledge and environmental understanding, that a people cannot rely on its elected policymakers to protect the natural heritage for the future. That has been the case for some time now and will be for years to come too. Yet while still challenging destructive practices, through legal measure and canvassing of policymakers and statutory agencies, it is possible for the corporate sector and the people to effect real change by actively engaging, supporting and sponsoring these and other such initiatives. There is much more to be done; these are just the scratching of the surface but together much can be done. Let us hope that this is only the beginning.