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Plantation Forestry in Sri Lanka

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people” -Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Forestry in the past

Sri Lanka has a long history of forest conservation. The country has one of the highest population densities in Asia and has made valiant attempts to protect its forest cover. Although the forestry sector adds a mere 1.7% to the GDP, this represents more than 8% of the overall contribution made by the agricultural sector. Presently, the agricultural sector as a whole accounts for 20.5% of the GDP. In spite of the fact that the natural forest cover has dwindled, the extent of protected areas as well as plantation forests has increased steadily.    Although there are many historical references to wildlife refuges or sanctuaries from the early monarchial period, evidence of forest plantations is less clear. Sri Lanka has had a long history of various forms of forestry practices, from social forestry and agro-forestry practices to natural forest and plantation silviculture, since the time of King Vijaya’s period (543 BC), according to rock inscriptions and chronicles such as the Mdhawansa, the Rop’amtnacan’, and the Ray’avadya (Lankath, 2022).

Sri Lanka is an island with 65,610 square km land area and blessed with a rich biodiversity. Due to its tropical climate, it is the house for over twenty million people and a rich array of flora and fauna. In the beginning of the last century, Eighty percent of the total land area of Sri Lanka was covered with closed-canopy natural forests. However, it has reduced alarmingly over last few decades due to numerous reasons. At the early stage of the decrease, forests have been lost due to the spread of plantation agriculture introduced by the British administration. In the twentieth century, rate of deforestation increased with the expansion of informal settlements due to population growth, national development projects and planned settlement programs of the government and land encroachments. Due to large-scale plantation and excessive harvesting of timber, at present only 25% – 30% of the total land area is covered by natural forests (Roosevelt, n.d.).

Our island, which was prosperous in the past, is going into the abyss day by day as a result of human activities. It is a sad state of affairs that our oasis, which is not short of natural beauty, forests and wildlife, is being destroyed. In 2004, Sri Lanka Forest Department maintained 93,000 ha of plantations in the entire Island.  Forest plantations in Sri Lanka have mainly been established using exotic species due to their faster growth rates over the indigenous species. Although the history of introducing exotic timber species goes back to 1870s, most of the planting has taken place since the 1950s. The idea of this exercise was to have an alternative timber resource to protect the existing natural forest cover and to rehabilitate the environmentally damaged areas within a short period of time.

At the beginning of the last century, Sri Lanka was a country rich in closed canopy natural forests covering about 80% of the total land area. However, it has been reduced by more than 20% so far, which has increased the awareness of the concerned authorities and the public. As forests, organized assemblages of trees, other plants, and animals, are intricately related to each other and to their physical environment, reduction of forest cover has directly and indirectly affected other sub-sectors such as agriculture, timber industry, wildlife. The importance of coverage in terms of its contribution to the national economy is not clearly recognized. In 1993 it was calculated at 1.4% of GDP. The sector has an estimated 170,000 jobs. However, the actual contribution to the economy may be much higher than the above figure, as forest use for timber and non-timber products (both goods and services) has been difficult to assess at the rural or regional level (Subasinghe, 2007a).

It is no secret even to the international community that our forest system is equipped with a unique biodiversity, consisting of highly valuable tree and animal species. Foreign tourists spend a lot of money to visit this country to experience the natural beauty. But it is really sad that we Sri Lankans have no sense of value about the resources available in our country.

The complexity of environmental problems and the growing anthropogenic pressure on natural resources and the environment have driven the global community to explore market-driven voluntary systematic environmental governance mechanisms and reward sustainable practices in global economic and trade policies. Among such mechanisms, the concept of “eco-labeling,” which promotes green consumerism and eco-friendly products, has gained popularity across supply chains in different sectors. In response to growing concerns over tropical deforestation, forest certification emerged in the 1990s as a novel non-state market-driven governance model to encourage sustainable forest management. Forest-based companies began to adopt sustainable forest management certification to address public concerns over perceived negative impacts created by this sector on the natural environment. Forest plantations have become an essential source of timber. Forest plantations managed by the Department of Forest Conservation, Sri Lanka comprise approximately 78,490 ha, with teak (Tectona grandis), eucalypts (Eucalyptus spp.), and mahogany (Swietenia spp.) being the dominant species (Perera et al., 2022).

Plantation forestry

Plantation forestry means growing trees, often just one type, in big, organized plantations for business reasons. The main aims are to make things like timber and wood products efficiently and in a way that’s good for the environment. In plantation forestry, trees are planted and taken care of in a planned way to get the best results, like making sure they grow evenly and can be used for different products. It helps meet the demand for wood and paper while also taking care of the land and nature.

At present, the most favorable species for plantation forestry are teak, eucalyptus, pine, acacias, and mahogany.  Although the primary aim of the establishment of forest plantations is to address timber and fuel wood demand, there are other benefits that might be similar to some of the benefits that are obtained from natural forests, as given below. However, the biodiversity and some of the environmental values cannot be met in the forest plantations especially managed for the timber production. These benefits are:

  • increase of wood production,
  • savings in government expenditure,
  • improvement of land use,
  • reduction of the pressure on natural forests,
  • reduction of timber imports,
  • increase of revenue for the state, and 
  • Increase of rural incomes and employment.

Forest plantations under state control will have to provide a reasonable return to society in order to mark them as true production forests, and as the minimum, the benefits accruing to society should not be lower than the costs. Tree growing has to provide higher return than agriculture before a farmer is interested in investing in it, because of the longer production period and greater risks involved.  The profitability of small scale plantations managed by farmers was assessed by assuming that the yields would be 20% less than in a large scale plantation. According to the financial analysis, small scale monoculture plantations would not be profitable for farmers. The real rates of return of all the selected species under normal site conditions were clearly below the indicative real rate of return (20%) that a farmer would acquire. However, the results do not mean that the small-scale forest plantations would not be established by the farmers under right conditions (Subasinghe, 2007b).

Challenges in plantation forestry

  1. Biodiversity Concerns: Plantation forests often lack the biodiversity found in natural forests, impacting ecosystems and wildlife.
  2. Soil and Water Impacts: Intensive cultivation in plantations can lead to soil erosion, degradation, and changes in water quality.
  3. Disease and Pest Management: Plantations may be susceptible to diseases and pests, requiring effective management practices to prevent outbreaks.
  4. Social and Economic Issues: Plantations can impact local communities, affecting their livelihoods, access to resources, and socio-economic conditions.
  5. Environmental Impact: Large-scale monoculture plantations may have adverse effects on the environment, contributing to deforestation and loss of native habitats.
  6. Land Use Conflicts: Plantations sometimes lead to conflicts over land use, especially in regions where local communities depend on forests for various purposes.
  7. Climate Change Risks: Changing climate conditions can affect the growth and health of plantation trees, impacting productivity and long-term sustainability.
  8. Market Challenges: Fluctuations in market demand and prices for wood products can pose economic challenges for plantation forestry.
  9. Policy and Regulatory Issues: Inconsistent or inadequate policies and regulations may hinder sustainable plantation management.
  10. Genetic Diversity: Emphasis on specific tree species in plantations can reduce genetic diversity, making forests more vulnerable to diseases and environmental changes.

Sri Lanka’s forestry sector encounters various challenges. These include the growing demand for land due to human needs and development projects, poor land use planning, a lack of effective environmental laws and policies, and the absence of an integrated conservation management approach. Pollution and human-wildlife conflict pose threats, and the spread of unknown invasive species is on the rise. The increasing density of the human population adds pressure to these challenges. Additionally, questions related to ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, and the sustainable use of biomass for materials and energy production further complicate the situation (Mattsson et al., 2012).

Existing planetary ecosystems may have a minimum threshold of coverage needed to support some level of human habitation. Often, foresters assume that the same silvicultural treatments that have been successful elsewhere or elsewhere can maintain an existing, desired type of cover. Of course, this may not be the case if the two stands are on significantly different site types or are caused by different constraints. One of the reasons for this change may be the understanding of environmental protection or the recognition of the importance of the need for standards such as forest certification. The certificate has been introduced to promote sustainable forest management while protecting existing biodiversity. However, medium and small companies may not be able to cover the cost of certification as there is currently no increase in the certified price for certified timber in the world market. Furthermore, under the current government policy, there is little opportunity to export Sri Lankan timber to countries interested in certified products. This means that these markets have to cover the cost of certification alone or five times more than other markets that do not. In addition to higher production costs for improved sustainable forest management, certification also incurs significant costs to growers (Subasinghe, 2007a).

Maintaining a successful plantation forestry system involves adopting sustainable practices such as responsible harvesting and reforestation. Biodiversity conservation, community engagement, and adherence to environmental regulations are crucial. Research and innovation, along with education initiatives, ensure informed decisions. Collaboration among stakeholders, economic diversification, and climate change resilience contribute to long-term success. Seeking certification and adhering to standards like FSC enhance market access. By balancing economic benefits, environmental conservation, and social well-being, plantation forestry can thrive and bring positive outcomes for all.

References

Lankath, C. (2022). (2022). Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka. Situation Report, 64(2), 177–186.

Mattsson, E., Persson, U. M., Ostwald, M., & Nissanka, S. P. (2012). REDD+ readiness implications for Sri Lanka in terms of reducing deforestation. Journal of Environmental Management, 100, 29–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2012.01.018

Perera, P., Rupasinghe, R. L., Weerasekera, D., Vlosky, R., & Bandara, R. (2022). Revisiting Forest Certification in Sri Lanka: The Forest Management and Export Wood-Based Manufacturing Sector Perspectives. Forests, 13(2), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3390/f13020179

Roosevelt, F. D. (n.d.). Challenges before forest conservation in Sri Lanka : comparatively analyzing the laws against illegal timber logging. 85–94.

Subasinghe, S. M. C. U. P. (2007a). Plantation Forestry in Sri Lanka : Challenges and Constraints. February, 1–9.

Subasinghe, S. M. C. U. P. (2007b). Plantation Forestry in Sri Lanka : Challenges and Constraints. February, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.2845.3762

Diluka Bandara
Diluka Bandara
senior student, Rajarata university of Sri Lanka

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