Climate change, attitude unchanged 

While Sri Lanka is dealing with several ongoing challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and teacher-principal protests and schools reopening, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is currently attending the 2021 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, or COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland, discussing a much severe global and national level crisis, i.e. exacerbating climate change, and Sri Lanka’s plans to curtail environmental degradation and strengthen local mechanisms for the same purpose. 

At the COP26 climate summit, more than 100 world leaders vowed to end and revise deforestation by 2030, and this initiative includes around $ 19.2 billion of funds from the public and private sectors. However, this pledge comes in a context where the previous agreement regarding the same, according to the experts, has failed to curtail deforestation, and in a context where deforestation continues to lead to a plethora of other environmental issues, leaders failing to keep up with their promises is concerning. 

Sri Lankan Governments have always done more talking than taking action when it comes to protecting the environment and bringing those destroying the environment to the book, and the past few years, according to environmentalists, have seen millions of acres being cleared for agricultural and development activities in almost all areas of the country. 

According to the Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online platform providing near real time data for monitoring forests, in 2010, Sri Lanka had 3.53 million hectares (ha) of natural forest, extending to over 54% of the land area. The GFW also notes that from 2002 to 2019, Sri Lanka had lost 9.91 kilo (kg) ha of humid primary forest, making up 5.7% of its total tree cover loss in the same time period, and that the total area of humid primary forest in Sri Lanka had decreased by 1.7% in this time period. From 2001 to 2019, Sri Lanka had lost 177 kg ha of tree cover, equivalent to a 4.5% decrease in the tree cover since 2000, and 46.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, according to the GFW. 

The current Government, like almost every Government that came to power before it, has promised to address deforestation, one of the leading reasons, if not the main one, leading to climate change, and recently, the President had instructed the local authorities to take sustainable measures to protect the decreasing forest cover. Also, during the tenure of former President Maithripala Sirisena, there were discussions about reducing deforestation, and at the same time, increasing Sri Lanka’s dwindling forest cover. Even though the degree to which his plans succeeded is questionable, he had vowed to increase the country’s forest cover to 32%, from 29% in 2015. 

Anybody would tell you that environmentalists and the Government going after multinational firms and businessmen engaged in deforestation is the way to put an end to this national level menace that could risk the wellbeing of generations to come. Even though that is a priority, we tend to conveniently forget and ignore that small-scale deforestation is also prevalent, and also amounts to acts that contribute to the larger issue of the plummeting forest cover. Small-scale development projects and non-commercial human activities that involve cutting down trees that are not going to be planted again, is a threat that receives less attention. The bigger issue here is that owing to the lack of attention paid to such small-scale deforestation activities, there is no way to gauge or monitor the level of harm such activities cause when taken as a whole, and in turn, it results in a lack of action to address the same. 

Therefore, advocating for the introduction, strengthening of and putting into action national policies and the existing laws is not sufficient to deal with tree felling, and therefore the way we look at this issue also needs to change. Due to the reality that monitoring small-scale deforestation that is taking place in every forest or land is not practical, raising awareness among the people to fulfil their needs with the least possible felling, should be a priority, and a part of national environmental policies and environmental protection efforts. These efforts should certainly include reforestation as well. 

If each person on earth cuts down one tree, that would amount to over seven billion trees lost. Unless and until the Government educates the people about this reality, while we are chasing big companies cutting down trees in and near protected areas, we will also be losing trees in unprotected areas right under our nose.