Environment vs. development: It’s all about land

The question of how to develop Sri Lanka without obstructing our valuable environmental ecosystems has come to the forefront yet again.

The recent incidents surrounding the development of a road in the territory of the Sinharaja Rainforest, a World Heritage Site, is one prominent discussion.

The deforestation in Haputale for cardamom cultivation and the establishment of a prawn farm in Anawilundawa, a Ramsar wetland, also raised serious concerns among the general public and environmental activists, adding more fuel to the debate on development vs. environmental protection.

This debate has come to a point where questions are being asked on whether Sri Lanka can be developed without disrupting the environment, and whether environmental activism is hindering the development of the country.

This is not the first time this topic had taken centre stage. “Save Wilpattu”, the Mount Lavina beach expansion project, and the development of the Port City have been popular thematic stories over the years; the human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a continuous battle that gets primetime news coverage too.

What’s the real problem?

On the surface, it seems that all the incidents are a result of efforts to strike a balance between development and environment – which is true to an extent. However, if we dig a little deeper, in economic terms, it is a clear case of an attempt to maximise the utility of a scarce resource – “land”; at the same time, it is an issue of property rights.

And all that we’re seeing is an outcome of our inability to maximise the utility of land by improving productivity, alongside the absence of “property rights”.

Let me explain why and how.

Forests are sacrificed due to the absence of property rights

One of Sri Lanka’s most limited and precious resources is “land”; being a tiny island which is just a dot on the world map, land is not in abundance for us. Our size as a country is quite smaller than average cities or states in the rest of the world. Unlike other resources, land is fixed in size, and increasing the extent of land (similar to what was done with the Colombo Port City) is an extremely expensive affair, both monetarily and environmentally.

Sri Lanka’s total land extent is about 6.6 million hectares. Can you take a guess on the amount of land owned by the Government and the amount of land owned privately by its own Sri Lankan citizens?

Only about 18% (1.2 million hectares) of the land is owned privately by its citizens while about 82% (5.4 million hectares) of the total land is owned by the Government.

About 28% of our total land is forest cover, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the US). Out of this, about 573,400 hectares (2,214 sq. mi.) of land is categorised as “Protected Nature Reserves”.

So in reality, the Government owns about half of Sri Lanka’s land (more than 50%), and this can be used for economic activity and environmental purposes. We should not be misled into thinking that private land is owned by anyone else other than our fellow Sri Lankans. In other words, many Sri Lankans do not have the rights to their property; they do not have deed titles; many of our fellow Sri Lankans do not have access to land, and the limited access some Sri Lankans have to government land is on a license basis.

According to news reports, a Sri Lankan has to visit 20 institutions just to get clearance (not to obtain a deed title) on land for cultivation on a lease basis. They have to take a licence from the government office if they are to cultivate on land owned by the government; as they do not own it, they have no incentive to use it sustainably.

As a result of agriculture, illegal settlements, and economic activity, the borders of forest land have always been blurred. It has been reported that usually, surrounding villagers and elite businessmen who have political and influential power encroach forest land for commercial purposes. Information reported on deforestation and obstructions on environmental ecosystems make up just a fraction of the ground reality. This is because most illegal deforestation takes place in obscure locations close to forest cover, which is difficult to track.

Inability to maximise on lands and its utility

The inability to protect our land and forest cover is a completely internal issue and of course a political football pertaining to a very sensitive issue.

Whether we like it or not, the “market” works in good-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios. When Sri Lanka has a rising population with more households, and when people do not have land and property rights for agriculture or many more economic activities including housing and investments, what do you think would be the outcome if we fail to improve productive usage of land?

For example, if we fail to improve the productivity of land by constructing vertical buildings, what would the outcome be if all five million households expect to build houses on 10 to 20-perch plots of land?

The same applies to agricultural land, and this is one of the main contributory factors to deforestation across the globe.

According to the Economic Census in 2013/2014, about 2.2 million hectares were used for agriculture, an increase of 18% from 2002.

It is obvious that in order to feed our population and sustain economic activity, our land usage has increased. However, we need to focus on improving productivity and efficiency by utilising it effectively for agricultural purposes if we are serious about protecting our forest cover.

We have to move to high-yield varieties and vertical farming, and again, it boils down to accessing property rights if we were to increase the utility of land through investment. No person would invest in land they would not want to own.

Unfortunately, most of Sri Lanka’s land is dead capital. No one uses it and there is no economic activity. Now, Sri Lanka expects to be self-sufficient in paddy, milk, maize, and vegetables, and is aiming to supply the entire demand for rubber within the country. Sri Lanka is also aiming to expand coconut product exports by fewfold; where do we have the land to do all this? We need to take our land policy seriously or else we will put our forest cover into further risk.

President received firsthand information

The President received firsthand information on the gravity of the land issue. One of the main requests by the people or fellow Sri Lankans is for the Government to provide them with land.

His Excellency the President, in his policy statement, stated that land issues are one of his priority areas. Moreover, there were recent news reports on his directives to the relevant institutions to issue title deeds within three months which pertained to unresolved land issues.

Land issues are very sensitive, and all conspiracy theorists have a collective voice; they all suspect that foreigners and other parties may take over our land. However, since 1948, it’s been purely Sri Lankans who’ve owned the land. The responsibility cannot be passed on as it is our own leaders who control 82% of our land. (According to Sri Lanka’s regulations, there is minimal room for anyone who is not a legal citizen of Sri Lanka to buy land. Even the apartments and condominiums can be bought only if it’s above the fourth floor).

According to data, Sri Lanka lost about 490,000 hectares, or 20.9% of its forest cover, in just 20 years, from 1990 to 2010. If the majority of the land is governed by the State and if there is no room for any outsider to exploit our land, doesn’t this mean that we have really failed in our public policy and in understanding the economics of land management?

However, instead of looking inward, we have become masters of pointing fingers at outsiders and fearmongering to cover up our failure, and sadly, our forest cover has become the victim.

(The writer is the Chief Operating Officer of Advocata Institute. He can be contacted at Learn more about Advocata’s work at The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, or anyone affiliated with the institute)