Missing the wood for the trees


The condition referred to in the idiom quoted as my title is endemic in Sri Lanka. The idiom is applicable both metaphorically and literally. Many are guilty; the majority through foolishness or carelessness, but some deliberately and continue blundering on.

It does not seem necessary to unravel the idiom and explain its validity to the Sri Lankan scene, but I shall do so. Literarily it means that one is blind to the woods or forest by seeing and concentrating only on individual trees. And thus the metaphorical meaning that people are so involved in the details of something that they do not understand or pay attention to the most important parts of it, or the whole. We definitely are a nation that often bothers much about the nitty gritties, not seeing more of the issue, if not as a whole.

Why the choice of this idiom as introduction to my worried thoughts about trees and timber this Sunday morning? Reasons are twofold. One it’s Poson Poya. Apt for Buddhists as the Buddha was the first and greatest environmentalist, even choosing the out-of-doors and under trees to be born, gain full knowledge and die. Relevant to us in Sri Lanka because Mahinda Thera, arriving with his father Emperor Asoka’s blessings, bearing the Buddha’s Dhamma, met the king of Lanka in a forest and tested the king’s intelligence by questions based on mango trees around the Mihintale of then. The second reason for the choice of this topic based on the idiom is that we have had a glaring, staring, stunning missing the wood for the trees both in the literal and metaphorical sense by the highest in the land.

The President and the

timber tussle

The President at a public environmental meeting announced he was very concerned about the environment. Most commendable and praise worthy. He was concerned about deforestation, supposedly the worst form of abuse of our environment. Absolutely correct and again commendable. But then he says, calling for a crocodile tear from listeners - both present and TV viewers - that a peasant advised him to stop felling of trees and thus he, the President, took it upon himself to listen to the simple man. OK. But where oh where are the many advisors to the Prez we citizens pay for? The President went further, or to use common lingo, the whole hog and pronounced the banning of chainsaws and carpentry. Ban chainsaws – good. But ban carpentry? A wail of protest from sensible persons, protest marches from carpenters and near violence in Moratuwa ensued.

Use of timber a cultural


Timber has been one of the countries arteries in its life blood. In ancient times, particularly during the era of the Kandyan Kingdom, wood was extensively used. To quote from Tradition adapts to Modernity by N P Wanasundera : "Monumental and period buildings are predominantly timber constructions and the excellence of timber architecture in Sri Lanka is well expressed in many historic monumental Kandy buildings… two storeyed shrine rooms, and also the wooden bridges … Gampola period (1341-1415 AD). The tradition of timber construction was developed and perfected for over two thousand years. It exhibits the contribution to the island’s culture by the genius of the ordinary and anonymous carpenters, joiners and wood carvers during the medieval period."

These carpenters still produce superb furniture if not buildings and it’s a cultural tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation for near two millennia. How can one man, nay how dare one man, with a sword or madu valige, clothed in temporary, even ephemeral power, decapitate carpenters? This also because there are so many other more practical and even effective ways of saving trees.

Stop illicit deforestation,

and reforest

First and foremost - stop illicit logging which many say are directed by politicians who earn black money from this near criminal act.

Second - control too wide habitation expansion encroaching on forests and thus cutting down of trees and causing elephant-human conflict too.

Punish severely those who are guilty of deforestation with the excuse people need houses. Plenty land available without encroaching on forests and cutting trees electrically in a couple of minutes that took a near hundred years to grow tall and strong and stately, contributing to rainfall and cleansing of the air.

Promote aggressively sustainable timber farming as a government priority.

Here I quote briefly facts garnered by Googling:

Forest coverage is now 29.9% or 1,933.,000 hectares while primary forests are 8.6% of this total – 1,933,000 ha.

Forest cover in the 1920s was 49%. Between 1995 and 2005, the depletion of forest coverage was 17.7%

"One of the main threats to the sustainability of Sri Lanka's forests is government development policies in relation to the demand for timber and fuel and also the need to create plantations to raise revenue. (However) The Sri Lankan government, working in conjunction with multi-national institutions, has seen a major change in timber harvesting in Sri Lanka for the cause of sustainable development. The harvesting, processing and the sale of wood products from state forests are conducted by the State Timber Corporation. In the 1980s the course progressed significantly with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funding the Community Forestry Project (CFP) which concentrated on the development of fuel-wood plantations and agro-forestry in 5 of the 25 districts of Sri Lanka. Other major sustainable forest plantation projects were also funded by IDA/World Bank, USAID and numerous integrated rural development projects operating in more than 10 districts of Sri Lanka.

"In 1995, the Sri Lankan government approved the National Forest Policy, with the specific focus on conservation and sustainability… advocates increased community involvement and unity in forest management, providing leases to the private sector to manage multiple use production forests. The scope of the policy includes the biophysical, environmental, socio- political and economic components of forestry in Sri Lanka. The policy has also identified the need for collaboration to make sustainable forest management a reality, and has guided the state sector, farmers, NGOs and small and medium scale commercial entrepreneurs towards community organization in protecting the forests whilst meeting wood, raw material and the bio-energy requirements."

That’s where the President must set his eyes and power on. What’s needed is in place; world bodies are assisting. Aggressively, policies of conservation, reforestation and cautious felling of trees must be implemented while seeing to people’s needs being met.

We expect the President will side step the issue, waffle what he said. But the carpenters have won the public’s sympathy and support. Their protest was justified.

The need that comes to


My first thought when listening to the determined voice of the president against carpentry was, my goodness! how about my coffin which has to be inflammable as I intend my remains to be cremated. I have wondered why only wood had to be used to make coffins which meant trees cut down. Never mind if funeral businesses grow the tress they fell. This most probably is not the case. So why not make that coffin for the last journey of hardboard or such like which is cheaper and much less needing timber. I was told it could not be. Googly ‘coffins’ I find that undertakers can use alternate materials.

"Raw materials used in casket making vary greatly. The Peace Box is made from card-board, and a deluxe coffin for a head of state may be made of solid bronze. Wooden caskets may be assembled from pine boards, or use an expensive hardwood such as cherry or mahogany. The most common American coffin is made from steel."

So hardboard is possible and cheap woods like pine which are grown extensively in hilly areas. Did the President want to ban timber use so people could use steel coffins? But they won’t burn on a wood pyre and will a gas crematorium do the job without mixing bones with melted metal!

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