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MONLAR: SL has lost million hectares of forest cover since 1960



Sajeewa Chamikara

Tea plantations biggest culprit

BY Rathindra Kuruwita

Sri Lanka has lost about 947,370 hectares of forest between 1960 and 2010, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) says.

The last survey on forests was carried out in 2010 by the Forest Conservation Department. By 2010 the forest cover had shrunk to 29.7 percent or 1, 951, 472 hectares.

Between 1992 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost 16, 922 hectares of forests in the wet-zone. Since then, the forests in the wet-zone had further dwindled due to the expansion of tea cultivation, Chamikara said yesterday.

“Tea plantations that lead to the destruction of rainforests can be considered green deserts. Biodiversity on these plantations is low. Tea planters use a lot of toxic agrochemicals. There are no plant layers. Thus, these lands lose most of their biodiversity and become deserts for all practical purposes, despite being green,” he said.

Chamikara said the British had cleared up vast extents of forest lands on mountains and rid those areas of elephants. By 1860, Sri Lanka was among the top producers of coffee. By 1870, coffee plantations covered 275,000 acres. However, soon afterwards, coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease, Hemileia vastatrix, also known as coffee leaf rust.

Chamikara said that while tea used to be a major foreign exchange earner, the situation had changed. The yield of most large-scale tea estates was dwindling rapidly due to soil degradation and unsustainable cultivation practices.

“We have several institutions that have been established to develop tea. However, they believe we are still living in the late 19th century, when we had plenty of virgin land, cheap labour and there was no stiff competition,” Chamikara said.

Meanwhile, Ramesh Pathirana, Minister of Plantation Industries and Minister of Industries, said that there had been reports of illegal expansion of tea plantations into forests. However, it was not the policy of his Ministry to encourage such practices and the Forest Department must take immediate action against those who carried out such illegal activities.

Minister Pathirana added that the industry also needed to be more sustainable and tea smallholders were already interested in multi-cropping and that the Ministry had spoken to all stakeholders about improving sustainability.

“Now, we can’t push businesses to shift to agroforestry or multi-cropping. But environmentalists and environmental-minded planters can work together, create better systems and then everyone will follow,” he said.

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