Save Sri Lanka's Other State Forests (OSFs) & Cancel Government Circular No. 01 of 2020

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In his election manifesto, President Gotabaya Rajapaksha promised to increase the island’s forest cover up to 30%, but the recent decision to remove protection from Other State Forests (OSFs) has raised doubts as to whether they were false promises made to the public just to get elected.

On the 04th of November 2020, the Office of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Government of Sri Lanka, issued a Government Circular (No. 01 of 2020), scrapping/invalidating three previous Government Circulars (No. 05 of 1998, No. 05 of 2001 and No. 02 of 2006) which transferred control of the island's OSFs from both District and Divisional Secretariats under the Central Government to the Department of Forest Conservation. These initial Government Circulars were issued to prevent the bureaucratic misuse of these Other State Forests by District and Divisional Secretariats with the intention of preservation and sustainable utilisation of the island's OSFs. Transference of OSFs back to the control of District and Divisional Secretariats will result in catastrophic ecological, bureaucratic, financial and political penalties for the island due to the inability of these officials to effectively and scientifically understand the environmental and ecological significance of these forest lands. This endangers approximately 700,000 hectares of currently semi protected land. Criminal activities such as illegal deforestation, illicit land grabbing, unauthorised sand and precious gemstone mining, unlawful poaching and ecologically unsound biopiracy in these OSFs will go unchecked.

Even though the actual forest cover in Sri Lanka at the moment is not known, authorities seem to agree that the dense forest cover was around 20 to 21% in 2015 (UNREDD report, 2015). Analysts believe that as a result of the massive deforestation that happened since then, and is still happening now, the percentage of dense forests (which are the most precious type of forest that we have, including the very small primary forest percentage), must be around 16% to 17% now, or even lower. Improper use of Sri Lanka's OSFs will further reduce Sri Lanka’s total forest cover, which is already at a critical stage.

OSFs are critical havens for fragmented ecological diversity. While a number of endemic flora and fauna is found in these lands, they also act as wildlife/forest corridors for Elephants, Leopards and many other examples of wildlife to travel between Protected Areas. Destruction of these OSFs will increase the human-animal conflicts resulting in loss of precious lives, and economic damage. Additionally, OSFs in the Central Highlands act as vital water catchment zones for a large number of the island's 103 Rivers and associated River Basins. These forest lands contain various vegetation types that are critical ecosystems, which are the feeding grounds for large herds of Elephants, Water Buffalos, Sambar Deer, Wild Boar and many other animals who play vital roles in maintaining ecological balance of the island. Not to forget the six OSFs adjoining Sinharaja, rich in biodiversity with high endemism which will all be threatened due to this short-sighted decision.

It is also worth mentioning that out of the 62% of agricultural land of Sri Lanka’s total landmass, about quarter is being under utilised. Instead of making provisions to diminish more forest cover by deforesting OSFs, proper utilisation of existing, under utilised or degraded agricultural land will help us preserve the environment while uplifting the lives of the Sri Lankan people.

As citizens of Sri Lanka and the world who care about people and the planet, we kindly request Cabinet Ministry of Wildlife Resources and Forest Conservation, Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Lands to rescind Government Circular No. 01 of 2020 and the associated Government Circulars issued by the Department of Land Commissioner General and to fully reconstitute Government Circulars No. 05 of 1998, No. 05 of 2001 and No. 02 of 2006, with a new Government Circular.
Approximately 40% of the existing OSFs in Sri Lanka are also Proposed Protected Areas (PPAs), many of which have been awaiting official gazetting by the Department of Forest Conservation for over 40 years now! We also request that the Cabinet Ministry of Wildlife Resources and Forest Conservation to officially declare and legally gazette these Proposed Protected Areas.

The current attempts at short-term economic, agricultural, plantation and infrastructure development, place high risks on the ecological and economic future of the island. We urge the decision makers to look at sustainable solutions to uplift the country’s economy and not support the negative, politically-driven actions for the continued survival of Sri Lanka's Forests, Wildlife and People!

Signed:

1. Climate Action Now Sri Lanka (CANSL)

2. Extinction Rebellion Sri Lanka (XRLK)

3. Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka (RPSL)

4. Reforest Sri Lanka (RSL)

5. Protect Sri Lanka (PSL)

6. Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE)

7. Leopard Conservation Sri Lanka (LeopoConSL) 

8. Parrotfish Collective (PC) 

9. The Pearl Protectors (PP) 

10. Ananta Sustainables (AS)

11. Mindful Travels (MT)

12. EarthBeat 1.5° (EB)

13. Green Projects අපි (GP)