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Sri Lanka

Action needed to protect Sri Lanka's rainforest

Development scandal casts the spotlight on Sinharaja Forest

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Updated: September 11, 2020 10:33 AM GMT
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Action needed to protect Sri Lanka's rainforest

Sinharaja Forest has a rich and unique plant and animal life. (Photo: Facebook)

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Environmental activist Nisantha Gajasinghe says Sinharaja Forest is home to flora and fauna unique to Sri Lanka.

The forest system has been instrumental in Sri Lanka being named among the 34 highest biodiversity hotspots in the world. Over 340 species of woody plants are found in Sinharaja, 192 of which are native to the island.

Unesco declared Sinharaja a World Heritage Site in 1989 on account of its rich and unique plant and animal life.

Gajasinghe said Sinharaja has now become a hot topic, with steps being taken to widen the road leading to nearby Lankagama.

Environmentalists warn that the widening of the road through Sinharaja and some illogical constructions will have a long-term impact on the forest. They say procedures followed in developing the road did not follow an environmental assessment report and fall outside the legal framework.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who visited Sinharaja recently, said the road will be developed in a manner that does not harm the environment.

Gajasinghe said this tropical wet evergreen forest system is of considerable ecological, biological, hydrological and geological value.

"Due to the invaluable worth of this forest system, it has been a no man's land since ancient times," he said.

Dozens of unique species have been identified by researchers, including 15 flowering plant species, 25 animal species, 11 reptile species, nine freshwater crab species and three spider species.

Sajeewa Chamikara, director of the Environmental Conservation Trust, said of the 926 endemic flowering plant species in the country, 495 are recorded from Sinharaja forest.

According to the 2012 Red Data List, nine amphibians in the Sinharaja site are endangered.

"The road construction will be developed 1,300 meters along three locations in the national heritage site. According to the National Heritage Forest Act, all activities such as deforestation, clearing of new forests and construction of roads in national heritage sites are prohibited," said Chamikara.

"It is the duty of the citizens of the country to intervene to protect the site, which is the unique rainforest system of Sri Lanka of incalculable value."

Gampaha Forest Officer Devani Jayatilleke said she is ready to hand over her land to villagers in Lankagama and release the land to Sinharaja Forest.

Christian newspaper Kithusara and the Jesus Today news website said Pope Francis has pointed out that destroying rainforests is a sin.

"What has happened now is that the story about the destruction of Sinharaja and Sajeewa Chamikara’s story about a hotel have come to light. It is the will of the rulers," said Kithusara.

"Needless to say, every action that destroys nature is followed by a lucrative business desire. It does not matter who owns it.

"Targeting individuals instead of the real problem is always misleading. Compensation has long been used to discourage those who work to protect the environment and rights of the people. What a religious patriot should do is not demand compensation but oppose destruction." 

Yoshitha Rajapaksa, son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, sent a letter to Chamikara, director of the Environmental Conservation Trust, seeking compensation of 500 million rupees within seven days.

Chamikara reportedly told the media that a hotel belonging to Yoshitha Rajapaksa was built in the forest and a road is being developed to access the hotel. He said the road in dispute not only gives access to the villages but also serves certain commercial entities.

Chamikara said he simply referred to the "Hotel of Mr. Yoshitha Rajapaksa," the term commonly used by locals to describe the hotel. He said that he did not mention anything relating to Yoshitha Rajapaksa, second son of the prime minister.

Father Reid Shelton Fernando, a prominent human rights advocate, said the Church is equipped with Laudato Si' and the post-Amazon Synod exhortation to protect the environment.

"The pope always empowers Catholics to fight and take action on environmental protection," said Father Fernando.

"It is to the duty of Christians to act against the destruction of nature and support people like Chamikara who are committed to protecting the environment including rainforests.

"Rulers are the custodians of this country, not the owners. That is something the rulers must remember. It is the duty of the rulers to protect the heritage of future children." 

Activist Gajasinghe said rainforests, waterfalls and animals are not for business purposes and, without all these, people would never be able to survive.

"Sinharaja Forest is a World Heritage Site and it should be protected for our future generations. If not, it will be a loss to our children," he said.

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