The fact that Sinharaja forest reserve is a precious gift to us from the nature is nothing new.
It is an ever green forest located in the wet zone of the country, stretching across the districts of Galle, Matara and Ratnapura with an extent of approximately 1185 hectares.
Considering its importance as a catchment area, its bio diversitical, socio economic importance and the immense contribution made to the environmental system of the country, as per the recommendations of the department of forest conservation, it was declared as an International man and biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1978 and subsequently, considering its significance to the nation/ national importance and its importance as a scarce natural resource, it was proclaimed as a national heritage in 1988. Additionally/ furthermore this has been declared as a forest reserve.
Taking all of the aforesaid factors in to account, a special management staff has been appointed for its proper management and safety. However, during the recent past, an incident which led to many controversies was the circulation of a news revealing the construction of a roadway dividing the sinharaja forest reserve.
Inaccurate news of such nature was an ideal illustration of how all popular newspapers are not a credible and accurate source of information at times.
As per, Mr. Dhammika Wattegama , The Forester of the Sinharaja forest reserve
“Initially it was told that Sinharaja would be divided, but nothing of such nature took place. What really transpired was the reparation/ reconstruction of a roadway which was in existence for over 50 years.
How did it happen, what is its history?”
Wood cutting and construction of roadways
When probing in to the history of Sinharaja forest reserve, it is revealed that an entrance has only been built in 1963. Entrance is from waddagala to Kudawa. Thereafter, the potential of the reserve to manufacture woods was examined and according to the information gathered from such study and through the recommendations made by UNDP/FAO in 1968, the capacity for selective felling was recognized and wood cutting was permitted by the Government at the time.
With the assistance of the Canadian Reid Collings Associate (Ltd), Plywood Corporation of Kosgama was established and to obtain the necessary wood for the corporation, an extent of 5000 hectares in the sinharaja forest reserve was allocated for felling.
In order to transport/ carry wood, trunks, timber jack, trucks, backhoe and bulldozers were used and roads with a width of 12-15 inches were built to meet the transportation purposes. This led to a colossal environmental damage and due to the public dismay during the time, wood felling was permanently put to an end/ halted. However during the period of 1971 to 1978, wood felling was carried out in an area of approximately 2500 hectares.
The wide roadway systems seen today in Kudawa, Wathurawa and Dorana Ela were all constructed to transport wood.
No such novel roadway has been recently built and only a renovation of waturawa- dorana canal system, (the roadway used by the visitors of Sinharaja rainforest) which was severely affected/ destroyed by the landslides and heavy rainfalls of 2017 had been carried out.
There is also a reason behind this.
One of the objectives of UNESCO world heritage programme as well as the man and protection Bio Diversitical sphere programmes was facilitating environmental education and experiments, maintaining the reserve to optimize the services and benefits given by it.
Waturawa- dolana stream way/ canal system (1.5km) is the entrance to sinharaja forest reserve and over 100,000 locals and foreign individuals visit sinharaja by making use of this roadway.
This roadway is located outside the world heritage, the renowned Sinharaja forest reserve. Moreover, this road way was severely damaged due to reasons such as ….., landslides, falling of trees and obstructions and to mitigate the effect of such damages, sidewalls and drainage systems were built and repaired.
In order to carry out these repairs, necessary funding was granted by the programme for the management of environmental systems (WB) and, a contract service chosen by the department of forest conservation had carried out all such repairs.
Mr. Dhammika Wattegama, the forester of the Sinharaja ,expresses his opinon on this as follows,
“When it is raining, the reserves receives a rainfall of over 50 mm, Sometimes that escalates to almost 200-300mm. Due to this heavy rainfall, pits of about 4,5 inches could be seen in the road. It is not only this road, but this rainfall floods even the roadway used by the locals of the area to come to the village.
During this period, there is almost zero travelling facilities and because of these reasons, a dire need to rebuild this road was definitely with us and was not with some who yelled from Colombo. There are no means to direct foreigners to obtain immediate treatments in the event they meet accidents or are injured. Locals are compelled to carry them on their back for a very long distance. We have been relentlessly requesting the authorities to at least construct a roadway that would allow those who come by wheelchairs and clutches to at least reach the main security point from the entrance.
Since, we believe that even such short distance would be an opportunity for them to experience and enjoy the nature.”
Mitigating environmental damage
Accordingly, conservation and management of environmental system project took steps to meet these demands and thereby took measures to mitigate the effect of environmental damages.
A separate individual was appointed to execute duties and responsibilities of supervision. Using small vehicles to transport wood, conducting the activities under a minimal emission of sound, preventing the storage of garbage, keeping land excavations at a minimum were some of the chief measures undertaken under the project.
Therefore, the wide publicity given by all media during the past days, stating that a new entrance has been built across the Sinharaja forest is a complete falsehood.
However would there ever be a smoke without a fire? It was not as if there were no other determining factors which led to such false information receiving popularity and attention.
Following is what Mr. Dhammika Wattegama had to say,
In addition to this road which was repaired, we had requested for the construction of our forest roadway, which was spanning across the village bordering on the Sinharaja reserve.
But villagers only reside over a one kilometer distance in that road, beyond that, one side of the road is bordered by Sinharaja and the other side is covered by private lands.
Thus there are several lopes on those private lands. Although lope owners and several who were depending on the same wanted to construct this road anew, our attention towards such construction was drawn only up to one kilometer.
Since these individuals did not have any means or support to construct the roadway, particularly from this government, this had to be done through the sponsorship of the project.
Except for this roadway which consists of our focal check point, there are a number of roadways and places to enter Sinharaja avoiding the check points. Lope owners around the area usually win the hearts of visitors by showing them short cuts instead of the formal roadway/ official roadway.
There have also been instances where rare insect and plant species were unlawfully stolen by creeping in to Sinharaja from those precarious places. Just as I undertook my job here, I managed to catch and take legal measures against a foreigner who was attempting to steal buttrerflies from the reserve.
He was a Zech national and a fine of Rs. 1,800, 000 was imposed on him. Once this road is built and a check point is placed in the outside forest road, it will be difficult for them to depend on the forest for such unlawful means.
Instead of this road, if the other road was built, it will be easy for them to continue with their illegal activities. This was the reason as to why a wrong image about this road was fabricated through the acquaintances of the media thereby instigating the public. Some of our tourist guides also assisted to this process and that was solely for their personal gain. What we have instructed them is to teach the tourists as much as they can of the flora and fauna of the forest. However during the period where a large number of tourists visit the reserve, some tour guides rush in their attempts to take new batches of tourists by accompanying the tourists only up to a short distance and letting them observe insects and birds only for a short period.
Due to this sole reason, no attempts are made to accompany them to the surroundings of the newly repaired areas where most of such insects are found.
Many who speculated and were afraid that they would miss opportunities to put in less effort and earn more instead of vice versa, fell in to this trap and backed such false broadcasts and publicity.
Nevertheless this incident is now a part of history. The Sinharaja forest reserve belongs to the future as well.