The importance of forests
Life on earth is impossible without trees. Besides proving shelter for wildlife and livelihoods for humans, it has a great impact for our survival. The ecosystem services provided by forests are critical to human welfare, as they provide sustainable livelihoods for people in many ways starting from the air we breathe to the wood we use. Forests protect watersheds and contribute to freshwater supplies by filtering and regulating water, act as a storehouse for carbon, help save energy by cooling the air, prevent soil erosion, mitigate climate change, act as an air filter and remove harmful pollutants in the air and particulates, reduce noise pollution by being a shield for homes from roads and industrial areas, serve as a buffer in natural disasters like floods, provide energy through fire-wood, provide food and medicine for local populations and animals, help to maintain and increase biodiversity, generate tourism and build economies, encourage active and healthy lifestyles by preventing diseases and improving mental health, and also provide a place for people to socialize.
At present, about 1.6 billion of the world’s population depend on forests mainly for food, firewood, fiber, water and medicine. Despite our dependence on forests, people allow them to slowly disappear by chopping down and destroying millions of hectares of forests every year. Although, 80% of the terrestrial biodiversity lives in forests, many species go extinct as a result of the forests being destroyed. Deforestation occurs at a rapid rate particularly undermining the tropical rainforest resources and create huge environmental degradation that has resulted in 12-18% of world’s carbon emissions and accelerated global warming. Therefore, the health of the forests urgently demands our attention and action.
History of forests and nature conservation in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s heritage of fauna and flora protection runs as far back as 2200 years when the first (fauna & flora) wildlife sanctuary in the world was created at Mihintale, 12 km east of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura by King Devanampiya Tissa (307-266 BC); long before Chief Seattle the Native American Chief made his statement about humans living in harmony with nature and land.
After the British invasion, number of efforts have been taken for conservation and management of forest resources in Sri Lanka. The major intervention was enforcing the Forest Ordinance in 1885, and Fauna and Flora ordinance in 1937 for protection of fauna and flora as well as other natural resources in Sri Lanka. Understanding the importance of island’s natural forests, the British’s took further step by establishing the Forest Department in 1877 as a sole governing body for managing forest resources in Sri Lanka. In 1947 the Department of Wild Life Conservation was established to manage the forest areas which are essential for Wild Life conservation and tourism.
In 1881, the forest cover in Sri Lanka was 71% and the human population was 3.5 million. In 1956 the forest cover diminished to 44%, in 1992 to 33%, and then recorded as 29.7% at the last forest cover assessment carried out in 2015. Increasing human population pressure, large scale agricultural and irrigation development projects, and roads and urban development programs have resulted in the sharp reduction of forest cover in Sri Lanka.
About 1200 years ago during the era of the kings, the popular concept was “Reservoir- Pagoda-Cropping land” (Wava-Dagaba-Ketha), where land areas were set aside and defined for specific purposes such as water catchment, agriculture, settlement, development etc. Later with the population expansion and development, these land use patterns were changed and a complex situation was created. As such, essentially a more comprehensive and integrated planning is important for development in areas especially where the country’s priority protected areas are located.
Harmony with nature is no more
There is no separation between man and nature; most indigenous people are still intimately connected with nature and have a deep spirituality linked to nature. The beliefs and traditions of many of these tribes encourage the view that humans are part of the natural world, rather than its masters. But, the ecological relationship and harmony with nature has gradually been declined over the generations with the emergence of many great civilizations.
Since the industrial revolution which brought in the open economic concept nature has been treated only as a commodity that exists for the benefit of people, and no proper economic valuation is being done on natural resources. The development of mankind has intertwined with nature and the rapid expansion of the consumer society has made the humankind the dominant invasive species. With development, competition and the rise of economies and trade, nature is seen only as natural resources to be exploited; and Earth’s finite natural resources and the environmental issues created by mankind were considered as resolvable through technology. Therefore, people no longer live in nature but with the environment, because human activities have modified and constructed the landscapes and urban areas. As the Earth and its ecosystems are common to every species, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature in order to achieve a balance among the economic social and environmental needs of present and future generations. If not; by affecting nature humankind will be forced to repent for generations.
“Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
According to the United Nations, half of humanity (around 3.5 billion people) live in cities today. By 2030, almost 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, and 95% of urban expansion in the next decades will take place in the developing world. The world’s cities occupy just 3% of the Earth’s land but account for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. Rapid urbanization is exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment, and public health. Therefore, sustainable development has become a difficult concept because our society still lacks to value the natural environment, forests, and animal lives in a broader sense; and has become a far from value-free term that bridges the gap between developers and environmentalists.
Urbanization continue to expand their share of the growing population and economic wealth, their environmental impacts, and changes to the functions of local ecosystems. As a result, sustainable development and environmental changes have increased rapidly in the recent years, and environmental concerns have entered a new era in terms of scope and scale of problems associated with human activity.
International Day of Forests 2018 – Key message
On 28th of November, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21st of March as the “International Day of Forests” to raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests for the benefit of current and future generations. Highlighting the importance of forests, trees and greenery in urban areas, this year the International Day of Forests will address the theme “Forests for sustainable cities”.
Why we need sustainable cities?
Although cities hold the promise of a better future, urbanization in developing countries has become a crucial feature of the 21st century because many of these cities do not meet up to expectations. Unplanned development led construction and urbanization could face a number of problems and questions such as unplanned settlements, traffic congestion, increased waste resources, weakened social control and discipline, limited social services such as housing, water supply, sanitation, education, and medical facilities, create chaos in land-use patterns and contribute to environmental challenges such as natural disasters, climate change, and pollution. It is predicted that the built-up urban area in developing countries is projected to triple between 2000 and 2030; hence, unless we find effective ways to combat these issues the dream of a resilient future for our cities will remain deceptive from functional and social to ecological. As such cities should plan for climate resilient urban infrastructure and better land use planning.
Sustainable city or eco-city is a city designed with consideration for social, economic, environmental impact, and resilient habitat for existing populations without compromising the ability of future generations to experience the same. Well-designed and well-managed areas are environmentally simulating and reduce pressure on lands; hence planning integrated with nature can save both resources and allow the inhabitants to enjoy the environment. Therefore, urban development should aim to produce cities comprising of urban forests that are user-friendly and resourceful, not only of its form and energy efficiency but also its function as a place for living.
Urban Forests for sustainable cities
Urban environments are more heterogeneous, more complex, more fragmented and are subjected to strong human influence. The rapid worldwide urbanization of the human population raises concerns about the sustainability of cities. Drawing the attention on the need to focus efforts towards a resilient, sustainable and equal development of urban regions, many communities and governments are investing in the protection and restoration of urban forests, trees and green areas to the creation of a healthy and resilient environment.
An urban forest is a forest or a collection of trees that grow within a city, town or suburb. It may come in many different shapes and sizes, and broadly include urban parks, street trees, woodlots, landscaped pathways, public gardens, river and coastal paths, greenways, orchards, river corridors, wetlands, nature preserves, natural areas, shelter belts of trees, and working trees at former industrial sites. Urban forestry initiatives have seen a noteworthy level of evolution in Europe and USA. Frankfurt, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Berlin, Seoul, Hong Kong, Madrid, and Singapore are ranked among the first ten sustainable cities in the world (National Geographic). China is quite advanced in urban forestry and has been investing a lot in this area by launching national forest city schemes.
Well-designed and well-managed urban forests can significantly contribute to the livelihood and health of urban communities by providing ecosystem services, products and public benefits. These planned green spaces form green infrastructure for the communities, and add form, structure, beauty and breathing room to urban design, reduce noise, separate incompatible uses, provide spaces for recreation, strengthen social cohesion, leverage community revitalization, add economic value to our communities, and also can be expanded from the neighborhoods to regional landscapes. These forests are dynamic ecosystems that provide compulsory environmental services by cleaning the air and water, helping to control floods, minimize dust pollution, and conserve energy. Urban forests raise the quality of life for people, and their success could be inspired by other cities too.
Urban forestry is a challenge and not the same approach will fit all, therefore, each country will have to find its own path. Therefore, people should recognize that trees are not just beautiful shade providers, but are essential elements for survival. People should also understand that investing in and maintaining urban forests is beneficial because healthy urban forests’ can be enjoyed by generations.
“Forests for sustainable cities” and ESCAMP
While the debate on sustainable cities continues; there is so much to do to protect and restore the forests to ensure the long term health of life on the planet and its inhabitants. In relation to this years’ theme – ‘’Forests for Sustainable Cities’’ – the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) implemented by the Forest Department, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation, addresses some of these issues in our country, mainly through its component on “Pilot Landscape Planning and Management”. The goal of ESCAMP is to inspire and advance the conservation and management of ecosystems in Sri Lanka and help people – to better understand the value of forests in their surroundings, to their own lives, health, economies and well-being of their communities by protecting and expanding ecosystems, managing forests through reforestation, and increasing the understanding of the importance of forests. The values of ESCAMP are to design with nature and culture, use a decision-making hierarchy for preservation, conservation, provide regenerative systems, support a living process, use a collaborative and ethical approach, and foster environmental stewardship.
This component has planned to recover hundreds of acres of forests and wildlife habitats, safeguard watersheds, and protect some of the most stunning landscapes in Sri Lanka. ESCAMP influence combined efforts by working with a wide variety of stakeholders to develop strategic conservation landscape plans for the project’s selected landscapes to achieve the objective of the project and to transform unprofitable, underutilized land into a valuable resource. This approach will help to reach decisions about major development interventions such as road and infrastructure projects, facilitate planning, negotiation, and implementation of activities across a whole landscape dominated by conservation areas. ESCAMP is planned to replace top-down planning with bottom-up participatory approaches. The landscape approach involves: defining opportunities and constraints for conservation action within the landscape, establishing effective ecological networks, securing the integrity of ecosystems and viable populations of species, developing rapid assessment systems for landscape scale forest quality including the identification of high conservation value forests, setting out a stakeholder negotiation framework for land and resource uses decisions, recognizing and using overlapping cultural, social, and governance landscapes within biologically defined areas. These strategic conservation landscape plans developed under ESCAMP will be used to influence the national planning agencies and other stakeholders in the creation of green infrastructure that would be compatible with the surrounding ecosystems.
Although we have formed an International Day of Forests and heading towards progress, it is essential to know that trees don’t grow up overnight, and there is still a long way to go. One tree at a time, one species at a time, one ecosystem at a time, and every positive action we take is a step toward healing our planet. By caring for nature, we care for ourselves, therefore, protecting the trees on our planet should be a real priority for all of us, since a little care could go a long way.
ESCAMP wishes all Sri Lankans a Happy Day of Forests!