President Maithripala Sirisena at a recent event had called for increased timber imports to protect Sri Lankan forests from being stripped for the construction industry. However, such a measure would have multiple repercussions, including but not limited to, raising construction costs, affecting tropical forests in other countries and having little impact on sustainably managing Sri Lanka’s timber trade.
International trade in wood and wood products affects forest stocks around the world. This is why some wealthier nations with low population density can maintain forest areas while exporting wood; but other, usually poorer, nations, are losing forests through domestic and global demand for wood.
Most societies have converted natural forests to agricultural land and urban areas and exploited forests or timber resources. As income levels rise some areas become much more intensively farmed. Since intensive agricultural practices can reduce the demand for additional agricultural land, forests can recover: a process called ‘forest transition’. Wealthier countries with high population densities tend to import forest products while maintaining stable forest cover. Therefore improving productivity in Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector is a key dimension of protecting its forests.
While imports can reduce demand for domestic wood and allow local recovery of forests it would have limited impact by itself, especially considering that Sri Lanka’s economy is already an import dependent one with chronic trade deficits and balance of payment crisis every few years. Therefore the government would need a multipronged strategy that could include efforts to make use of products other than wood; to manage, conserve and increase green areas by protecting forests in representative ecological systems, landscapes and primary forests; and to promote appropriate forestry legislation and urban forestry.
The State would also have to improve evaluation and observation mechanisms that help to detect changes in forest cover, the total area of forest land and levels of exploitation. One effort that has already been made by the private sector is to promote small-scale forest-based enterprises. But a larger effort is needed to formulate methods that would take into account the social, economic and environmental values of forests - analyzing the supply and demand of goods and services in an integrated manner, and not only considering timber resources. Essentially the government would have to develop criteria and indicators for sustainable management of forests.
Community forestry is another significant initiative to manage forest resources in a sustainable manner. Community forestry management systems promote; alternative livelihoods, collaborative management of specific forest areas to control illegal extraction of. It also promotes improving home gardens to provide a source of timber, materials for stakes and trellises, and fire wood that are easier to collect and helps avoid forest degradation and the development of woodlots. In this initiative, the forest land is owned by the state and its representative the department of forestry while the management rights are given to the people. Therefore, compared to an open access regime, this will help monitor the use of forests resources by the regulating authority.
Effectively managing Sri Lanka’s demand for timber is a critical need for environment protection but, as with everything, it starts with consistently implemented progressive policy and not knee-jerk decisions.