Assessment of forest resources of 1992 of Sri Lanka indicates that the total forest cover including forest plantations is around 32.2 percent of its total land area (6.616 million ha). The percentage of closed-canopy natural forest areas is 23.9 percent, sparse and open forests is about 7.0 percent, and that of the forest plantations is about 1.3 percent of total land area in Sri Lanka (Legg and Jwell, 1995). Rest of the land is under agriculture (about 35 %), Trees Outside Forests (about 24%), and other landuse (about 9%).
Mature and well-established forest plantations cover an area of about 72,340 ha (1.1 % of the total land area of the country). Out of this, about 15,600 ha is under Conifers, about 8,400 ha is under Eucalyptus, and about 33,000 ha is under Teak plantations. In addition to the above, fuelwood plantations have also been raised over about 13,000 ha.
Trees Outside Forests (TOF) cover a very large area (1.675 million ha. in Homegarden, Rubber and Coconut plantations, Four perennials (cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, and Palmyra), Tea estates, Roadsides and Settlements etc.) and make major contribution to wood and fuelwood supplies in Sri Lanka. International and national prices of rubber, coconut and tea and other produce directly impact the area under such crops and thus control area, age, planting and replanting of TOF.
Although, Sri Lanka is one of the geographically small countries in Asia yet, it supports the largest bio-diversity per unit area in its natural forests. The bio-diversity at ecosystem level in Sri Lanka has been well studied by different researchers. However, the biodiversity at species level has been less studied than at the ecosystem level. The species gradient of biodiversity declines from wet zone to dry zone with "natural tropical rain forest" possessing the maximum level of floral diversity.
Despite increasing population pressure, the Protected Area (PA) network has increased in number and extent at a fast rate during last two decades. About 13 conservation forests in the wet zone and the Knuckles conservation forest in the wet and intermediate zone have come under conservation. Currently PAs span over about 1,888,781 ha which is about 28.5% of the total area of the country.
The Forest Development (FD) manages about 56.5 percent of PA network and Department of Wildlife Conservation "DWLC" administers the remaining area under PAs (43.5 percent).
Population of Sri Lanka has grown from 2.4 million in 1946 to 18.5 million in 1997 but the rate of population growth is declining. The government is very optimistic about this decline in population growth rate and predicts a steady state (zero growth rate) in labor force from 2010 onwards. However, increase in population though at reduced rates is continually increasing pressure on limited and declining forest resources of Sri Lanka.
The most important change in agriculture after independence of Sri Lanka has been an increase in the production of rice due to increase in the productivity and the diversion of forest land for cultivation. The diversion of additional land to agriculture has adversely affected the forest cover. Similarly, the population of livestock, which is an integral part of Sri Lankan farming system, is increasing. If this trend continues for quite some time then it may endanger the sustainability of forest resources.
The main concerns for sustenance of natural forests in Sri Lanka include deforestation, fragmentation, land degradation, poaching of wildlife, coastal degradation and pollution. Sri Lanka has lost its closed canopy forest cover from about 84 percent in 1881 to about 23.9 percent in 1992 due to conversion of forests to other types of land use, such as human settlements, plantation crops, agriculture and shifting cultivation. During last ten years (1982-1992), thirteen districts (Ampara, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Batticaloa, Gampaha, Hambantota, Kandy, Kilinochchi, Kurunegala, Moneragala, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee and Vavuniya) have suffered loss of forest while the rest 10 districts (Colombo, Galle, Jaffna, Kalutara, Kegalle, Mannar, Matara, Mullaittivu, Puttalam, and Ratanpura districts) have shown some increase in the forest cover. Most of the remaining forests are dry monsoon forests, sparse forests and fragments of tropical rain forests.
Figure: Declining forest cover in Sri Lanka
A comparison between percentage change in tree cover under "homegardens" and "close forests" in different districts of Sri Lanka for the period between 1992 and 1983, drawn up with the help of coarse (3-meter) imagery, demonstrate a clear relationship between the extent of these two types of tree covers (homegardens and forests). This relationship indicates an increase in area of homegardens with decline in forest cover and decrease in homegardens with increase in forests cover. Detailed information on "other tree resources" is not available to estimate changes.
Sri Lanka currently enjoys almost self-sufficiency in meeting its domestic requirement of forest products except for plywood, paper and paperboards. The country roughly meets its domestic wood requirement mainly from Trees Outside Forest (TOF) and conserves its natural forests. The TOF provide about 1.951 million m3 of wood where as natural forest contribute only about 0.009 million m3 of wood every year. Among TOF, the home gardens make maximum contribution of about 0.551 million m3 of sawn logs and 0.786 million m3 of poles per annum and the trees along roadside and settlements contribute the least (0.005 million m3). The production from natural forest is likely to decline and that from forest plantations and TOF is likely to increase over years.
The use of Non Wood Forest Products (NWFPs) is very common in Sri Lanka and linked with its local culture, vegetation and ecology. The NWFPs are means of livelihood for many poor people and there is a clear relationship between ecological zones and the percentage of households that collect edible plants and other NWFPs from the local forests. For example, in the intermediate and dry zones, about 60 to 70 percent of the households collect edible plants whereas in montane zones, only about 20 percent of the households collect the edible plants. Due to incomplete data on extraction rates, market prices, and time spent on collection and consumption etc., it is difficult to assess the total contribution of NWFP to the society.
Sri Lanka has a long history of forest planning with identified mission, objectives and priorities in forestry. The first priority of the Sri Lanka is to set aside forests for conservation and second is to sustainably manage remaining forests for meeting the domestic demand of wood and non-wood products and other services. The government currently emphasizes involvement of private sector in all forestry development activities, and "empowerment and participation" of local people and rural communities to manage and protect multiple-use forests. Like other South Asian countries, the enforceability of rules and regulations for protection of forests is continuously declining in Sri Lanka, which is also leading to deforestation and degradation of forest resources.
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is growing at a moderate rate of 4-5 percent after Sri Lanka made a major transformation in 1977 to a market based economy. The current economic growth is inducing additional pressure on forest resources through increased demand and consumption of forest product and services. Further, there is a general resistance for including environmental considerations into every aspect of development planning. Such pressures are adversely affecting the sustenance of forest in Sri Lanka. In addition, the share of "agriculture sector" in GDP is consistently declining and that of manufacturing sector is consistently increasing.
The forestry and livestock sub-sectors within "agriculture sector" are continually losing their ability to define the growth rate of "agriculture" sector because the relative contribution from other sub-sectors of "agriculture" like fisheries, tea and other agricultural crops to GDP is increasing. Therefore, the capacity of factors that affect "sub-sectors other than forests", like variation in tea prices, efficiency of management of tea estates, impact of natural calamities on paddy, increased access to potential fishing areas, and growth of inland fishing, is increasing in defining growth rate of the "agriculture sector" and the economy as a whole.
Finally, Sri Lanka faces a wide range of environmental management challenges that are tied to its economic development and increase in population. The issues in the forestry and environment sectors are linked very closely with its national development and are inseparable. Despite past and continuing forest conservation efforts, there is net deforestation, with severe implications for the environment, leading to long term adverse effect on the welfare of the rural people, agricultural and other inter-linked sectors. However, the focused efforts and investments in conservation of bio-diversity in selected areas are increasing and leading to a good network of well-conserved forest resources. Further, the improvements in literacy, education and health are creating conditions that are suitable for better conservation of forests and ecosystems both in the short and long term.