A paradise of rare plants collides with farmers who need land, loggers who need trees. Something has to give.

T his fertile land of lavish greenery has become one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots, home to hundreds of plants found nowhere else on earth.

Of the island’s 3,210 flowering plant species, 916 are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Sri Lanka. The island is awash in orchids, with 74 endemic species and others considered extremely rare. The rare daffodil orchid, found in the central highlands, grows here but has become increasingly hard to find as a result of increased collection and deforestation. There are many trees, mosses and ferns found nowhere else as well.   

Sri Lanka ranks 15th in the world in biodiversity per land area. Even when competing with mega-countries like the United States and Brazil that have a much larger land area, Sri Lanka remains a top 25 country for biodiversity.

It is an old, unfortunate truth: Once discovered, a natural paradise is often threatened. Sri Lanka is no different. Its natural beauty has long been under siege, its dense rain forests and government-protected parks and preserves in constant danger of encroachment from illegal farmers and loggers.

As late as the 1920s, half the island was still under forest cover, but by 2005, this had fallen by about 26 percent as development, sprawling tea plantations, rice farms and logging operations whittled away at it. Between 1900 and 2000, Sri Lanka lost an average of 26,000 hectares (about 66,224 acres) of forest a year. Today, about 30 percent of the island is forested and a small amount – 412,000 acres – is considered primary forest, the most biodiverse form.

Fortunately, the loss of tree cover has slowed to a near halt thanks to tough conservation laws and an aggressive forestry program designed to protect woodlands.

As lumber production grows, forest cover shrinks. A part of the widespread deforestation came as population growth accelerated the need for housing and fuel, driving the lumber industry to feed on the wealth of the island’s native trees. The island is home to ebony, mahogany, satinwood and teak, many of which are utilized for furniture production. The industry is primarily harbored in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa.

A lot of hotels are actually very eco-friendly here. Most hotels are conscious of the local flora and fauna

Ian Lockwood

The island also possesses a large quantity of rubber trees that are not native to Sri Lanka, but the industry still accounts for a large portion of the country’s exports. It is a perfect example of the constant conflict plaguing a country whose economy depends so heavily on an industry that has the potential to destroy what makes it unique.

Other industries have put pressure on forests as well. The country’s top export, tea, is a major thread in the fabric of Sri Lankan economics and culture. Tea is not native to Sri Lanka. It was planted by a Scotsman named James Taylor in the mid-1800s, when the island was a part of the tea-conscious British Empire, and the industry has prospered ever since.

“Our culture depends on the tea,” said Madawa Marasinghe, manager of the Kadugannawa Tea Factory in Kandy.

It is so popular here that the average Sri Lankan drinks around seven to eight cups of tea per day, according to Maliki Perera, a 22-year-old guide at Kadugannawa.

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest tea exporters. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Sri Lanka exported $1.22 billion in tea in 2015 compared to China’s $1.17 billion. The OEC also reported that tea makes up more than 10 percent of the country’s exports. Tea plantations draw tourists. People from around the world travel to experience the lush green terraced hillsides that resemble giant wedding cakes. The experience gives tourists a window into a major slice of Sri Lankan identity.

Yet the vast terraced tea plantations have gobbled up forest land and hampered efforts to save endangered plants by cultivating them on new lands.

The government knows its plants and forests are special. People lovingly refer to their island as the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. They consider the landscape so important that Article 28, Section (f) of the country’s constitution states that a Sri Lankan’s duty is “to protect nature and conserve its riches.” In 1994, the government drafted the National Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan with the help of multiple organizations including state agencies, non-government groups, and university professors. The plan’s main objective was to put an end to timber felling in wet zone forests, including the Sinharaja rain forest, and put 13 wet zone forests under complete protection.

In 2016, the United States Agency for International Development analyzed Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. USAID found that while the government should closely monitor minor threats to forest cover, the outlawing of logging in wet zones and other areas has kept forest cover fairly steady over the last 20 years.

For residents of the island, such threats do not go unnoticed.

“There’s small encroachment in different places,” Ian Lockwood, an American environmentalist and elementary school teacher in Colombo, said.

Lockwood said Sri Lankans understand the importance of conservation.

“A lot of hotels are actually very eco-friendly here. Most hotels are conscious of the local flora and fauna,” he said.

Above all, Lockwood stressed the importance of never being complacent. He preaches conservation in his classroom and aims to teach his students about the natural riches their island has to offer.

“It’s about education,” he said.

Author Marisa Morrissette

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