Mass deforestation under cover of Covid is a real threat – Dr Richard Dixon

In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, there are alarming signs the governments are prepared to allow vast areas of forest to be destroyed, writes Dr Richard Dixon.

Orang-utan populations have been under pressure because of deforestation (Picture: Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation/PA Wire)

In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the governments’ responses to the coronavirus crisis threaten to destroy previously protected forests which support local communities and are important for wildlife.

I have previously written about how governments around the world are using the pandemic as cover to push through anti-environment projects – from cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon to shale oil plants in Estonia. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, it is the recovery plans that threaten the environment.

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In the 1920s nearly 50 per cent of Sri Lanka was covered by forest but this figure now stands at 17 per cent. The government has agreed targets to increase this, yet it has now proposed turning forests currently protected by the Forest Department over to local officials for slash-and-burn agriculture.

An area of nearly 700,000 hectares is under threat, equivalent to about half the size of Wales. This includes some large individual forests. The Nilgala Forest acts as a watershed for surrounding areas, and is an area of high value for nature and archaeology. There are resident elephant and buffalo populations and the area is popular for bird watching. The Gilimale Forest is also famous for its bird populations, including such curiosities as the slaty-legged crake and the Sri Lanka junglefowl. It is also home to at least one species of frog found nowhere else in the world.

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The government plans to take these forests out of the control of the Forest Department and hand them to local officials to do with as they please. There are already accusations that local administrations have given away state-owned land to farmers and businesses. The main threat, as in Brazil, is that forested land will be cleared for agriculture.

A public campaign, including our sister organisation Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, has put the decision on hold, but likely only until after the parliamentary elections in August. The campaigners are drawing together a movement of forest unions, wildlife unions and academics to try to keep the forests protected for the sake of the communities which depend on them and the wildlife.

In Indonesia, the government has abandoned a vital system which traces the legality of timber for export. After decades of widespread illegality, this system has been successful in protecting forests and comes from a European action plan which specifies that forest communities have to be involved in setting the rules.

The Trade Minister justified suspending this system by saying the nation needs to boost timber exports amid the global economic slowdown, effectively saying illegal timber extraction is acceptable because it will increase trade.

Ironically, the Indonesian government may have shot itself in the foot with this deregulatory move because concern about illegal logging is high in Europe. The inability to guarantee Indonesian timber has come from a legal source may trigger a switch to other sources by timber merchants in Europe and should provoke a reaction from the EU itself.

Fortunately the EU has some power in this matter, not least because a free trade agreement is being negotiated between the EU and Indonesia. This provides an avenue to ask for reassurances on how Indonesia will prevent illegal logging, protect forests and respect community rights. Instead of using the pandemic recovery to build a better world, both Indonesia and Sri Lanka are backing short-term economic approaches with disastrous long-term consequences for nature, climate change and local people.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland

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