Environment

Oxygen : The Ultimate Lifesaver

Kamanthi Wickramasinghe

The COVID-19 pandemic has tightened its grip on neighboring India and many citizens keep succumbing to the deadly virus due to the lack of medical oxygen. Latest reports state that more people are in need of medical oxygen due to shortness of breath but oxygen supplies are running out. With more states imposing lockdowns, countries such as Iraq have started evacuating their citizens. Further, countries including Australia, Italy and Russia have shown their support towards India by sending oxygen concentrators. 

In this backdrop it is quite timely to rethink the importance of oxygen, a byproduct of complex chemical reactions that take place in nature that ultimately allow us to breathe freely. 

Status of forest cover in Sri Lanka 

Tourism promotion campaigns show Sri Lanka as a tourist destination with an abundance of greenery. But when moving towards the interior of the island, we see that mass scale environmental destruction is evident.  During the first wave of the pandemic, Sri Lanka witnessed a series of incidents that raised eyebrows among the nature-loving fraternity. Some of these incidents included mass scale deforestation taking place in Protected Areas.

Sri Lanka is home to three rainforests including the Sinharaja World Heritage Site, Knuckles Mountain Range and Peak Wilderness. The biodiversity in each one of these areas varies according to the climate and setting. Each one is home to various endemic and rare species of flora and fauna while Peak Wilderness is the home to Panthera pardus kotiya (   endemic Sri Lankan leopard). However, each one of these sensitive ecosystems have been threatened with anthropogenic influences. Illegal land acquisitions, archaic land laws, tea plantations, sand mining and other activities which collectively posed a great threat to these habitats as well as its wildlife. Elephant corridors have been bulldozed to make access easier for development projects happening within these ecosystems. Waterfalls and streams that once had clear water with many freshwater fishes have now turned muddy. Some have dried out. Trees that once provided shade and food to wildlife have been felled and burned, leaving open spaces within these habitats. This is a glimpse of the ongoing destruction taking place within these Protected Areas and Nature Reserves.

 Global Forest Watch, an open-source web application =monitoring global forests in near real-time, estimates that between 2002 and 2020 Sri Lanka lost 102 kilo/hectares (kha) of primary humid forests. As such, the total area of primary humid forest decreased by 1.7% during this period. Statistics further reveal that Anuradhapura had the most tree cover loss estimated at 29.9 kha in addition to four other regions including Kurunegala, Monaragala, Vavuniya and Kegalle. 

Decision-makers and their views on oxygen 

In February 2020 a proposal was made to construct a volleyball court in Negombo, within a sensitive ecosystem with an abundance of mangroves. In a heated argument that took place, Gampaha District Forest Officer Devani Jayatilleke and Fisheries State Minister Sanath Nishantha locked horns on this matter. The dialogue went viral on social media, particularly because the government official emphasizes the importance of oxygen and in response the State Minister questions the use of oxygen. 

Environmental groups took to social media in favour of the Forest Officer. During the islandwide lockdown, incidents of mass scale environmental destruction were reported from all corners of the island. Some were rejected as fake news, other incidents were probed. Forest areas on state lands were cut for timber, trees inside forest reserves were felled and burned and proposals to construct roads via national parks were suggested much to the fury of the nature-loving fraternity. 

Even though the Departments of Wildlife and Forest Conservation have the sole responsibility of protecting the forests and wildlife, the lockdown posed challenges in deploying officials to these places. Legal action was sought on perpetrators and some were remanded. Subsequently when President Rajapaksa initiated the ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandarak’ programme, environmental destruction aggravated to the point that trees along an elephant corridor in Dahaiyagala were uprooted and destroyed overnight. While many misunderstood the President’s orders, most people were also asking for more lands and water. 

Threats to Freedom of Expression 

19-year old Bhagya Abeyratne created a sensation on electronic as well as on social media when she exposed the ongoing environmental destruction taking place at the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Following her revelations, two male police officers took the liberty to question her over these ‘allegations’ when Sri Lanka Police is already equipped with a Women’s and Children’s desk. Following the incident many parties raised concerns on the government’s decisions to deny her claims while challenging her right to freedom of expression. 

Abeyratne wasn’t the only environmental activist who faced such consequences. The humiliation faced by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist who earned global recognition in her quest to call upon global leaders to take action against climate change. The previously mentioned incident faced by Gampaha District Forest Officer Devani Jayatilleke is a similar case. Following the incident she even feared that she would be transferred elsewhere. Recently, Jayatilleke once again raised her voice when the government had plans to cut down one of the few remaining trees of the Crudia zeylanica species that happened to obstruct the construction of a highway. Once again she was subject to humiliation when subject Minister C. B Ratnayake claimed that she had bypassed the law and that she needed to act with discipline. 

Replacing lost greeneries…

While many believe that reforestation is the only solution to restore green cover, it has been a topic subject to debate. Environment experts believe that reforestation takes time and once a Forest is destroyed, it takes approximately 30 years or longer to experience similar impacts on the ecosystem as before. From smaller shrubs to the greater canopy, a forest comprises various levels that take time to be restored. Certain manmade forests are monocultures and they have a limited impact on the environment as well as in terms of conservation. 

The government on many occasions have conducted tree planting programmes but environmental experts believe that planting commercial species such as Kumbuk inside rainforest for instance would do more harm than good. For example, the growth of lichens on the bark of a Kumbuk tree is affected when the bark peels off. This poses a threat to the existence of lichens that act as bioindicators. Therefore, reforestation needs to be done in a more holistic approach if the environment is to benefit in the long run. 

But with the aggravating pandemic situation in India and that of Sri Lanka, one really needs to question whether oxygen is of no use or whether people need to do much more to ensure that the world doesn’t run out of air to breathe!

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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