Explainer on Claims Over The Total Forest Cover Loss in Sri Lanka!

Environment Explainer

In a recent media briefing in Colombo regarding the extent of deforestation issues in Sri Lanka, the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies (CENS), an environmental organization, stated that the country’s total forest cover has shrunk to 16% from its original size. 

Following this media briefing, many media headlines based on the above statement were shared on social media platforms. However, President Media Division was quick to deny these claims.

How accurate are these claims? What are the different definitions of forest cover, and how is it measured? We decided to investigate this topic further. 

Media and Social Media Posts

Parallel to the media briefing, CENS published their views about the forest coverage on their website. Below is the extraction we took from their article.

Forest density shrinks to 16%, 395 elephant deaths reported in 2022: CENS

Due to large-scale environmental destruction in Sri Lanka, the forest density, which was 83% in 1882, has shrunk to 16%, and the number of elephant deaths in the country between January and December 5, 2022, is 395, the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS) said.

The National Coordinator of CENS, Ravindra Kariyawasama, said that as the World Food and Agriculture Organization has mentioned several times, Sri Lanka ranked fourth among the countries that destroy primary forests worldwide.

According to CENS data, there was massive environmental destruction in 2021, with 65 acres of forests destroyed per day, according to data released by the Center for Environment and Nature Studies.

According to the Global Forest Watch (GFW) organization, 5.3% of the country’s primary forests have been destroyed since 2002. They pointed out that 1,500 acres of forest were destroyed in the Thrikonamadu Forest Reserve in the Polonnaruwa district. Samanala Strict Forest Reserve, Sinharaja, and Gal Oya National Forest Reserve were destroyed, as was an attempt to distribute 12,500 acres of Wattegama Kebilitta Forest Reserve among Chena cultivators.

Full article here | Archived

Based on the CENS statements, mainstream media also published news and posted those on their social media channels. DailyMirror and Ceylon Today reports can be read here and here. Archived and Archived.

Daily Mirror and CENS posted the news on their social media channels.

Facebook | Archived     Facebook | Archived

We decided to investigate this.

What we Found…

According to the report of global forest assessment done in 2020 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the forest area of Sri Lanka is around 30% of the total land area. The report says the whole land area of the country is 6.271 Mha (million hectares), while the forest area covers 2.113 Mha. According to the FAO, Forest is defined as: “land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ (within the location). It does not include land predominantly under agricultural or urban land use”. Global Forest Assessment report can be reached here.

However, according to the information we gathered, it is understandable that the definition and what constitutes the forest differ from one international organization to another. And also there are some differences in statistics too.

As reported by the World Bank, forest areas in Sri Lanka stood at 34.16 % in 2020, based on the collection of development indicators compiled from officially recognized sources. And their definition of forest cover states it is land under natural or planted stands of trees of at least 5 meters in situ, whether productive or not, and excludes tree stands in agricultural production systems (for example, in fruit plantations and agroforestry systems) and trees in urban parks and gardens.

Take on Forest Change in Sri Lanka – Global Forest Watch (GFW)

Global Forest Watch (GFW) is an online platform that provides data and tools for monitoring forests. By harnessing cutting-edge technology, GFW allows anyone to access near real-time information about where and how forests are changing worldwide. 

We contacted Global Forest Watch to learn about Sri Lankan Forest density. In an email, their media spokeswoman Sarah Carter answered our questions about Sri Lanka’s forest cover percentage.

“According to GFW’s data, Sri Lanka had 4.19 M(million) ha of tree cover in 2020. This is 63.6% of the country’s total land area (6.8 Mha). This data is based on the Tree Cover Net Change and is calculated by stable tree cover + tree cover gain + disturbance – tree cover loss., she said.

Sri Lanka’s profile in terms of Net Forest Loss / Gain and other parameters presented by GFW can be reached here Archived.

Even in 2001, only 596 K(thousand) ha, or in other words, only 15% of Sri Lanka’s total tree cover was primary forest cover, meaning most of the tree cover in Sri Lanka is secondary or planted forest, as seen here.

Moreover, GFW defines tree cover as all vegetation more significant than 5 meters in height and may take the form of natural forests or plantations across a range of canopy densities.

She also elaborated on the definition of the forest used by GFW.

“GFW is an independent platform and does not rely on countries’ governments for their data. However, Sri Lanka does report national figures to the FAO for the Forest Resources Assessment, and GFW also displays this data on its dashboard. In 2020, Sri Lanka reported 2.11 Mha of forest according to the FAO, which would be 32.1% of its total land area.” Carter said. 

“Note that the FAO’s national statistics on forest area are much lower than GFW’s tree cover. This is because the FAO does not count all tree cover as forest areas. For example, according to the FAO data, Sri Lanka has 1.60 Mha of ‘other land with tree cover.’ These are lands that contain tree cover but are not counted as a forest (and are considered other types of tree cover such as agroforestry, oil palms, etc.). However, GFW does include these areas as tree cover.”, she further explained in her written reply. 

“In some cases, countries will modify their data to fit the FAO’s definitions. The official definition used in Sri Lanka could differ from these definitions, which may influence forest area statistics. For instance, Sri Lanka’s national definition of forests excludes rubber plantations, while they are included in the FAO’s definition (and rubber plantations will be included in GFW data). Therefore, besides the FAO data, there may be other national data for Sri Lanka available that present different statistics based on the countries’ official definitions, or other definitions of a forest.”, a GFW spokeswoman said in her email reply to us.

And she further explained the total forest cover fluctuations in Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2020.

“Between 2000 and 2020, Sri Lanka has lost 3.8% of its tree cover, according to GFW’s net change data. However, according to the FAO data, forest areas decreased by 2.5% during this period.”

Since the Primary Forest Cover of Sri Lanka was a mere 15% in 2001, as pointed out earlier, this tree cover loss has mainly happened from secondary forests and other types of tree cover.

However, Deforestation remains the overwhelmingly dominant driver of Tree Cover Loss in Sri Lanka, as the GFW data also suggests during the past two decades.

Furthermore, as the CNES report correctly highlights quoting GFW, most tree losses occurred in areas such as Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Vavuniya, and Moneregala during the past two decades, which corresponds with regions representing forests in Sri Lanka as well. 

Yet, it is also important to note that many of these areas were listed as areas with the highest tree gain in Sri Lanka, with Moneragala leading the list, followed by Anuradhapura, Puttalam, Kurunegala, etc. More on this on the GFW website here

According to GFW data, the current forest map of Sri Lanka looks like this.

Primary Forests and Secondary Forests 

Primary forests are forests of native tree species with no visible indications of human activities, and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed. As a result, primary forests are some of the densest, wildest, and most ecologically significant forests on Earth. 

Secondary forests regenerate on native forests, which are disturbed by natural or anthropogenic causes, such as artificial culture or ranching, and have cleared. They display a significant difference in forest structure and species composition compared to primary forests. Secondary vegetation is generally unstable and represents successional stages.

According to the data of FAO, Sri Lanka’s primary forest cover is around 197kha, which has reduced to 167 kha by 2010 and remained stable throughout the last decade. So as per FAO data, the primary forest loss in Sri Lanka from 2000-2020 is around 15.2%

According to the FAO, the world has 4.06 billion hectares of forest land, while 1.11 billion are primary forests. The percentage of primary forests is around 27% at the global level.

There’s no question that the percentage of Primary Forest cover has declined in Sri Lanka. However, stating that the country’s total forest cover has declined up to 16 %, as certain media reports and some environmentalists say, is an exaggeration.

Speaking with FactCrescendo, the head of the programs in FAO Sri Lanka, Nalin Munasinghe, said that the facts mentioned in the FAO reports are based on the data provided by the forest department of the Sri Lankan government.

“We don’t do our own survey to determine the percentage of Sri Lankan forest coverage. However, we also give our support and technical assistance to the Forest Department to conduct their surveys regarding forest coverage”., Munasinghe said.

Conservator General of Forests

The Presidents Media Unit of Sri Lanka also released a statement, quoting the Conservator General of Forests.

According to the Conservator General of Forests, K.M.A. Bandara, an assessment of forest cover is carried out every five years, and the census conducted in 2020 is scheduled to be completed in June this year. According to the census shown in 2015, the natural forests of Sri Lanka stood at 29.15% (1,912,970 hectares) of the total land extent.

The Conservator General of Forests also said that although there has been some reduction in the number of forests due to various development activities and other human activities in the country, the value only stands at 16%, as stated in the media reports.

“According to media reports, if the forest area in Sri Lanka is 16% of the total land extent, then the existing forest area in the country should be 1,040,000 hectares. This means that 872,970 hectares of forests should have been destroyed during the seven years from 2015, which is 124,710 hectares per year and 341 hectares of forest destruction per day. However, this is impossible.”, said the Conservator General of Forests.

K.M.A.Bandara further stated that the method used to assess the forests should have been described in the presentation of data on forests. Essential points such as the definition of forests, the technique of estimating forest size, and the estimation of forest size should have been mentioned in the report. However, there is no source from which the relevant data was obtained in the media reports suggesting that the forest cover had decreased.

The President’s Media Division (PMD) statement can be referred to here. Archived.

While responding to the statements issued by PMD, the CENS also released a message and said they had good sources about the 16% forest coverage and provided two research papers and one newspaper article. However, these two research papers and newspaper articles do not provide proper justification or sufficient facts to accept the statement “Sri Lanka’s forest cover has shrunken to 16 %.”.The sources released by CENS can be reached from here, here, and here.

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Title:Has the Total Forest Cover in Sri Lanka shrunk to 16 %? Find Out the Facts…

By: Fact Crescendo Team 

Result: Explainer

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