A prickly problem
By Risidra Mendis
Ceylon Today Features
The serious effects of global warming and the harm caused to the environment, has made environmentalists focus on growing more trees and creating forest cover in the country. But many years after the pine trees were grown it was observed that these trees were doing more harm than good to the environment by causing soil erosion.
The growing of pinus trees in the country to create forest cover on degraded lands in catchment areas commenced from 1960 to 1990 under the supervision of Forest Department officials. Pine was also grown for timber production, resin extraction and environment conservation. At present pine plantations can be seen in the Wet and Intermediate Zone and extend from lowland areas to highlands where the elevation is about 2,000 metres. However pine plantations established for environmental conservation in the hill country have not been cut down.
Nevertheless today the pine trees that were grown many years ago by Forest Department officials have become more of an environment hazard by causing soil erosion and preventing the growth of other valuable plants in the area.
According to officials from the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry natural regeneration is taking place in pine plantations located in the Wet Zone and no under growth is taking place in pine plantations grown in the hill country.
According to data released from the Forest Department there is presently 16,440 hectares of pinus cultivation in the country. But it is only now that the relevant officials have realized that the pinus is not serving the purpose it was planted for many years ago.
The harm caused to the environment by the large scale growing of pinus has resulted in government officials taking a decision to grow other plant species in areas close to pinus cultivations and encourage the growth of other different plant species.
Commenting on his observation of the harm caused to the environment by the pinus tree Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunewardene told Ceylon Today that the pinus tree prevents the growth of any other plant.
"In areas where pine trees are grown you will notice a lot of pine needles fallen on the ground below the tree. When these pine needles fall off the pinus trees they cover the soil on the ground. The covering of the soil by the pine needles prevents any other plants from taking root and growing. The pine needles also decompose very slowly. When there is a hard rain the pine needles get washed away. When the pine needles get washed away the soil underneath the pine needles also gets washed away. Growing pinus in forests or other areas increases soil erosion." Gunewardene explained.
He added that when there is a thick mat of pinus needles on the soil during the dry season in the forest, it can catch fire very easily. "I have also observed that the roots of the pinus tree grow on top of the soil. When pinus roots grow on top of the soil they loosen the soil and this can result in small landslides taking place.
The pinus tree serves no purpose for the bio diversity in the area or for the animals and birds in the forest because it doesn't bear any fruits or flowers. The pinus tree is an alien species that is used for resin and timber," Gunewardene said.
Commenting on the use of the pinus tree as a Christmas tree Gunewardene said people prefer to use the Cyprus tree as their Christmas tree as opposed to the pinus tree, the reason being that the Cyprus tree can be kept for a longer time (till 1 January the following year) than the pinus tree.
If a pinus tree is used as a Christmas tree after a few days the pine needles will start falling off the tree. The Cyprus tree is also a darker green in colour than the pinus tree," Gunewardene said.
Recently a Cabinet memorandum was put forward by the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry to obtain approval from the Cabinet of Ministers to enhance the biological diversity of pine plantations, conserve soil and water, control forest fires and improve the income of rural communities by enriching pine plantation species established for environmental conservation with indigenous plants.
Plans are now underway by the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry to improve plant species composition as a pilot project by protecting pine plantations from forest fires, the removal of 50% of pine trees, planting of various indigenous plant species in created gaps and the systematic protection of established seedlings. The pilot project will commence on 350 hectares of pine plantation in the Badulla and Nuwara Eliya districts.
The Forest Department has submitted a project proposal to the Asia Pacific Network for Sustainable Forest Management and Rehabilitation (APFNet) in order to obtain funds to implement the pilot project. APFNet has agreed to provide financial assistance for the project for a period of three years from 2018 to 2020. The estimated cost for the project for three years is Rs 89.3 million and APFNet has agreed to provide 80% of the cost amounting to Rs 72 million as a grant," officials from the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry said.
A plant list prepared by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Missouri Botanical Garden has identified 126 species of pines and 35 unresolved species. It is also worth noting that before the 19th century pine trees were often referred to as fir trees.
Pine trees are evergreen and can grow from ten to 260 feet tall. Pine trees are also known to live from a hundred to a thousand years.
Ceylon Today was unable to contact officials from the Forest Department for a comment.
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