Each and every one of has have a set of notions engraved deep down in our hearts regarding our motherland. The essays written at elementary school titled “My Country” mirrored those notions which were full of lengthy descriptions of the deep blue Indian Ocean encircling the ocean, the vast paddy fields glowing in lush green, rivers meandering from mountain ranges and glimmering gems hidden under the meandering waters of those rivers and so on. At the same time, our Social Science lessons had one remarkable lesson among many, which taught us that, “Sri Lanka is a developing nation.” Although this meant nothing more than a mere fact for us then as elementary school students, as we matured learning more on commerce, accounts, civics and history, this fact began to weigh on our minds with a greater significance as we realized that it is a fact that had been consistently learned by students throughout generations, which was a realization that set wheels on motion in youthful minds yearning to make a difference in the world. Having learned of rebellious national heroes in history lessons, many youths were more than obliged to make a jump start on the path of socialism to achieve that dream, making them into a highly controversial pressure group. What we are discussing here is a completely different path that could be ventured by any countryman dreaming to be a hero in the pursuit of making Sri Lanka upgrade from the status of a developing nation to a “developed nation”.

The fascination of this path is that the key to development of the country lies in the very features of the country, seen mundanely but gone unnoticed frequently. It’s none other than the lush greenery covering the island and the enigmatic blue oceans surrounding the land, which were described in flowery language in the essays written about “My Country.”

Confirming the famous proverb, “Every dark cloud has a silver line”, the key for opening the treasure chest of Sri Lanka’s natural resources to project the country through development comes in an issue which has cast a dark cloud over the entire globe. It is none other than the hot topic of the millennium – Climate Change. With Climate Change casting dark clouds of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the globe and heating up the globe with greenhouse effect, putting international political, environmental and cultural arena on fire, it may be somewhat difficult to comprehend how it could be the royal road of development for Sri Lanka. That is where the nature’s assets possessed by Sri Lanka comes into action as the savior angel of the world and the goddess of wealth for Sri Lanka.

Climate change is simply the changes occurring in environmental parameters of the globe, particularly the increase of global mean atmospheric temperature, as a result of increased emissions of greenhouse gases. Climate change has come to be such a mundane topic that in the present world even a layman knows enough of it as to understand that burning of fossil fuels is the principle source of GHG emissions, mainly CO2. That is what attributes to growing concern and interest about minimizing the burning of fossil fuels and use of Clean Energy. That links with another one of most popular essay topics during elementary school days, “Let’s Save Nature”, of which the content was mostly on stopping of cutting down trees. Although it was another fact engraved in our minds since childhood, that cutting down trees-Deforestation, causes the nature to collapse, the principle behind it is an unknown fact for many even today.

It is unknown to many, that Nature is a wondrous system where whenever some action takes a toll on it there is always a reverse mechanism to compensate or correct that. It applies for pumping of CO2 in excess amounts to atmosphere by burning fossil fuels as well. Nature has the fascinating mechanism called Carbon Sequestration, where specialized systems called carbon sinks absorb excess CO2 in the atmosphere and either store it as biomass or convert it to energy. The major carbon sinks found on Earth are forests and oceans. Trees in forests absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and during the process of photosynthesis that carbon is converted to carbohydrates, which is stored in the trees as biomass. This remarkable process which plays the role of hero on the arena of Earth, where Climate Change is the villain, is the very heroic knight that is gallantly coming forward to elevate Sri Lanka from its current plight to the pedestals of development.

The significance of this very ordinary, yet igneous process is plain when looking at how much attention is given to it not only in environmental but also political, socio-economic and financial aspects in the world. The best example for it is the United Nations Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, (UN-REDD Program). It is a program functioning by collaboration of several UN bodies, with the objective of reducing forest emissions and enhancement of forest carbon stocks while contributing to national sustainable development. This goes hand in hand with REDD+, which is the voluntary climate change mitigation approach that has been negotiated under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the objective of mitigating climate change through reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases through enhanced forest management in developing countries.

Certain terms included in these definitions for REDD+ and UN-REDD, such as “enhanced forest management”, “developing countries”, “national sustainable development” etc. is sure to ring some bells if you’d have been able to put two and two together the facts that were afore said. This confirms the fact, that the key to mitigation of climate change lies in enhancement of carbon sequestration, which could be achieved by enhancement of forest cover. How that will boost Sri Lanka up in the path of development can be unraveled by looking at the policies and monitoring procedures involved with REDD+ and UN-REDD. Although UN-REDD and REDD+ involve detailed descriptions about its functioning involving a lot of complex technical jargon, in a nutshell, the approach followed by programs to address climate change involves encouraging developing countries to reduce emissions and enhance the removal of GHG by a variety of forest management options and provision of technical and financial support to those countries in return for their efforts. Since forest management has been identified as one of the major measures for climate change mitigation, REDD+ will provide countries maintaining forest management of a standard level with financial incentives, for the service done by their forests to mitigate climate change. These financial benefits, given as result-based payments can be channeled by developing countries for various aspects of their economic growth such as infrastructure development, development of agriculture and exploitation of natural resources towards cleaner production. Minimization and control of deforestation and forest degradation, thus to reduce GHG emissions are identified as the major two aspects in REDD+ program. Furthermore, REDD+ includes a set of guidelines on monitoring, reporting and verification (MVR) on forest resources and their management and the results achieved in reducing GHG emission.

These policies can prove to be magic wand which shall shoot Sri Lanka up in development scales if managed properly considering the wealth of natural forests Sri Lanka possess. It can be confirmed when looking at the list of countries participating in the REDD+ program which are mostly developing countries in the southern tropical belt, such as Brazil, Chillie, Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia etc. which are renowned for rich biodiversity and extensive forest cover.

As mentioned afore, the financial incentives given to developing countries by REDD+ are result-based payments which involve setting up of a reference level for recent carbon stocks against future performance, by using historical emission levels as a benchmark. But there is a catch in this approach when considering countries like Sri Lanka which have low historical emission levels and low deforestation rates, where the incentive to participate in REDD+ system is little.

On the other hand, the financial benefits given depend on the results obtained by monitoring of total forest cover of the country using remote sensing technology. There comes another downside for countries like Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka is a country small in land area its percentage forest cover attributes to 29.46% of total land area. But it makes up to an area of just 19,330 Km2. On the other hand larger countries like India have a forest cover of 778,424 Km2 which attributes to just 24.68% of total land area. In such a situation when the monitoring system used is determination of the forest cover by remote sensing methods, Sri Lanka is in disadvantage owing to its small land area although it is superior in terms of biodiversity richness to countries which larger land area which can house a larger forest area. It will result in a direct discrepancy in the financial support received which is not at all in favor of the small island of Sri Lanka.

Another fact noteworthy of mentioning is about the limitations that a developing, agriculture based country like Sri Lanka has on reduction of deforestation. Data bears evidence to the facts that rain-fed agriculture attributes to 87% of forest clearing occurring in Sri Lanka and rice cultivation to 7%, mainly due to encroachment of agriculture into forests through large scale irrigation, settlement schemes and plantations. This poses a serious obstacle to adhering to REDD+ criteria of reducing deforestation because it is obviously going to have a considerable impact on the livelihoods of local communities.

These facts makes it plain that policies and MRV systems on which REDD+, UN-REDD, UNFCCC and other similar international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do not comply with the environmental, socio-economic and geospatial settings of Sri Lanka that comfortably. Nevertheless, these SDGs are not something which could be completely disregarded since as mentioned earlier, REDD+ is a treasure chest which could bring development to the country and provided that the general public gets hold of it in the correct direction, REDD+ would be the genie that makes you a hero saving the world from the plight of climate change while lifting up the country up high in development.

It does not require rocket science for a layman to venture in the path shown by REDD+ to become that hero. It simply requires following just one command and that merely, “Grow Forests.” Yes, you read it correct; it is possible for anyone to grow a lush natural forest out of a mere barren land, with degraded soil. You may have occasionally come up with videos on social media about people in Indian and African countries who had single handedly converted barren lands and deserts into nature-identical thick rainforests rich in a large amount of fauna and flora. It is just a matter of few years’ patience and hard work that is needed for you to be hailed around the world as the person who grew a forest. All it would take is planting of a few nitrogen fixing plants in the degraded land, to recover its soil and a few land use practices such as designing of silt ponds along the gradient of land and placing dead trees and logs along contours of the land to catch the silt and organic matter eroding away. Once the soil is recovered in that manner, several plant species which comes under the category of pioneer species can be planted. Pioneer species are plants which possess characteristic features which provide different functions needed for the establishment of a new forest ecosystem. Nitrogen fixation to make degraded soil rich in nutrients once again, provision of shade for new seedlings etc. are a few such characteristic features. Planting of species with edible fruits, flowers rich in nectar, hollow trunks with holes that could act as nets would bring a richer faunal diversity to the forest you create by attraction of different animal species, i.e. butterflies to feed on the flowers, birds, monkeys and bats to feed on fruits and to nest in the structures available. Presence of butterflies, bees and nectarivoirous birds and bats will increase the pollination among plants, increasing the plant abundance in the area due to formation of more and more seeds and their dispersal which would also be done free of charge by the same animals mentioned above. Silt ponds could be coupled with small ponds and waterfalls with flowing water as well as stagnant water, which would bring an array of amphibian species to the area since their habitats and spawning grounds would be available in ample amounts due to building of such structures. A compost manure plant taking plant litter as the input and giving put compost manure which could be used to enrich the soil and to provide supplementary nutrients to plants would be an added bonus feature to your forest. With water management and soil management coupled into selection of correct species to plant, it wouldn’t be long before you could be seen as a hero in the eyes of the next generation, the proud creator of a lush forest, with the same stratification structure and the rich biodiversity as found in a natural forest and providing the same ecosystem services and functions as a natural forest does.

This practice is called, Analogue Forestry, where a forest analogous to a natural forest is created by man. All of us as Sri Lankans can be proud to announce, that this igneous concept has been introduced to the entire world by an innovative Sri Lankan, Dr. Ranil Senanayake, 1981, as an alternative to Pinus and Eucalyptus monoculture. The first analogue forest in the world has been established in Belipola in the Bandarawela District of Sri Lanka, which needs a separate article dedicated to its name.

So how does this growing of more and more forests link with REDD+ and how is it going to help the development of the country? As mentioned earlier, the monitoring strategy followed by REDD+ involves monitoring of the forest cover using remote sensing imagery. So more the forest cover, more the financial support received for the country in return. Since the analogue forests, if properly managed will have the same community structure and stratification as natural forests and will perform the same ecological functions, they would be easily qualified by REDD+ criteria as carbon sinks reducing the emissions by deforestation. That is how millions of dollars will lie in the lush green forest cover of Sri Lanka. Apart from forest cover monitoring, which basically monitors the emissions related with deforestation, the other strategy followed by REDD+ is monitoring is conducting forest surveys to determine forest degradation. It involve measuring of carbon pools which are defined by International Panel on Climate Change as live biomass including leaves, twigs, stems of trees, vines, herbaceous plants, shrubs etc. , dead biomass including roots of trees, soil and wood products which contribute in enhancement of ecological services provided by forests such as carbon sequestration, reduction of emissions and carbon substitution. Analogue forests are structures which are rich in all these forms of carbon pools, since even the dead plant material are re-input into the system by methods mentioned above such as compost or are placed along contours as natural barriers of erosion, so that the carbon included in its biomass would be returned to the system. So once again analogue forests scores proving to be the ideal candidate to bring financial aid to the country by reducing emissions.

A popular and conventional approach followed by many countries including Sri Lanka for reforesting degraded lands is establishment of monoculture plantations of timber and fuel wood species such as Mahogany or Eucalyptus and Pinus. Undoubtedly, monoculture plantations of these species also increase the forest cover of the country. But what odds does it have against the benefits provided by analogue forests, where an assortment of species is planted? The monoculture plantation of Eucalyptus and Pinus was a concept which Sri Lankan foresters hailing from colonial periods embraced from Western schools of forestry, proving that no worse move could have been made in Sri Lankan forestry sector. Although these plant species were well suited to restore the degraded lands of temperate zone which consisted of thicker soil layers and slower nutrient cycling, it only made thinner tropical soil layers of Sri Lanka further infertile by absorbing all the available soil water and nutrients in addition to forming thick mats of Pine needles which would last for years preventing the formation of an undergrowth. Apart from that those are species with no edible fruits or attractive flowers which does not favor the arrival of fauna, (which in turn would have increased floral diversity as well by increased pollination and seed dispersal), leading these replanted patches of land to be no better than barren lands with minimal biodiversity. That is where analogue forests once again prove to be the ideal solution for the current environmental crisis status, which addresses issues of biodiversity degradation as well as reduction of emissions.

One may wonder, what benefit an individual gets for taking all the trouble over a number of years to grow an analogue forest, when all the financial benefits given by REDD+ for reducing emissions is being given to the country as a whole. Although the basic objective of REDD+ is giving financial benefits to developing countries which contribute to emission reduction in order to enhance the economic growth of the country in terms of infrastructure, agriculture etc. those are indirect benefits for an individual who had committed his money and time for reducing emissions, not to speak of political and managerial inefficiencies persisting in local systems in channeling those received finance to the objectives mentioned afore. Therefore channeling a good chunk of one’s money, land, time and effort for growing an analogue forest, just to get financial benefits for a country, may seem to be a ridiculous concept for any layman. But once again there is a blueprint for a hidden treasure in this which one does not see at a glance. Considering the assortment of species that are grown in an analogue forest, it is sure to bring an assortment of income to owner of the land. This is somewhat similar to the traditional concept of Kandyan Home Gardens, which flourished in Sri Lanka for years and still does. Kandyan home gardens involve small land areas located close to houses where an assortment of crops consisting of annuals and perennials, trees and shrubs including food crops like vegetables and fruits, spices, fuel wood are grown together. It enables the household to function in a self-sustainable manner, where their daily needs of food, fuel, medicine etc. are fulfilled from their own home gardens while financial income is also enhanced due to the financial value of certain species grown there. In the same manner, apart from contributing to the county’s development by acting as a source of financial benefits, the analogue forester is personally benefitted as well by the financial income the assorted species in the analogue forest area brings. This is highly tempting area for women and unemployed youth in the locality who can involve in analogue foresting and gain an income by not only selling the products of the forest directly but by value addition to those products as well (E.g. Sauces, jams and chutneys made of crops grown, jewelry made of seeds of the trees etc.). Since analogue forests are usually operated on a 100% organic basis, the products coming from such a source will have a higher demand in the market and can be sold to a higher price. This .successfully addresses the conflicts arising between livelihoods of local community and reduction of deforestation as well.

So active contribution in REDD+ at individual level shall not only make one a hero fighting towards development of the nation, but shall also make him a rich man, both financially and spiritually since he’ll die a hero leaving behind something for the coming generations.

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