Plantation forestry programmes help conserve the environment and save foreign exchange

Mr Priya Gunawardene (left), a specialist in forestry management at Hapusagtenne Plantations PLC and Udapussellawa Plantations PLC

Forestry programmes in Regional Plantation Companies [RPCs] are contributing to environmental conservation and foreign exchange savings, said the Planters’ Association [PA] of Ceylon in a press release this week. To raise awareness about RPC forestry programmes, in February, a journalist from the Lankadeepa newspaper and a group of provincial correspondents from Sirasa News, ITN and Rupavahini, were taken on a media visit to view the fuel wood and timber cultivations at Hapugastenne Estate, in Ratnapura.

Speaking to the journalists, Mr Priya Gunawardene, a specialist in forestry management at Hapusagtenne Plantations PLC and Udapussellawa Plantations PLC, said RPC forestry programmes are a source of renewable energy for tea manufacturing that is also less costly than imported fossil fuels.

“It will cost about Rs 32.00 to manufacture one kilo of tea, using oil, but it will only cost about Rs 8.00 to manufacture one kilo of tea using fuel wood.  But to manufacture the total national output of 300 million kilos of tea, per year, using fuel wood, about 4,000 hectares of commercial forest is required. So some of this requirement is met through RPC forestry programmes,” explained Mr Priya Gunawardene.

The environmental benefits of forestry plantations are as significant as the cost savings.

“Using fuel wood from forestry programmes, instead of oil, helps to keep the cost of production down and saves foreign exchange that would have otherwise been spent on importing fossil fuels. Forestry programmes also contribute towards soil conservation, protecting water catchment areas and providing green cover,” said Mr Gunawardene.

The largest extent of commercial forest, next to the forest plantations that come under the Forest Conservation Department, is now under the management of RPCs. The total extent of forests under RPC management is now over 20,000 hectares and over 10 million trees, said Mr Gunawardene. Eucalyptus grandis and  Acacia mangium are the most commonly cultivated trees under  RPC forestry programmes, for fuel wood, while trees such as teak and mahogany are cultivated for higher value timber purposes. In addition to cultivating forests for fuel wood and timber,  the RPC forestry programmes also conserve natural forests and reserves. 

“The history of forestry management by the RPCs goes back to 1992 when management of the plantations were handed over to 23 RPCs. When the RPCs took over management, forestry programmes were initiated, to make use of lands that were unsuitable for the cultivation of tea, rubber, coconut and other commercial crops. From 1997/98, commercial forestry was accelerated under an Asian Development Bank - government programme,” said Mr Gunawardene.

According to Mr. Gunewardene,  all RPCs have identified commercial forestry as a new venture and have invested a considerable amount of funds since 1992 to develop the sector. Most of the RPCs have initiated their own forestry divisions, employing forestry experts, to ensure scientific management of commercial forestry plantations. Some RPCs have even acquired high quality planting material from world renowned forestry organisations, such as the Australian Tree Seed Centre (ATSC) of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, for their plant nurseries. The commercial forest plantations of RPCs are governed by scientific, five year forestry management plans, prepared by forestry experts and are approved by the Department of Forest Conservation and the Ministry of Plantation Industries. 

Timber harvesting

“All forest plantations are subject to silviculture treatment (scientific forestry practices), such as periodical thinning, cleaning etc.., ensuring sustainable management. All the commercial forest plantations of RPCs are also surveyed and mapped, excluding environmentally sensitive areas such as water catchments, stream reservations and extreme steep areas, from productive land areas. Such environmentally sensitive areas are protected and managed as conservation areas. Some of the RPCs have already invested in the latest technologies such as remote sensing using satellite images, geographical information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) for the management of their commercial forests,” explained Mr. Gunewardene.

Like any other crop, commercial forests too,  require timely harvesting and replanting. Harvesting depends on the objectives of the commercial forest plantation. For example, if the objective is firewood, harvesting may take place between 8  to 10 years and the coppices of trees can be maintained  for another 2 rounds of harvesting at the same intervals.

The approved RPC forestry management plans are constantly monitored by a number of national authorities and felling of cultivated forests is conducted under strict supervision.  Even with approved forestry management plans, the trees in commercial forest plantations are harvested only after an assessment that includes field inspections, and under the guidance of a committee made up of representatives of the Ministry of Plantation Industries, the Forest Conservation Department, Central Environmental Authority and the District Secretary, or his representative.