Sunday, June 30, 2013

Felling timber on tea estates - to help bridge the budget deficit?

Namini Wijedasa has written an interesting article on the latest brilliant idea - that the timber on tea estates be felled to pay the EPF liabilities.  As has been pointed out before, the EPF simply lends its funds to the Government, usually at rates below market, to help plug the budget deficit.

So what is really happening, in a roundabout way is that the Government is felling timber to bridge its budget deficit.

There are however, many other concerns that this raises. Some of the timber on the estates was planted for the purpose of harvesting, so provided it is mature and is part of a proper programme of forestry management harvesting some timber will do no harm. A quick fix, which is what this looks like, is likely to lead to long term damage to the estates.

Trees on estates provide much more than timber, I had a quick chat with a planter friend who gave me very brief rundown. They are usually grown for five reasons:

1. To provide windbreaks.
2. To provide shade.
3. To provide "green manure" and improve the soil.
4. To reduce water run-off and soil erosion.
5. For use as fuelwood.

The trees commonly found on Sri Lankan tea estates include Grevillea robusta (silky oak), Acacias, Dadaps and Eucalyptus. 

Of these the primary purpose of the Eucalyptus is for timber. They are also said to draw a lot of moisture from the soil so are probably not the best trees to have around, so felling some of these in a controlled manner will do no harm.

The shade and windbreaks play an important role in long term productivity of the estate. 

Tea should not be exposed to excessive sunlight, which is why shade trees are planted at regular intervals. Apart from damaging the tea (in the long term-short term yields pick up with bright sunlight) excessive heat reduces the activity of earthworms and other lifeforms in the soil that will result in lowered levels of soil fertility.

Excessive wind is also a problem as it tends to blow away mositure, topsoil and nutrients. Very strong winds, which are prevalent in some areas can even damage the leaves and tender shoots of the tea bush. 

The fallen leaves of the Gravillea are said to "claw the ground" and prevent water runoff. Acacias and Dadaps are leguminous, meaning that they fix nitrogen into the soil, the so called 'green manure' that improve soil nutrients. All may be used as fuelwood, which is quite valuable these days, especially outstation due to the high price of kerosene.

According to my planter friend a really big Eucalyptus tree can fetch around Rs.50,000 less the cost of felling, sawing transport etc. If the number of trees quoted in the article referred to above is accurate (67,132), it is possible that the sum of around Rs.3bn can indeed be raised. This is a tidy sum of money and given the rampant corruption, the attendant dangers that:

a. They will fell every single tree, regardless of the purpose it was planted for; 
b. that the lions share whatever funds raised will go into the pockets of crooks/politicos/cronies (they are interchangable terms);
c. any money that does end up with the EPF/ETF will be promptly (and cheaply) lent to the Government.
The words of Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian economist of the early 20th century, nicely sum up the situation: “It may sometimes be expedient for a man to heat the stove with his furniture. But he should not delude himself by believing that he has discovered a wonderful new method of heating his premises.”

The Sunday Times article lists some of these very abuses that have already taken place, although on a smaller scale. Allowing large scale felling may open the floodgates.

According to my friend some he had heard that some state estates have now been reduced to a state where they are deducting a rupee from the wages of workers - to help pay for weedicide!

The debts owed are supposed to be Rs.1.74bn what the Government should do is to deduct 0.6% from the Defence budget and leave the trees alone. Cleared of their major liablities the estates can then be handed over to private management to see what can be salvaged (the estates are in such bad shape that they are impossible to sell) but something may be possible.  

An indepedent, transparent process managed by an external body that calls for proposals and selects the best is the way to go forward, if we are to save whatever is left.

I am neither planter nor botanist, just an interested onserver. Does anybody else have alternative suggestions? 




sbarrkum said...

Dont know about the extent of Eucalyptus grown as wind breaks in tea estates.

Have seen acres and acres of Eucalyptus forests on the Wattegama/Madolkelle Road and Boralanda/Ohiya road.

First saw the Boralanda/Ohiya forests a few years back. Stopped and checked a sign and it had been planted by the Forest Dept, cant recall when.

One time going thru the Eucalyptus forest on the Wattegama/Madolkelle Road, a large fire had broken out and it was really scary and risky to drive thru.

We stopped and watched the fire some distance away. The fire spread with all the leaves and bark on the forest floor and then the pieces of bark hanging off the tree catch fire and thats the end of the tree.

These trees are not suited for SL and the quicker they are got rid of the better.

Jack Point said...


The Eucalyptus was planted primarily for timber so harvesting these should be ok but it would be unwise to cut all the trees at once, since it may result in soil erosion. Cutting them down in stages, accomanies by replanting of more suitable species is the best bet I think.

Ifthey have been used for windbreaks, small scale cull and replace may still be possible.

sbarrkum said...

Photos of the type of Pinus/Eucalyptus forests I have mentioned

Jack Point said...

Yes, thanks have walked through some of these.