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?