By Jagath Gunawardana
Sri Lanka is fortunate to be endowed with a very large number of trees, some of which even have historical, cultural, social and religious value, growing in all parts of the country.
In June 2009, the Bio-diversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources published a book depicting some important trees, an endeavour that took them several years. However, it has to be noted that two of the trees provided in the text were destroyed within the year itself.
The first to be destroyed was the giant Pus-wela (Woody Liana) in Hunuwila, Opanayaka. It is a famous landmark when reaching Balangoda. The major part of this was cut down for no apparent reason despite public protests, by the company that was laying the road. The other tree to be destroyed within the year was the Ebony tree that was in the middle of the Malabe Junction, a famous landmark and also the largest ebony tree that was outside a protected area. It was killed slowly due to the tap root being cut to accommodate the cementing of the pavement. In addition, the historic Arukku-Nugaya (arched banyan tree) that was across the Galle-Matara main highway was also felled during 2009, despite protests by people, to accommodate the widening of the road.
A tree gets historical significance by the events or circumstances associated with it and the its age or the species is often irrelevant. The historical, cultural and social values are the important factors, although the significance of the species may, on occasion, give an added intrinsic value to it, such as the case of Baobab trees in Mannar. There are trees with historical significance that are comparatively young in age such as the Mahogany tree at Horana planted by Ernesto Che Guevera when he visited Sri Lanka. This tree is only 50 years old but is even depicted in a stamp due to the fact that it was planted by Guevera and to denote the friendship between the countries.
There are instances where an event is associated with a historical tree having different historical significance for different people who look at an event from their own perspectives. The best example of this is the Bo-tree at Watapuluwa which gets its historical value from the first complete rout of the British colonial forces by the forces of the Kandyan kingdom which happened in 1806.This tree was named the Davies Tree by the Colonial administration and a plaque has been placed near it in 1906 mentioning the incident as a massacre. The first great victory by the Kandyan forces against the British forces had been viewed by them as a massacre in which only the officer who led the contingent, one major Davy, was left alive and after whom the nearby road (Davie Road) and this tree have been named.
The identification of, and more importantly, giving legal protection to old trees especially to those with historical and religious value, is important as some of these have been wantonly destroyed during the recent past. The cutting down of the historical Banyan (Nuga) tree at Denipitiya, associated with the Poetess Gajaman Nona, by the orders of the Divisional Secretary is one of the worst such cases. This historic tree was earmarked to be protected way back in 1971 but was not given protection in 1993 when the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was amended, and the authorities were not particularly in a hurry to provide protection by regulations when this was pointed out at the time.
Their reasoning was that such a well-known tree would be protected by all and that giving it legal protection could wait until the next amendment. However, it was cut down under the orders of the Divisional Secretary in 2001, despite many protests, and we could not take any action as it was not protected at the time. The historically and religiously important Na Tree at Parakaduwa was saved in 2001 because it had been protected by law.
These recent examples show that public awareness and protests are in themselves insufficient to protect these ancient trees although there are instances where trees have been saved by civic action. A good example is the saving of the historic Kumbuk Tree at Paramaulla at Alawwa through public protests after an irate colonial administration officer wanted it cut-down as his coach met with an accident when passing it.
In contrast to the disinterest shown to the protection of historical trees in Sri Lanka, some countries are taking great efforts to protect old trees, even though they may not have a historical significance as such. For instance, Britain is taking steps to protect their ancient trees regardless their historic importance and the Woodland Trust, the leading woodland conservation charity, launched a project in 2007 called the Ancient Tree Hunt to find, records and protect the ancient trees found in Britain. Their intention is to find all possible trees which are more than 200 years old. It is worth noting that this effort is to identify old trees in general and not to confine their efforts to trees with historical value.
If Sri Lanka is to conduct a similar survey to identify ancient trees without their historical, religious or cultural significance, the number would be very high. Even if we were to take only those with religious or historic significance, it could be a large number. It is a little known fact that Sri Lanka has the largest number of ancient trees with their histories recorded from their planting up to the present. The oldest tree with a continuous written historical record from the time of planting to the present days is the Jaya Sri Maha Bhodiya at Anuradhapura and the record is unbroken since it was planted in the third centuary B.C. The other oldest trees with continuous records are the eight saplings known as Ashtapal-Bodhi that sprang up from the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya and have been planted in different parts of the country under the orders of King Devanampiyatissa. All of these sacred Bo-trees (Bodhis) have continuous records spanning more than 2000 years.
There is an urgent necessity to identify and document the ancient trees growing in Sri Lanka and priority should be given to those that have religious, cultural, and historical importance and to those which may need immediate intervention to protect their survival. A tree that is important for religious purposes gets a certain degree of protection under the provisions of Section 293 of the Penal Code because the destruction and the damaging of objects of religious value are deemed as offences. Those that have some historical, cultural, social or religious value that grow in public places can be protected under the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.
The Bio-diversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources had, based on the survey of historical trees, identified some of those trees that needed immediate legal protection. They were preparing the necessary documents to provide legal protection to them under Section 43 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance when the subject of wildlife conservation was taken away from the Environmental Ministry and handed over to the Ministry of Economic Development.
This subject has in turn been handed over to the Ministry of Agrarian Services in November 2010. The ultimate result is that the move to give legal protection to some important trees has been stalled since April 2010. It is therefore an urgent national necessity to revive this process and give them the necessary legal protection before many other such valuable trees are wantonly destroyed.