Inside a 20-year campaign to save the cloud forests of Sri Lanka
The cloud forests of Sri Lanka are otherworldly places.
Covered by a tight-knit, towering canopy of trees, these tropical rainforests are dark and wet, with a constant drip of water – the result of mountain mists drifting overhead – filtering down through the leaves.
Formed some seven million years ago and once connected to the Indian subcontinent, this region is home to flora and fauna that have evolved in isolation, resulting in species like the leaf-nosed lizard with its peculiar paddle-shaped snout, and countless varieties of amphibians, insects and plants.
“The biodiversity is the most striking thing about the cloud forests,” says Sri Lankan conservationist and Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Rohan Pethiyagoda. “They contain ancient fauna and flora that dates back several million years, and in many cases, they don’t occur anywhere else on Earth.”
These forests are in danger.
Beginning in the 1800s, when the country was known as Ceylon, the British cleared the cloud forests to make room for tea plantations, rubber plantations and gardens of exotic imported plants. “They deforested most of the Sri Lankan mountains, leaving very little behind,” Pethiyagoda says.
“They didn’t realize how fragile this ecosystem was at the time.”
Thanks to improved healthcare and nutrition, the population of Sri Lanka has exploded from about eight million in 1950 to 22 million today – which on a land mass the size of Vancouver Island has put increased pressure on the cloud forests as sources of food and fuel.
“As if that weren’t enough, we’ve had some areas where rainfall has decreased by as much as 20 per cent. And temperatures, of course, have gone up globally, so that’s serious as well.”
Pethiyagoda grew up exploring the cloud forests on hunting and fishing trips with his father and he feels a deep connection to the place. That’s why, for more than 30 years, he has been working to not just preserve Sri Lanka’s remaining cloud forests, but to regrow the fallen ones from the ground up.
A self-trained biologist, Pethiyagoda began studying the region in earnest in the late 1980s, founding the Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka, a non-profit organization dedicated to purchasing and re-foresting former tea and rubber plantations.
But Pethiyagoda and his colleagues quickly discovered that rehabilitating this damaged landscape is far more complicated than letting nature take its course. “If you’ve got a bare piece of land in the Sri Lankan mountains and you just do nothing, what happens is the seeds from [invasive] garden plants very quickly invade the land and take off,” Pethiyagoda says.
“The cloud-forest trees, which are very shy about sunlight, don’t stand a chance because they can’t compete. So the only way we can get a native flora to take root is by first putting up a canopy of shade.” After much trial and error, Pethiyagoda and his colleagues figured out that they must first plant “nurse” trees, which encourage shade-loving native plants to grow beneath their branches.
Pethiyagoda’s successes in rewilding Sri Lanka’s cloud forests caught the attention of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2000, when he was named a Laureate. Dedicated to supporting individuals who strive to expand human knowledge and preserve the planet’s life and culture for future generations, the award gave Pethiyagoda access to a much greater audience than ever before, he says.
“Rolex is one of the best-known brands in the world, and having Rolex linked to your name gives you a platform from which to speak and be heard,” Pethiyagoda says. “It added credibility to my message and made it easier for policymakers, politicians and NGOs to give value to my words.”
By boosting his visibility and promoting his work globally, the Rolex Award for Enterprise has helped Pethiyagoda move ahead with more conservation projects in Sri Lanka and elsewhere over the past 22 years. It has also helped him attract a new generation of Sri Lankan conservationists to take up his cause for the future.
“The young people in Sri Lanka are very committed to conservation – that’s the bright side,” he says. “I think it’s partly due to our Buddhist tradition and its respect for life; it’s a very small step from there to becoming a full-blown conservationist.”
With a fraction of Sri Lanka’s original cloud forests remaining and mounting pressure from industry and agriculture, this new generation of conservationists will be vital to continuing Pethiyagoda’s work in the years to come, coaxing life back into its otherworldly landscape one shade tree at a time.