Biodiversity and Climate Change in Sri Lanka: Where Does the Law Stand?

Sri Lanka, being a biodiversity hotspot, has taken legislative steps to conserve its various habitats and ecosystems. However, the country’s biodiversity is also threatened by the adverse impacts of climate change. Sri Lanka has analysed climatic variations over the past few decades to predict future climatic change, but much of this research has been focused on climate change impacts on agriculture and proposing adaptation plans for food security. Very little research exists on the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, and the legislation regarding biodiversity is stagnating.

This has contributed to a lack of initiative to promote schemes like ecotourism, community-led conservation programmes, and biodiversity research to increase the resilience of biodiversity to climate change. 

Sri Lanka’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement can provide a solution to combat climate change impacts on biodiversity. The NDCs encourage the modernisation of laws on biodiversity and promote robust implementing and monitoring mechanisms to ensure effective execution.

Existing legal protection for biodiversity in Sri Lanka

Domestic legislation boasts an assortment of laws that aim to protect biodiversity. The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance 1907 (FFPO) is the most crucial piece of legislation which provides direct protection for ecosystems. One of the most effective protection methods provided by the FFPO is the power to declare certain areas as sanctuaries, conservations, or reserves. Each designation affords a different level of protection to the habitat in question. For example, conservations are regulated to only permit entrance for the purpose of scientific research and observation whilst nature reserves allow entrance for tourists and other non-extractive uses upon approval from the Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Furthermore, the FFPO protects certain vulnerable and endangered species, especially elephants which continue to have great cultural and historical significance in Sri Lanka.

Unlike the FFPO and related legislation, the National Environmental Act 1980 (NEA) seeks to establish regulatory standards within state-owned and privately-owned land. Thus, it promotes ecological preservation without the need to acquire land. In addition, it mandates Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) for development projects that could have an adverse environmental effect. 

The foundational legal framework in Sri Lanka has the potential to protect existing biodiversity and can be amended to adapt to upcoming shifts in environmental concerns. Furthermore, international biodiversity targets like the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (ABT) set out by the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity can help to mould Sri Lanka’s domestic legislation to tackle existing and future environmental concerns. For example, the ABT comprise twenty time-bound, measurable targets that should be met by the year 2020. Some of these targets include the conservation of species threatened by extinction, minimisation of anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs, and the control or eradication of invasive alien species. 

The impacts of climate change on biodiversity

One of the most serious environmental concerns for Sri Lanka is the rate of deforestation. Between 2000 and 2016, it grew by 1.46% per annum. This increase in the rate of deforestation of natural forests is due to the economic pressure faced by the government and industries to rapidly undertake massive development projects, large scale plantations, and resettlement programmes to stimulate the country’s economic growth.

Not only does this destroy the habitat that many ecosystems rely on, it increases the greenhouse gas effect and reduces the capacity for CO2 sequestration. Furthermore, the increase in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns caused by climate change will alter the environmental conditions in ecosystems and cause invasive plant species to thrive. This could contribute to the threat of extinction of domestic plant species which certain animals depend on in their respective food cycles, disturbing the ecological balance of ecosystems. 

For example, studies have shown that the increase in temperature has caused plant and animal species to migrate to higher altitudes which increases the stress on species already living here.

Sri Lanka also faces an uphill battle against water pollution which affects biodiversity due to the depletion and degradation of water resources caused by various anthropogenic activities. Insufficient management and control of domestic sewage, irrigation, dumping of waste and oil spills from ships, and coral and sand mining have contributed significantly to the endangerment of marine wildlife and coastal ecosystems.

Although stricter regulation and tighter monitoring may reduce the increase of water pollution and deforestation, alternative sustainable solutions must be sought to tackle these environmental concerns and allow a diverse range of actions to protect biodiversity without being wholly dependent on the outcome of the bureaucratic legislative process.


Can NDC’s help combat the consequences of climate change on biodiversity?

Since Sri Lanka is dependent on its coastal resources and forests to further its economic goals and provide a source of income for its citizens, it is very important to directly involve the community in conserving ecosystems and biodiversity. Furthermore, ecotourism has the potential to not only boost Sri Lanka’s economy but also provide a financial incentive for policymakers to provide greater legal protection for biodiversity. 

Sri Lanka has already taken steps to achieve the targets set by the NDCs. Restoration projects like the ongoing programme to increase the population size of Osbeckia and similar plant species, headed by the National Botanical Gardens, and recovery plans for an endemic fish variety in Banula Pethiya are underway. On the other hand, issues like the overexploitation of natural resources and destructive anthropological activities are hindering progress in biodiversity protection.

The NDCs provide practical solutions to overcome climate change threats to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. They promote ecotourism and encourage the establishment of Community Based Organisations which promote community-led projects like home gardening programmes that provide essential environmental services, increase biodiversity, and serve as a source of income for households. They also promote further research into biodiversity, including the mapping of degraded areas inside and outside the protected areas network and the identification and control of spreading invasive species. 


Bibliography 

Books 

Pethiyagoda R, 2012. Conservation. In Horton Plains; Sri Lanka’s Cloud-Forest National Park. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust p. 297-310.


Online Journals

Esham M and Garforth C. 2013. Climate change and agricultural adaptation in Sri Lanka: a review: Climate and Development 5(1): 66-76. DOI: 10.1080/17565529.2012.762333.

IPCC. 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change T.F Stocker and others, Cambridge University Press. 1535 p. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.

Miththapala S, 2015. Conservation revisited. Ceylon Journal of Science (Biological Science) 44(2): 1-26. DOI: 10.4038/cjsbs.v44i2.7347


Websites and Blogs

IUCN, ‘Aichi Targets’ <https://www.iucn.org/theme/species/our-work/influencing-policy/convention-biological-diversity-cbd/aichi-targets> accessed 11th July 2019.

Sheain Fernandopulle, ‘Lankan forests facing imminent threat due to deforestation (DailyMirror, 16 June 2017) <http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Lankan-forests-facing-imminent-threat-due-to-deforestation-130983.html> accessed 11th July 2019.


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About the Author
Dinethra Rodrigo

Dinethra is a third-year undergraduate studying for his Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Warwick, and an online tutor MyTutor. He has debated at Model United Nations Conferences, participated in the Warwick Death Penalty Project, worked as an intern at John Wilson Partners