Ayubowan ….. the greeting of my Island country Sri Lanka, I greeted you with today, is also a unique ecological statement. Its meaning from its Sanskrit origin, is ‘May all living beings on Earth, have Long Life”. Not just you or I. From time immemorial, our people have lived in harmony with nature. Their lives were woven together with their natural, social and cultural environment. Their very ethos and their ways had, in-built systems to care for and nurture the very resources that supported their life-styles.
Ours was a hydro-civilisation. The typical village unit consisted of the irrigation tank, river or other water body, the forest around, the fields the people cultivated and their place of worship. They, for over two thousand six hundred years of documented history lived in harmony with nature, maintaining a state of equilibrium. They were one with nature and their environment.
But much of that has changed today. While in comparison to many other nations, we have been able to retain the charm of much of our natural environment and make a strong nature, culture, adventure based tourism offer to our visitors, our challenge is to keep all of that, that way. We are here today and have been at several other forums to discuss the effects of green house gas emissions, and its impacts on climate change, because we all see a breaking down of that equilibrium.
But all is not lost. I know that, we leaders of the travel and tourism industry believe that, there is hope for us. We believe that humankind and in particular our industry, can take meaningful steps and even lead movements within our countries and in our regions and make a contribution globally. We know that we can work together to ensure that we regain a state of equilibrium that is sustainable. We know that we can have tourism play a significant role in mitigating the impacts of global warming and climate change. And that resolve is what I believe has brought us together today, at this forum.
Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s hotspots of bio-diversity and endemism according to a UN FAO study released this year. Another recent study made of 141 countries, by the World Economic Forum and researchers from Yale and Columbia Universities, on the most green and liveable places on planet Earth, also ranks Sri Lanka high on the list. We are placed 36th in energy efficiency and environmental health categories and 37th in the green house gases mitigation category. The study findings in summary, is presented in this month’s issue of the Reader’s Digest Magazine.
While I do not want to bore you with data and statistics, I can not but help, present a few.
We are a small island and can not claim to be any where close to the voluminous carbon sinks of that of the Amazon or the Congo. Yet, Sri Lanka is home to a record number of some 3,368 species of vascular plants, 200 plus species of reptiles and amphibians, 419 bird species and 89 species of mammals, many of which are endemic. Of these, 26% of vascular plants, 49% of reptiles, 40% of all woody plants are endemic to Sri Lanka. This is not only significant in terms of global conservation importance. It is also of much economic value to our local communities.
Our extensive forests, the home of many valuable endemic tree species and non-timber forest products are of much economic significance. Recent studies document the importance of remaining forests to rural economies with non-timber products alone, generating between 16-26% of family incomes. Forests are clearly a key feature in our attempt at building a sustainable Sri Lanka, for ourselves and in the interest of mother earth. Our forests are also home, to some 3,000 Asian elephants, almost a fifth of the elephants on the Indian Subcontinent.
Sri Lanka has approximately 30% forest cover comprising some 2 million hectares. The best known is the virgin rain forest, ‘Sinharaja’, a UNESCO World Heritage site. These forests store approximately 21 tonnes per hectare for a total of 40 million tonnes of carbon.
Forests in the past have also been cleared for agriculture. In particular, to set- up tea plantations. These tea plantations themselves are known today, to be good stores of carbon.
Each year about 1,000 ha are reforested. In addition, about 2 million seedlings are distributed among local communities to enhance the sustenance of the tree cover in the country. Our Forest Department, working with support agencies and groups, have established many community forestry programs. In addition to natural forests, plantations of teak, eucalyptus, pinus and mahogany support the timber industry.
Given the rich bio-diversity and the various steps Sri Lanka takes in conserving it, we have also being rewarded with other significant accolades. Earlier this year, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources was awarded the Global Ozone Prize 2007 in recognition of the contribution made to the protection of the Ozone layer at a ceremony held in Montreal. Prof. Mohan Munesinghe, a Sri Lankan scientist is party to the Nobel Peace Prize this year in his capacity as the Vice Chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (ICCC), which shares the prize with former US Vice President Al Gore.
We in tourism are beneficiaries of the rich bio-diversity, the green positioning, and the efforts made by many in ensuring that we conserve and protect our environmental, social and cultural resources. It is both an advantage and a huge responsibility that is placed on us. For tourism, must ensure that we are able to have these resources in-tact. We need to ensure that we support the creation of jobs, enhancing the livelihoods of our people and communities, uplifting their status in society, bringing reasonable returns on investments made by entrepreneurs and offering a quality tourism product and services to our visitors.
The question then is “What can we on our own and as the collective conscience of the world do, to ensure that we make a real and solid difference?”. In tourism, little Sri Lanka has come up with a lead initiative, with a resolve to make the Island nation, a carbon neutral tourism destination.
“Towards a Carbon Clean Sri Lanka: A Tourism Earth Lung” is the thrust we have initiated. I am happy that the initiative championed by Sri Lanka Tourism presented at the UNWTO/UNEP/WMO/ WEF 2nd Conference on Climate Change and Tourism in Davos, was recognised and is supported by the UNWTO.
With the Tourism Earth Lung destination initiative, we seek to establish codes of practice for each of the industry sub-sectors. It also seeks to influence and even lead efforts at stopping de-forestation, ensuring re-forestation, encourage the use of alternative energy sources and mitigate pollution at their sources through local and regional efforts, creating an “Earth Lung Community”.
True, it’s the little drops that make the ocean. But in this fast- forward world of ours today, little drops count little to mitigate the colossal mistakes made by us in perhaps, the last sixty years of human history. What we need today is strong assertive fast-forward action. We need action from tourism, that can dove-tail into the global movement on combating Global Warming…. touching all; focussing on the stark realities we face all around us. For this is not only about climate change…. but about our very future survival. It is about our survival as nations, economies, tourism destinations and as citizens of the world.
My call to you from Sri Lanka and ‘Sri Lanka Tourism’ is…. for us to join hands collectively, sharing our experiences, our efforts and our thrusts. We invite you all, to become part of the “Tourism Earth Lung Community” to care, share and make a strong impact on the on-ground action, that we all need to take, to mitigate the impacts of green house gas emissions, to ensure that we together, build a tourism, that is sustainable and will benefit all.
Renton de Alwis
Chairman, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.