SLAF’s Air Power for Aerial Reforestation
This was done at the Wattegama Kebilitta Government Forest Reserve in the Siyambalanduwa Divisional Secretariat on October 5 and 6, 2021. The Command Agro Unit at the SLAF Base Katunayake under the leadership of Group Captain Rajeev Kodippily and the Forest Conservation Department organised this valuable eco mission to achieve the aim of improving the forest density of Sri Lanka in order to reach the sustainable development goals of the country. The Sri Lanka Air Force has been actively involved in a number of efforts to restore the forest cover of Sri Lanka. The involvement of the SLAF in the pioneering Seed Sowing Project by air is a continuation and reaffirmation of its commitment to this worthy endeavour. The SLAF, entrusted with the maintenance of national security through the judicious use of air power, is delighted to be able to release that air power to create new dense foliage within our existing forests, thereby increasing and improving oxygen levels.
The idea of aerial reforestation first originated in Japan with the ancient practice of tsuchi dango (earth dumpling) method. It was popularised by Masanobu Fukuoka, a proponent of natural farming, in the 20th century. Aerial seeding for forest restoration has been steadily practised since 1926, when aircraft were used for the first time to revive a burned tropical forest in Hawaii. However, it was only in 1999 that the idea of seed sowing by air (also known as seed bombing) on an industrial scale got the attention of officials. Aerial reforestation works best when wet soil conditions and rolling terrain prevent other methods of treating an area. The aerial application does not cause soil compaction, hence prevents soil runoff. This type of seeding technique will be most useful for tropical forests because they absorb carbon much faster than other forest types and also support much higher biodiversity. On the other hand, it protects humans who have to enter the forest for planting from the threat of dangerous wild animal attacks. According to the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014, the commitment to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands by 2030 was made.
One significant cause of increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere is that trees, which naturally absorb CO2, are being destroyed and cut down all over the Earth. By using aerial reforestation, we could replenish areas of forest that have been wiped out. These replanted trees will absorb CO2 from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis, and thereby act as carbon sinks. Forests shade our rivers, streams, and lakes, doing a dual task of cooling and cleaning them, protecting the rich array of aquatic life, within delicate ecosystems. That shade reduces heat stress on aquatic plants and animals while limiting the amount of water vapour evaporating into the atmosphere.
Trees serve as natural sponges, collecting and filtering rainfall and releasing it slowly into streams and rivers, and are the most effective land cover for maintenance of water quality. The ability of forests to aid in the filtration of water provides benefits to our health and the health of an ecosystem. Forest cover has been directly linked to drinking water treatment costs, so the more forest in a source water watershed, the lower the cost to treat that water. Forests provide these benefits by filtering sediments and other pollutants from the water in the soil before it reaches a water source, such as a stream, lake or river. Having a buffer of forestland by streams and riverbanks does even better than just filtering the water. They also help prevent erosion of sediment into the water, help to recharge the water table by allowing water to enter the ground and even the shade of trees play an important role in the lives of certain fish. In this regard, the role of sustaining forests in Sri Lanka regenerates our rivers. The rivers, in turn, provide water to farmers and helps protect village communities. The SLAF mission has certainly enhanced this important need of the nation.
The Command Agro Unit of the SLAF in collaboration with the Peradeniya University joined hands in the project to increase the forest cover of the country to achieve the sustainable development goal of Sri Lanka by increasing the green cover from the present status to 30 percent in the future. Sustaining forests, in turn, protects wildlife and gives stability to fragile ecosystems.
The first wave of this aerial sowing mission was executed at the Ranorawa Government Forest in a five-acre land area and approximately 5,000 seed balls were released. During the second wave, 67,000 seed balls were dropped over a 60 acres area inside the forest of Lahugala in Ampara. The successful third wave which was conducted in December 2020 saw the dropping of approximately 30,000 seed balls over a 25-acre land area within the Lahugala National Park. The fourth wave was also carried out by the SLAF in the Lahugala National Park where 70,000 seed balls were dropped over a 60-acre area. This mission coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force.
The seed balls comprised seeds of native trees such as Kon (Schleichera oleosa), Kohomba (Azadirachta indica), Maila (Bauhinia racemosa), Ma dan (Syzygium cumini), Siyambala (Tamarindus Indica), Mee (Madhuca longifolia), Palu (Manilkara hexandra), Kumbuk (Terminalia arjuna), Weera (Drypetes Sepiaria), Bulu (Terminalia bellirica), Kithul (Caryota urens), Munamal (Mimusops elengi), Aralu (Oroxylum indicum), Domba (Calophyllum inophyllum) and Ketakala (Bridelia retusa).
The total land area covered by this mission was approximately 75 acres with 80,000 seed balls being dropped and this mission was planned to coincide with the monsoon rain season as well in order to maximise effective tree growth. The SLAF Station Weerawila was utilised as the staging base for this mission as it was 29 Nautical Miles from the selected area. The MI-17 helicopter which was airborne for this mission was captained by Wing Commander Jagath Gunatilleke while the Co-Pilot was Flying Officer Dinuka Gunasinghe.
In developed countries, for example, the US Air Force had successfully used a C-130 Hercules aircraft to plant thousands of trees in one day, using the aerial seed sowing system. Some Western nations are prudently using drones to drop seeds and create new forest cover. The SLAF is also considering this new aspect of deploying its drones for similar planting missions in the future.
The Chief of the Command Agro Unit (SLAF) Group Captain Rajeev Koddipily said: “We appreciate the support and guidance given by Professor Gamini Pushpakumara, the Dean –Agriculture Faculty of the Peradeniya University and Bharatha Bandara, the Divisional Forest Officer, Monaragala. We select the seeds to match the forest areas. Making the seed balls is a long process. In the last mission, we took 12 days to prepare 80,000 seeds balls. Each weighs about 80 grammes and the total weight amounts to around 6,000 Kg. The pilots and crew flew three sorties to complete this aerial planting mission.” The SLAF has conducted a commendable task in restoring and sustaining our forests.
This article was originally published by the Daily News and is republished with permission.