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Sunday, 16 February 2003  
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Sri Pada clean up : An uphill task for environmentalists

by Vimukthi Fernando

Why Sri Pada should be protected

Standing 7,360 feet (2,243 meters) above sea level, the peak of Sri Pada is venerated by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike. Sri Pada and its surroundings could correctly be said to be the heart of Sri Lanka's forests. Three of the country's 10 major rivers Kelani, Kalu and Walawe spring from Sri Pada. It is also a major source for the Mahaweli, the longest river in the country which springs from Horton Plains.

It is not only the religious and watershed values but also its forest cover that are important. Sri Pada holds its unique environmental value as well. A formation of tropical lowland, sub montane and montane rain forest and natural grassland, Sri Pada forests or the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary spreads over 22,380 hectares.

Declared a sanctuary on October 10, 1940 it is home to a host of fauna and flora, including 24 endemic species of birds (14 listed as endangered in the IUCN, Red Data List) and other threatened animals such as leopards, elephants, some rare amphibians, insects and fish.

The Department of Wildlife protects this range with officers posted at two stations, Sri Palabaddala and Nallatanniya.


"Now, look at that! See how they have turned the contents of these bins over the precipice. If they are to dispose of garbage at any place they deem appropriate is there a need to employ them?" questions an angry voice. He is Pangnadasa, whose father and grandfather had been providing services to those who climbed the sacred mountain over the past 43 years. "That is how the minor workers of the Pradeshiya Sabha work. They just dispose of garbage at any place they think appropriate."

I am reminded of the scene at the bridge we crossed minutes before meeting Pangnadasa. At the banks, behind the temporary shops were streams of 'garbage' falling into the canal.

Not me... but, another... is the excuse as well as the accusation!

This is only a fraction of the garbage. 

The citizens of Sri Pada, seem adept at two things. Pointing the finger and passing the buck! Evading responsibility? Indeed. But, the deed is done and continues to be done... amidst many a call to stop.

"Surakimu parisaraya - Samanola kandu piyasa" (Protect the environment - the hills of Samanola range) says a banner promoting removal of polythene from the sacred hills of Sri Pada. It is "not a joy ride but a pilgrimage" announced another, a stern reminder from the Maskeliya Police. However, garbage - empty packs of cigarettes and discarded poly bags lay strewn all over. It is true that pile after pile of garbage... rotting food... discarded clothes... and mountains of polythene is no more! "The use of polythene has come down by about 80 percent," says N.H.A. Priyashantha, OIC Nallathanniya Police Post. Yet, much needs to be done if we are to protect the heart of Sri Lanka's forests, Sri Pada the sacred mountain and its surrounding environs which includes the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary.

It is time the for Sri Pada pilgrimage again, when thousands trek the path to this holy mountain. The season began on Unduwap Poya, December 19, 2002 and will continue till May. Revered and worshipped by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, over the past two thousand years, Sri Pada's boon... multitudes of pilgrims - have also become its bane.

The main cause being pollution caused by non-biodegradable waste. Deforesting for timber and fuel purposes, poaching and gem-mining are other environmental hazards suffered by these sacred hills and its virgin forests during pilgrim seasons.

The beginning of the current pilgrim season was encouraging with many an agency raising its voice on preventive measures to preserve the sanctity of the mountain and its surroundings. A 'ban on the sale of polythene bags and an effort to minimise the use of non-biodegradable polythene to erect temporary boutiques up this sacred mountain' a decision by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana was of great effect towards re-gaining its lost glory, say law keepers, shop keepers and the pilgrims alike.

Recently a group of journalists led by the Upper Watershed Management Project, traversed Sri Pada to find out the impact of the many calls to protect Sri Pada and its environs."It is good that polythene is banned here" says Prasad Kariyawasam, of Sweet House Pvt. Ltd. a young shop owner at Nallathanniya. It was during the previous season he "started replacing poly bags with those of paper," he explains. This year the process was extended to purchasing bags from Samurdhi beneficiaries in the area. The bags 12" x 15" are sold at Rs. 10 each.

"The police were very strict on polythene this time. But we were not informed earlier. If we were made aware, we wouldn't have spent such a lot of money, four to five hundred rupees on polythene. All that was lost" lament Janaka Thalagahagedera, P. M. Jayaratne, Sadeep Deva and Ranasinghe. These young residents in Ambagamuwa Divisional Secretariat had been involved in shopkeeping at Nallatanniya since they were little boys. Though aware of the dangers of polythene financial difficulties prevent them from using alternatives. However, more damage seems to be done by those traders who leave their urban residencies, seeking seasonal gains at Sri Pada.

"We know that destruction of this sacred mountain, is our death as well, say local traders For, no more will we have business. We are not against the ban... We only want the law to treat us fairly. Why is it not right for us to sell a small polythene bag when there is no ban on polythene for the rich - such as the manufacturers, factory owners of all these products we sell?" they question.

This initial hostility - is a facade donned to check the sincerity of those who visit Sri Pada, in the guise of environment protectors! we learn later on. As the path winds uphill, their point of argument seems valid. There is the packaging - toffee and biscuit wrappers, empty packs of cigarettes and empty bottles of soft drinks, made of plastic that are discarded by the wayside. "Why not ban the use of polythene in the whole of hill country? Perhaps we would have to encourage the manufacturers to find suitable paper or other bio-degradable packaging." The cry of these residents who were willing to protect their 'livelihood' echo in our ears.

Pilgrims we met on our way, L.K.K. Peiris an P.S. Kusuma Fernando from Trincomalee Road, Habarana tell us that they left home before 5.00 a.m. after preparations of one week.

And how did these pilgrims pack their lunch? "In banana leaves what else?" They seem comfortable with the non-use of polythene. And speak of its benefits as well. "The youngsters nowadays are more environment concerned than adults," says Kusuma Fernando. "They gain their knowledge through schools and media. It is not the youngsters but, those who are over about 30 years, who behave in a destructive manner," she explains. About the ban on polythene at Sri Pada, she heard from "the village youth spreading the word on dangers of using polythene."

"Regaining the lost glory of Sri Pada and getting rid of the polythene menace, is not something that could be done in one day. It is a continuous process. We use polythene and plastics for everything now. But, the ancient Sri Lankans had many other alternatives. Perhaps boutiques could be made out of tin sheets instead of polythene. But someone has to assist with the financial burden," says Thalgaskande Sujatha Thera of Nissanka Lena. He had been the incumbent thero of Nissanka Lena for the past six years, and sees a "big change, where polythene is concerned" in the current pilgrim season.

"We create awareness among the general public by word of mouth as well as through banners and other campaigns" explains G. Edirimanna, Wildlife Ranger.

'No polythene' and 'Preserve sanctity' seem to be the slogans echoing among the hills of Sri Pada. But, no one seems to be responsible for the 'garbage' discarded by the wayside.

"The pilgrims sometimes create problems for the security forces and police even after the situation is explained. But, none of us could say that we are not aware. There are so many protests, warnings, even pleadings through various media," says the OIC Nallathanniya. Those who are responsible are "Each and every one of us."

UWNP conservation programme

Perhaps the most valuable watershed in Sri Lanka, conservation of Sri Pada is akin to preserving our existence. The Upper Watershed Management Project (UWMP) in a bid to save the watersheds of four major rivers Mahaweli, Kalu, Kelani and Walawe tries to conserve Sri Pada and surroundings.

Introducing alternatives to polythene and keeping Sri Pada and surroundings free of garbage are its initial moves.

So far, the project had acquired the support of four Samurdhi societies and one Sports Club in the area. Members of these societies will have a stall near Nallatanniya Bridge, said UWMP's Director Mr. Munaweera.

Everyone who passes the bridge will be offered a cloth bag priced around Rs. 20 replacing the polybags they may carry. The pilgrims will be given two options along with a cloth bag, of returning the bag and redeeming the deposit or of purchasing the bag.

Those who want to take non-biodegradable bags up the mountain, would have to keep a deposit of a minimum of Rs. 20.

Depending on the size and weight of the bag, the deposit might vary. This is to facilitate the removal of polythene from the top of the mountain, he said.

It costs about Rs. 200, to bring down a weight of 25 kg from the top. The money collected will be utilised to pay labour charges to bring down dumps of garbage including polythene from the upper terrace (uda maluwa) and the surroundings, Munaweera said.

Enthusiasm pays

The shop keepers and shop owners of Sri Pada, were not ignorant of the garbage menace. In fact, the far sighted enterprising lot started selling paper and cloth bags during previous Sri Pada season. T.T. Lalani the diligent owner of Ranjani Stores, Nallathaniya is one such woman.

”It only takes 10 - 15 minutes to stitch this kind of a bag” T.T. Lalani, the enthusiastic bag maker. 

"Before the season started and the shop was opened. I shopped for material at Pamunuwa, Maharagama where you could purchase cloth at a low rate" explained Lalani. So far, her shop had been selling 10 to 25 bags per day, priced at Rs. 10 and 20 she said. She is hopeful that the sales will increase during the months February to April. With the raw material at home, Lalani is free to make the bags at any time. She uses the slack hours, where not much business is done at her shop for this purpose. Lalani sings praises of the cloth bags, "It comes useful in many ways. It could be used many a time. It only needs a good wash."

It "only takes 10 - 15 minutes to stitch a bag" she says. And even though it might not profit her business, she questions "Why can't people take the time to make one with the leftover cloth at home?"

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