Most of us have heard the song “Monawada Mutthe Mokada Karanne” where an old man plants a mango tree, so its fruit would benefit his grand children. Old wisdom is more relevant today than ever before. Deforestation is rampant. Drought, famine and desertification ravage the earth. Rivers and groundwater are continuously polluted by agriculture and industry. Humans and animals alike face the consequences of mankind’s irresponsibility and insensitivity towards mother nature.
Deforestation is a huge problem and poses major challenges for all of us. We need forests to clean our air, to store our water supplies, to provide a habitat for our abundant wildlife, and most of all, to produce oxygen and regulate our climate. In June 2015, 8 students at the University of Moratuwa decided to do something about this issue in Sri Lanka and Reforestation Sri Lanka took root. All Social Responsibility projects help the community, but reforesting would benefit not just the current generation, but generations to come in an effort to protect and support the biodiversity of Sri Lanka.
In the beginning the whole project was undertaken solely by the 8 founding members of the initiative. “Initially we spent our own small savings, pooling a few thousand from our salaries each month for our initial reforestation drives,” Founding President Achala Meddegama recollects. “Then we realized, 100 saplings (plants) could be planted in an area smaller than what someone’s house would cover, or even a large living room. That was how far our own pockets could stretch.”
In order to expand and be able to collect funds and get more people involved in Reforest Sri Lanka, the founding members drafted a constitution and formed a society. The vision of the society is to plant 84,000 trees each year. This number was coincidentally inspired by Achala’s father: “My father was talking with me about nature and stated how great it would be to plant some trees for Vesak which sparked the idea for the event to come. We had also seen the need to take this to a national stage, and we knew Sri Lankans genuinely love nature.”
So, a large reforestation campaign was launched in May 2016, with the aim to plant 84,000 trees to commemorate the Eighty-Four Thousand Dharmashkandha of the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha) during Vesak this year, one of the most important dates in the Buddhist Calendar.
Today, the society is a formation of citizens from all walks of life and of all faiths who have joined forces for a common cause. They gather often and in varying numbers and do not hesitate doing hands-on work themselves in order to combat deforestation and the innumerable dangers the world as a whole faces because of it.
Many of the once lush forests in Sri Lanka have been cleared for the sake of agricultural cultivation. Although there are laws preventing clearing preserved forests, farmers continue to invade into the forest areas in order to expand their cultivation. In the past it was the British and their unfathomable love for tea that contributed to the massive loss of Sri Lanka’s forest lands.
“When the British took over the island in the early 19th century, it was said that our forest cover was around 80%” Achala notes, “Starting in the 1830s, the British cleared large tracts of forest mostly in the hilly central region forest for cinchona and coffee and later for tea and rubber plantations. By the time the British left the island in 1948 the forest cover was down to about 54%. Over the past six and a half decades, it continued to decline.”
The ongoing deforestation does not only result in the progressive loss of Sri Lanka’s endemic flora and fauna, it also leads to frequent droughts, irregular weather patterns, soil erosion and land slides. On a macro level deforestation is one of the main reasons for global warming as it is one of the major causes of the enhanced greenhouse effect. The percentage of CO2 in our atmosphere has increased by 33% in the past 100 years alone wherein forests and trees play a major role in decreasing our carbon footprint, as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transform it into oxygen. Forests play a vital role in keeping the balance required to sustain life on earth.
Reforest Sri Lanka revolves its work around 3 goals: to actively reforest land while respecting the natural habitat, to create and spread awareness about the importance of trees and nature and to promote a culture of tree planting at home, office and at large.
To achieve the first goal, they have begun a series of reforestation drives throughout the island, usually targeting monsoons to give plants the best chance of taking root. To spread awareness they have utilized social media extensively along with their website and have also created a YouTube channel which offers a lot of educational content backed up by opinions from experts in the field. Their #reforestsrilanka challenge makes it fun to plant a tree. They work with schools to educate children about the importance of our forests and to inspire enthusiasm about nature in general.
So far Reforest Sri Lanka has planted over 5,000 trees all around the country and donated 400 plants to the Leo Club of Sri Lanka to be distributed among schools. They usually plant trees endemic to the area suiting the habitat and local ecology. Special attention is given to make sure that at least 10% of what is planted are fruit trees in order to provide much needed sustenance for our wildlife whilst also helping the animals keep away from human settlements.
How you can help
Reforest Sri Lanka is a citizen driven project. They are structured to accommodate all those who come to join the work, be it for a day, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Open and public, they are apolitical and inclusive. If you care, they are there – for you to work with, for them to learn from you, to work together towards the benefit and well-being of all.
The idea is not just to plant a few trees and let nature take over. Reforest Sri Lanka intends to help them grow and flourish and they will monitor the health of the trees, where possible water them during droughts and clear shrubs to help them stand up on their own. Ideally caring needs to take place for at least 3 years.
The main challenges currently faced are securing funds and the various approvals required to carry out a project. Further, as the group is still somewhat in its infancy stage, technical support and knowhow is lacking, however there has been an influx of volunteers on a daily basis to fill this void. Once a project is identified, financing and logistics are also challenging, but so far, with the support of the members and the general public, these barriers have been overcome.
Help is especially needed in terms of financial support to purchase and maintain plants, to identify suitable projects and gain necessary approvals, in maintaining home nurseries (that help to stock on rare endemic species which are lacking in existing nurseries) and in terms of labour/volunteers to carry out planting, logistics and for maintenance.