A pilgrimage or picnic?
The need to control irresponsible garbage disposal at Sri Pada
By Jithendri Gomes
Adam’s Peak is a 2,243 m tall mountain located in central Sri Lanka. It is renowned for the “sri pada” – sacred footprint – that is in Buddhist tradition the footprint of the Buddha, in Hindu tradition of Shiva, and in Islamic and Christian tradition of Adam. Every year, thousands of people from all over the world pilgrimage Sri Pada, and it has resulted in many issues related to conserving this world heritage site. The pilgrim season of Sri Pada traditionally starts on the full moon of December and ends on the full moon of April.
A recent social media post showing the amount of waste disposed at one point of the climb this year caught our eye and sparked our concern.
A trend that needs regulation
Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka Convener Jayantha Wijesinghe explained the issue at hand and the significance of the sacred mountain.
“What is the entire rationale behind (the pilgrimage) – why do people hike this mountain? It has become more of a picnic rather than a pilgrimage. It has become a trend to climb Sri Pada. It is okay, as long as it is done responsibly. Adam’s Peak is a national monument with both religious and cultural value,” he stated.
He further spoke of how there must be efficient control measures on the inflow of travellers. “There is absolutely no control of traffic; you cannot allow everyone to enter just because they show up in crowds. There must be enough focus shown to conserving Sri Pada. The infrastructure of the place is also changing rapidly with many small-scale vendors putting up boutiques.
“It is a world heritage site and a wildlife protected area. The importance and value of the place is enormous. The only reason people are allowed into a protected area is because it’s a religious place of worship. So, we must make extra effort to take care of this place. In fact, in 1940, even before independence, the colonials realised the value of the place and declared it to be a sanctuary in order to preserve it. It is too much pressure inserted on the mountain itself to bear thousands of people who climb it every day.
“As we learnt in school when we were young, there are four main rivers starting from Sri Pada: Mahaweli, Kalu, Walawe, and Kelani rivers. When there is garbage disposed around these areas, the rivers eventually get contaminated, affecting the livelihood of many people who depend on these waterways,” Wijesinghe raised concerns.
Garbage bins vs. number of climbers
Not controlling traffic is the main reason why there are so many garbage disposal issues, according to Wijesinghe. “The amount of bins placed is not enough for the numbers that show up every night to start the hike. There is a practise followed at Horton Plains where bags are checked at the counter. Maybe a similar order can be introduced and implemented at Adam’s Peak as well. However, if this is followed through, then the authorities must make sure that there is access to sufficient drinking water. This way, we can ask the pilgrims to carry a 350 ml glass bottle instead of the many 1.5 l bottles they carry to last the hike.
“We must also regulate the boutiques as they too contribute to irresponsible disposal of waste. We must limit the items with plastic packaging sold at these shops. Without the control of influx, it is difficult to manage the capacity of the dustbins. If thousands of people pilgrimage on a daily basis, these dustbins are going to overflow, unless they too are collected on a regular schedule.
“Every year during the season, there is a committee formed by the head priest of the temple. This comprises the OIC of Nallathanniya, the PHI of the area, members from the Pradeshiya Lekam, wildlife conservationists, etc. They must take responsibility for this matter. Along with checking at the entrance, if there are multiple surprise checkpoints throughout the hike, people will oblige to proper disposal. If we are to really put an end to this, we must also fine the people who dispose garbage irresponsibly.”
Whatever I take I will bring back
Wijesinghe shared with us another approach, which is to speak to the manufacturers themselves. “If you study the area, you will soon find what products sell – most often, they are products of the multinational companies. If the Government approaches these companies and comes to an agreement to not sell plastic packaging to shops in Sri Pada, it will give us a long-term solution. These companies are more than capable to invent biodegradable covers. In fact, under the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law, these manufacturers are held accountable for their product even after consumption. Encouraging them to find new innovative packaging will help in the long-term. Both the Government and multinational companies are equally responsible in collecting garbage.”
He also listed down some solutions to the growing issue:
. Traffic control
. Putting up CCTV cameras wherever possible to monitor the crowds
. A pledge at the entrance – a simple sign such as “whatever I take I will bring back”
. Screen the crowds and conduct spot checks
. Place sufficient amounts of dustbins and have regular rounds of collection
. Encourage manufacturer responsibility
. Create awareness – put up signs of the consequences, etc.
. Urgently impose a fine – our people who go abroad oblige to the laws of those countries, so why not try out here?
Awareness and vested interests
We also spoke to Gudppl CEO Harinda Fonseka – Gudppl is a social network with a passion to make a positive, meaningful impact at home and around the world by doing good – based out of Sri Lanka. Gudppl organised a clean-up and garbage-free awareness campaign in May, 2017 at Adam’s Peak.
“We found volunteers through the Gudppl platform, and for most of the volunteers, it was the first time to join a clean-up programme of Sri Pada,” shared Fonseka. “The main objective was to learn more about the garbage issue, raise awareness about the issue to the pilgrims, and get the pilgrims involved in the campaign. We had 30 volunteers climb the mountain, raising awareness with signage on walking sticks while four of us stayed at the base and gave reusable bags to pilgrims, asking them to fill the bag with non-biodegradable items or at least one plastic bottle. The volunteers who climbed the mountain picked up plastics and gave the collected non-biodegradables to the pilgrims descending the mountain. When the volunteers descended the mountain, they collected more garbage and, with the help of other pilgrims, managed to bring bags full of garbage.”
Fonseka furthered that it was clear to them that the Government officials and other key stakeholders have identified root causes. “One example that was shared with us was that there are no drinking water tanks. So, once they had installed several of them alongside the foot trail. The following day they found many of them vandalised. They assumed it was done by people who are directly impacted by these drinking water tanks – the shop owners who make most of their money from selling plastic bottles of water. But the other side to this story is that these shop owners have to pay large amounts of money to secure spaces along the trail. So, selling bottles of water and other packaged food products are their main source of income to recuperate the money they spent on securing a shop space.”
Thoughts of climbers and pilgrims
Disposal measures exist, but people don’t adhere
We made the trip to Adam’s Peak on 2 February and started ascending the mountain somewhere around 9 p.m. We were prepared to climb for a few extra hours as we were aware of the large crowds during peak season, but we were not prepared for that many. My colleagues took 27 hours to complete the climb, taking into account short pit stops, but most of the time was spent on standing in one place waiting for the crowds to move. I was having difficulty breathing due to the number of people around me and fatigue that was kicking in. I was also thoroughly disappointed when I realised we were not going to make it on time for the sunrise.
There were a few garbage disposal cans placed around randomly and also at every stop. The fact that disposal measures exist but people not taking the effort to responsibly dispose of their waste is the issue. A few people in front of me casually chucked their empty bottles to the side of the pathway. It doesn’t really feel like a pilgrimage because there was hardly any respect for the place. For starters, have dividers to clearly separate the groups and have cops stationed at certain points. There is a chance all this would be futile, therefore a hefty fine would do the trick. People should be fined for their bad behaviour.
Tough rules might filter true pilgrims
Adam’s Peak, for me, is the most sacred place in this island. I refer to it as the point where the Sun greets the Earth. Most of the litter I see in Adam’s Peak is actually not bought in by the hikers, they are brought to the trail by the vendors who sell food items, drinks, bottles of water, and even toys along the pathway; it’s these that really get thrown away by the people who hike. It’s been a tradition, and so many families live off by these shops.
I would obey any strong rules against what we are allowed to carry when entering the sanctuary, which will need a proper and adequate police force. When the rules get tough, the number of people hiking would really get cut down – at least it will filter the ones who respect Adam’s Peak. It doesn’t have to be a business hub. It is a place with immense religious value and a magical example of nature.
Methun Suduweli Kondage