‘Our request is for every citizen of our country to be a conservationist’ – Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka

Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka was established in 2012, formed by a bunch of like-minded people. Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Jayantha Wijesingha, one of the founding members of the organisation, shared about their journey and the work they do.

Their initial focus was to protect the Sinharaja Rainforest at a time where many development projects were proposed in its surrounding areas like Galle, Matara, Kalutara, and Ratnapura. He considered it to be a hot zone, especially with all the new road construction plans and proposals.

“We saw the need as a group to protect our rainforests. With the end of the war in 2009, by 2012, there were many changes that took place in the country along with development projects. These also involved land conversions, forests being cleared, wildlife resettlements, and agriculture development. There was a vacuum and great need for environmental conservation groups.”

The main focus of the organisation is to protect the rainforests and in order to achieve this, Wijesingha shared that it was not sufficient to focus only on the rainforest itself and therefore, the organisation got involved with various other matters, mostly in the surrounding areas.

“We also began to focus on areas with high biodiversity and ecologically important areas. This is how we began our journey eight years ago.”

He then shared the guiding principles of the organisation. Their firm belief was that as citizens of our country, every individual needs to play a role in conservation and that everyone needs to take a stand and make their voice heard. And it needs to be done voluntarily with proper knowledge as the majority of the country was ignorant of what was happening.

“At the time we started out, we didn’t see another organisation with a clear vision and enough dedication for the cause. And the modus operandi of the existing organisations was not what we were looking for. Our movement at the time was a volunteer-based one. With this came a lot of limitations, yet we made sure to screen our members in order to confirm that they themselves had no connection to any destructive projects that were going on at the time. We strived hard to protect and respect the conversation goals that we put in place, and committed to live by them.”

Since its inception, the Rainforest Protectors have been involved with multiple projects. Some of them included tree planting, purchasing forests for conservation, getting involved in policymaking and drafting, and lobbying governments. Currently, their main focus is on purchasing patches of rainforests under private ownership around Sinharaja. “We have identified more than 10,000 acres of superb primary rainforest land under private ownership either by ground deeds or by absolute ownerships. A lot of people own massive chunks of rainforests in the areas surrounding Sinharaja Rainforest.

“Unlike a national park for a protected area, which falls under the purview of the Forest Department, that has a one-mile buffer zone to the park, Sinharaja does not. Because of this, the surroundings areas are being designated every single day. And the only way to keep this from happening is to buy these rainforest patches under private ownership, and that is our flagship project. Our aim is to buy as much of this land as possible and our initial goal is set at 1,000 acres;  the bar is high and we hope to achieve this.” He hopes to rally the support of individuals and companies who are capable of supporting this project.

They are currently involved with many other projects as well and one that takes centre stage is their campaigning work, activism work, lobbying and mitigation activities with the Government. He also spoke specifically of a reforestation project. They are currently working in a 100-acre land in Rakwana, along the eastern border of Sinharaja, in an effort to reforest that area. This is a long-term project in comparison, which started in 2017 and is planned over 20 years.

“It has been three years since we launched this project and we have managed to complete planting on 20 acres of this land with the support of local corporates that came forward to help. We hope to complete planting on all 100 acres as soon as possible.”

He then went on to state that he cannot divulge the information of the policy-related work they are currently involved in, but confirmed that are part of the national scheme of work advocating the protection of our rainforests.

Rainforest Protectors has also now established many village and provincial-level environmental organisations and through this, they hope to create a more environmentally conscious community of people. Organisations like this also play a role in protecting the natural resources around their areas.

“Sri Lanka is a highly rich country in terms of natural resources. What we have is very precious and unlike most other countries. We have resources ranging from graphite, dolomite, phosphate, and calcite, to silica and other rare materials. Our resources also include crops like tea, pepper, and cinnamon. We are special in terms of our waterfall density and leopard density too.

“We are far above with what we have in terms of natural resources. It is our responsibility to protect our natural assets. The people need to come together when opposing environmental destruction.”

Clearing of forests, setting fire to forests, wildlife crimes such as poaching, soil cutting, granite and sand mining, monoculture plantations like of oil palm, and extending tea plantations to the forest areas, are only some ways in which we destroy the environment; these will have a significant negative impact with time to come.

Wijesingha sees the need for people to join and rally with organisations similar to the Rainforest Protectors in order to protect these resources. Further to this, he also said they are now seeing a positive change in people; even if a minority currently, the numbers are slowly growing.

As an organisation, the Rainforest Protectors also work in the energy and waste management sectors, apart from their main focus area of rainforest conservation.

Wijesingha invited all individuals who believe in the importance of the work they do to get involved with the organisation and extended any support possible. The expertise the individuals bring with experience in their respective fields is hugely welcomed as well.

“Our request is for every citizen of our country to be a conservationist and activist. We must stand up to support our beliefs and against wrongdoings. If you don’t, you are ignoring your duties as a citizen of our nation. We can all do something towards the common and greater good.

“We are also appealing to people to be aware of the development projects that are being done, especially about its sustainability aspects. These range from protecting a paddy field that may be filled by someone for them to build on it, to ensuring a forest of mangrove does not get destroyed.

“Our organisation is only one platform; you can fight alone or with another group. What matters is you take this stand to be an environmentally conscious individual.

“As Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, we want to inculcate a culture where we build a citizen group that will take these values to heart. And just like our work has inspired many other groups and individuals, your work too will inspire someone else.”

To find out more about the amazing work of the Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, you can visit their websites rainforestprotectors.org and rainforestprotectorstrust.org, or Facebook page, RainforestProtectors.