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 Post subject: Sri Lanka has enormous respect for trees
 Post Posted: Sun Feb 15, 2009 10:11 am 
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Building a more sustainable world in Sri Lanka

I arrived in the middle of the night to a profusion of insect life. Armies of ants marched through the mud bungalow where we were staying, we found a venomous centipede under the bed and a frog on a friend's foot. The next day the leeches were out in force in a small walk through the jungle. However this profusion of wildlife does have its advantages. Flowers bloomed in the outdoor “banana spiral” shower, bird song echoed through the valley and butterflies fluttered over the tea plantations.

By Louise Gray
© Copyright of Telegraph UK / 10 Nov 2008


I have found myself on a very steep learning curve since coming to work in Sri Lanka. One minute I was living the rat race, commuting to an office with no care for the environment and going out at the weekends. The next I am volunteering for Ruk Rakaganno (rukrakaganno.sacredcat.org), the Tree Society of Sri Lanka, trying to raise awareness of the importance of forests and still going out at the weekends.

As my job has been saving trees, I have tried to learn as much as possible about the latest developments in the environmental movement and how to live in a more sustainable way. One recent book is Green Tea and Tuk Tuks by Rory Spowers, a former BBC journalist and passionate environmentalist, who came out here to realise his dream of living a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle. It is an intriguing story of how Rory abandoned his life in London to move with his wife and two toddler sons to 60-acre run-down tea estate in Sri Lanka. His dream was to create an “eco-farm” where people could come and stay and learn about organic farming, the latest sustainable building techniques and how to set up renewable energy systems.

I was keen to see how it had all worked, especially trying to live the green dream with a young family so last weekend I went down to the project, Samakanda (www.samakanda.org) just outside Galle, to see how it had turned out. I arrived in the middle of the night to a profusion of insect life. Armies of ants marched through the mud bungalow where we were staying, we found a venomous centipede under the bed and a frog on a friend's foot. The next day the leeches were out in force in a small walk through the jungle. However this profusion of wildlife does have its advantages. Flowers bloomed in the outdoor “banana spiral” shower, bird song echoed through the valley and butterflies fluttered over the tea plantations.

Samakanda meaning “peaceful hill” in Sinhalese is truly a beautiful spot. Looking out over native trees that are not only protected but being appreciated , I felt quite swept along by the almost evangelical tone of Rory’s message. The public school-educated environmentalist is a bundle of nervous energy who was converted to the “cause” of saving the planet by growing disillusionment with the consumerist society around him. His journey has included walking across India and Africa and converting a remote farmhouse in Wales. His previous book Rising Tides warned of the dangers of climate change and his current project is to write a series of books advising people how they can make changes to their everyday lives to help the environment.

With his long hair and moonstone, Rory appears to be one of the last hippies who believes if we all do our bit for the environment we can make a better future. He has set up a website The Web of Hope (www.thewebofhope.org), that brings together educational programmes, campaigns and projects dedicated to creating a more sustainable future. Already the site has coined the phrase “hopesters” or “hipsters with a conscience”.

Samakanda is just the first eco-learning centre planned by Rory as part of The Web of Hope. Rather like a conventional university this “bio-versity” aims to “demonstrate living examples of sustainable lifestyle solutions all inspired by the natural intelligence of biological systems“. Courses will include permaculture design and earth building, yoga and ayurveda. You can even learn how to made a mud pizza oven, though I’m not sure how that is inspired by nature unless you include the Italians as an ancient organic life system.

At the moment the project is still in the embryonic stages. I did not see much evidence of the “bio-versity” but there has been a constant flow of guests coming to the project to “get away from it all” and 'Woofs’ or workers on organic farms will soon be coming to develop some of Rory’s more ambitious plans such as a natural swimming pool. Basic accommodation is available in a converted planter’s bungalow or the mud brick cottage where we stayed and visitors from the posh hotels on the coast are trickling inland to see the rainforest.

Courses have yet to start but tourists are already taking part in organised bike rides from Samakanda to the sea, including Martha Kearney of BBC Radio Four fame. Rose Gray has visited and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a patron. Both rave about the project. However, the very things that promise to make Samakanda a success: the celebrity contacts, the rich foreign tourists, the little luxuries like mains electricity also open it up to potential criticism.

Sitting in the sunshine nibbling my freshly cooked pizza with salad greens from the organic forest garden I could not help feeling like I was back in Notting Hill. Is this just the 21st Century version of the good life? Escaping the rat race for a country where it is a little easier to connect to solar energy and grow your own vegetables? I sat down with Rory to put some of the these questions to him and found him unfazed.

In over a decade as a prominent environmentalist it is all something he has heard before. He questions whether flying is as damaging as previously thought and justifies his own use of fans or a four wheel drive within the context of minimising his carbon footprint elsewhere.

“No one is talking about living in stone age conditions again,” he says. “It is about how to have the non-negotiable comforts of modern life in a sustainable way.” Rory is honest about how stressful setting up Samakanda was, especially with a young family. He had to cope with maniac tuk tuk drivers, bizarre local customs and of course those venomous centipedes.

He is now taking a break to concentrate on The Web of Hope which is to be merged with a hotel chain specialising in eco-tourism. Selling out? Again Rory justifies his decision as the only possible way to keep The Web of Hope going financially and therefore sustain his dream of a more sustainable world. In any case it is hard to knock the huge effort and belief in setting up an eco-farm in the middle of Sri Lanka when I am trying to be more environmentally conscious myself.

Rory has endured a lot to set up Samakanda and while it may not be the perfect example of ecological living it is a wonderful place to be and has the potential to become something much bigger. “We have at least tried to bring this dream to fruition,“ he says. “We have taken the first step.”


Louise Gray works for Ruk Rakaganno, the Tree Society of Sri Lanka, as a communications advisor.


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 Post subject: Planting trees in Sri Lanka is good karma
 Post Posted: Sun Feb 15, 2009 11:02 am 
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The Sri Maha Bodhi - Most famous tree in Sri Lanka
Planting trees in Sri Lanka is good karma

Louise Gray's blog about working for a tree conservation charity in Sri Lanka

It was most auspicious that after three months spent working for a tree conservation society in Sri Lanka, my last trip was to visit the country's most famous tree. The Sri Maha Bodhi or sacred Bo tree in Anuradhapura is apparently taken from a cutting of the original Figus Religiosa where Buddha attained enlightenment.

It is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world for it has been tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over 2,000 years, even during periods of foreign occupation.

Today it is difficult to get close to the tree which stands on a platform in a temple complex. Firstly there is the security situation. Terrorists have targeted sacred sites in the past and rather disconcertingly for what is meant to be a spiritual experience, it is necessary to be frisked and have your bag checked before entering. Then there are the constant stream of pilgrims coming to make offerings or simply to meditate near the holy tree.

Squeezing past school children bearing lotus flowers or old ladies reading from sacred texts to catch a glimpse of what looked like a perfectly ordinary tree, I was soon caught up in typical temple confusion. Even after 12 weeks in Sri Lanka I have struggled to understand Buddhism or at least the complex rituals around "auspicious times".

A weekend trip to the ancient cities in the north of the country helped a little. Cycling around Polonnaruwa, the royal capital of Sri Lanka over a thousand years ago, it is possible to get an idea of the glittering dynasty that once ruled the land. A very good museum that reconstructs the seven storey palace with 1,000 reception rooms and ornate swimming baths gives an idea of the high life enjoyed by kings while the giant Buddha statues and carvings on the temples show how seriously they took the afterlife. The lack of other tourists and freedom to explore made me feel like Indiana Jones on wheels.

However Anuradhapura, a later capital, is just too big and complex to cycle around - not that that stopped us. The stupas here date from 300 BC right up until the present day with not much to distinguish between them. After a few hours cycling in the hot sun the huge white domes and fluttering prayer flags all began to merge into one colourful historical spectacle.

Things only really became clear after visiting the biggest stupa at night. Hundreds of pilgrims dressed in white were sleeping on the stone floor just to be close to the temples where they can meditate about this life and gain good karma for the next. It was difficult to understand but there was a sense of something very deep and ancient that has not changed in a thousand years.

Like most things in Sri Lanka, it felt like I was only just beginning to learn what was going on. After all three months is not long to try and understand another culture or to make a difference to a country. So, standing under the sacred Bo tree could I really claim to have done anything for trees in Sri Lanka through my work as a communications advisor to Ruk Rakaganno?

I have certainly gained publicity for the organisation and their work through this blog and articles for Sri Lankan newspapers and magazines. I have also helped to raise awareness through writing a presentation to be given to corporations and attending public meetings and events. In judging whether I was useful or not, the big question is: Is it sustainable? On the one hand Ruk Raks simply do not have the staff to continue firing off press releases, updating the website or writing brochures.

On the other the nature of publicity is to establish the name of an organisation in people's minds in the long term. Hopefully these contacts, articles and reports will come in useful in gaining funding for Ruk Raks in the future. There is certainly more that could be done to encourage people to plant more trees through extending the home gardening and schools awareness programmes and improving the Sam Popham arboretum in Dambulla.

On a more personal level I have certainly gained an awful lot from working in Sri Lanka. All the staff at Ruk Raks were very kind and I would like to think we have learned a few things from each other's culture even if it is just that I know how to eat rice with my hands and they know how to send an e-card. I also learned an enormous amount from living and travelling with other volunteers.

Challenges Worldwide ( www.challengesworldwide.com ), the Edinburgh-based charity that organised my placement, had 20 volunteers in Sri Lanka at the height of its operations this year. Young professionals are working across a range of organisations from female-friendly small business initiatives to renewable energy projects.

Placements are from three to six months in areas such as human resources, accountancy or communication. Of course people have mixed experiences but on the whole hard-working professionals are helping charities in Sri Lanka to develop and grow. Short term volunteers are not able to make the difference that big NGOs can - and some argue the money would be better spent going directly to a country - but I would say that young professionals working for free to improve a charity in the long term can be part of development alongside direct aid.

Unfortunately the biggest problem Sri Lanka faces at the moment is the ongoing civil war. It was just very sad to know that most of my work colleagues are forced to take public transport everyday when buses are regularly being blown up. The government has been accused of human rights abuses and it was difficult to even mention the war while writing from Sri Lanka.

It makes saving trees seem trivial yet one of the most important things Sri Lanka taught me was how seriously other countries take the environment. It is easy to assume that we in the developed world care more about the environment because we have the time and the resources. Yet recent surveys have shown this is not the case.

It is countries like Sri Lanka with its beautiful forests and high levels of biodiversity that has so much to lose. Not just Professor Mohan Munasinghe, the co-winner of the nobel peace prize with Al Gore last year, but many other Sri Lankans are concerned about the future of their country if development continues to ignore environmental concerns like deforestation. It is organisations like Ruk Raks, who are fighting to plant more trees not only to slow climate change but maintain biodiversity when the world does warm up, that are trying to protect the environment for future generations

I might not have got to the bottom of Buddhism but I'm pretty sure that must be good karma.


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