Saturday, April 25, 2015

Saving Athwelthota Waterfall

Aesthetic beauty is something that everyone appreciates but very few cares. Injuring the scenic beauty has rapid increase in the industrial era of the world. Over 400 waterfalls is a major landscape that contribute to the mother lanka’s natural beauty. However Sri Lanka is loosing these waterfalls due to the irresponsible development activities mainly for hydropower generation.

The permission given to Sakura Energy, a company own by Dhammika Ranathunga  to injure Athwelthota waterfall also known as Pilithuda waterfall is now under reconsideration by the Project approving agencies i.e. Central Environmental Authority and the Forest Department. The project is planning to add 1.5 MW energy capacity to at to the national grid.

Mini hydropower project is Sri Lanka are deadly to the Sri Lanka’s waterfalls, one of the most beautiful landscapes of the country. Watawala waterfall, Naya Ganga  falls, etc have been already destroyed. Even the beauty of St. Clair waterfall is now regulated. The permission has given to Sakura Energy mini Hydro project located in Morapitiya on the basis that there is no waterfall in the Athwelthota river which is connecting to Palan Ganga and a tributary of Kaluganga.  Is this true?

Can Athwelthota-Pilithuda waterfall be count as a waterfall?

The Initial Environmental Examination does not mention this as a waterfall.  During the technical evaluation stage a so-called waterfall expert has also concluded that this is not a “waterfall” but a “water drop”. 

According to the Lanka Council of waterfalls (LCWF), the only index available in the country Pilithuda is a 5-meter high waterfall.  Sri Lanka has much smaller waterfall too. This waterfall is located in a river flowing down from Sinharaja rainforest. It used to have much more water before the infamous logging of Sinharaja in the 70s. Due to the fast flowing water Pilithuda waterfall has created a deeper hole and often times entire waterfall cannot be seen.

How tall must a waterfall be to count and a waterfall?  This is not only a question to us, but other countries are asking the same question. To answer this question I quote the following section from an article appeared on the “world of waterfalls.” 

“We’re basing our answer on how height plays into its aesthetics and shape. In other words, does the waterfall’s geometry make it both obvious and pleasing to the eye? For example, Angel fall and Iguazu fall are obviously waterfalls of differing heights and widths yet they’re aesthetically pleasing while being geometrically obvious that you indeed have a waterfall here. However, what if you have a 5ft tall waterfall (not even 2m) and it looks like a waterfall if the stream is narrow enough?  Ordeville Canyon Waterfall falls under this category. I’m sure there will be people who say this is not tall enough to be a waterfall. But if we didn’t tell you the height and you just looked at the photo, would you have called it a waterfall? So why did this waterfall get attention when there are thousands (maybe millions) of other miniscule ones that don’t even get noticed?  That’s because this 5ft waterfall is an obstacle preventing progress further up Orderville Canyon for many without technical canyoneering gear. That’s why it gets noticed and pegged by many people as a waterfall. So we ended up concurring with the local consensus on this and called this one a waterfall even though it’s really stretching our comfort level (perhaps bordering on hypocrisy) on evaluating what counts as a waterfall.”

Althwelthota waterfall has been treated as a waterfall since the era of Prince Wideye Bandara who ruled “Palinda Nuwara” during the period of Portuguese colonization in Sri lanka( 1505-1670 AD). According to the chronicles he has hidden the jewelries behind the water curtain. Our elders say that there is a tunnel constructed just below the waterfall to “Yakkunge Wala” where people have seen steps to enter the tunnel. Some people say some treasure is hidden in “Yakkunge Wala” and some says a golden bed appeared in this deep water hall which is located about 1 km downstream the waterfall.

These chronicles around Athwelthota waterfall are at least 500 years old. This means people in the area has the consensus that this is a waterfall. It is part of our natural heritage too. Therefore, there is no dispute about counting this as a  waterfall.

Other than the consensus of the people in “Pasdun Korale”, Palindanuwara Pradeshiya Saba has tendered the parking location to a shop owner in the area and it assures that there is no dispute on counting this as a waterfall.

Fifty-five years ago, a famous author, Wallace Stegner, wrote a letter explaining the value of undeveloped wilderness to our spirits and souls which later published it as a chapter in his book, The Sound of Mountain Water.

He wrote “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste . . . ”and
“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

A famous US Supreme Court case in 1972 Sierra Club  v. Morton, says that “Aesthetic and environmental wellbeing, like economic wellbeing, are important ingredients of the quality of life in our society . . ..”   Damaging a aesthetic beauty is considered as  “aesthetic injury” under the US law.

1971 case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. FPC [Federal Power Commission] is worthwhile to study.

The case was filed when the Consolidated Edison Power Company announced a plan to build a hydroelectric “pumped water storage facility” on top of the highest, most beautiful mountain along the Hudson River.  The plan was to have pipes carrying water up the mountain during the night when there was little demand for power and then carrying water back down the mountain during the day to drive turbines, when New York City needed energy. The environmental group, Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, went to court.  The Federal Power Commission tried to block them from bringing the lawsuit, arguing that the Federal Power Act did not mention anything about aesthetic beauty.  The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the term “aggrieved party” in the Federal Power Act was sufficient to encompass aesthetic injury.  It said: “In order to insure that the Federal Power Commission will adequately protect the public interest in the aesthetic, conservational, and recreational aspects of power development, those who, by their activities and conduct, have exhibited a special interest in such areas must be held to be included in the class of ‘aggrieved’ parties under § 313(b) [of the Federal Power Act].”

In the case against the Mawanella Pradeshiya Sabha by Environmental Foundation Ltd in 1997/98 for not saving the  Kadugannawa scenic beauty by the vendors and the bill boards, the Pradeshiya Sabha agreed to preserve he scenic beauty of Kadugannawa pass.

There is no doubt that Athwelthota waterfall is a common property. No one has the absolute ownership to the waterfall. Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, It’s the duty of all every person in Sri Lanka to preserve and protect public property, and to combat misuse and waste of public property (28 d) and to protect nature and conserve its riches( 28 f).

Therefore, it is clear that this waterfall should not be given to Sakura Energy or any other person to injure or destroy. In fact it’s the duty of the Central Environmental Authority and the Forest department to conserve it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Stop destroying Athwelthota waterfall for power generation

-->Athwelthota waterfall is a known tourist destination among the local people in Kalutara and Rathnapura district. However, Forest Department and the Central Environmental Authority) CEA) have approved a mini hydro project proposed by Sakura Energy, a company owned by Dhammika Ranathunga. The project will generate on 1.5 MW electricity capacity to sold to the national grid. The water flows along the river will add few more millions to the wealth of Ranathunga family.

However it will destroy the livelihood of local people who depend selling Kitul Honey and Jaggery to the local tourist. 

Beauty of this location was a gem for the Sinhala films industry before. White water flaws from Sinharaja forest along the  Athwelthota river creates a natural pool then falls down creating a waterfall, which is about 12 feet.  The water which falls down disappearing in a deep hole created by the nature makes this fall different to other waterfalls. 

I was born in Morapitya, only 2 km away from the waterfall. I know that there are many legends around this waterfall. One legends says that Prince Veedhiya Bandara who ruled Palindanuwara in 16th century has hide his jewelries and gems inside the water curtain in this water fall. According to our elders, there is a tunnel located little downstream of the waterfall  connect to  Palanda (a small village located near Molkawa) a city developed by Prince Veediye Bandara then. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest generals of Sri Lankan history who fought against the Portuguese.

I know that many people travel 30- 40 km to reach this waterfall for picnic and all local people enjoy it as part of their life. Ironically the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) does not mention this as a waterfall. This IEE also does not mention this waterfall as a tourist destination. According to the officials, this waterfall does not come within the technical definition of a waterfall.  A waterfall higher than 3 meters will only be considered as a waterfall.  However, all people in the area refer Athwelthota fall as a waterfall.  This is clearly an issue of how we treat our aesthetic beauty in the DEVELOPMENT BUSINESS.

This NATURAL WATER POOL is a bathing spot for the local people. Many people use this for bathing especially during the dry season. Ironically Palindanuwara Pradeshiya Sabha has given the authorization to the project saying that this place is not safe for bathing. Several people have died over the last 50 years in this location. But, how can it be a reason to destroy a natural landscape.  This is the ugly side of the CORRUPT POLITICS.

Watawala waterfall is no more. St Cair had a narrow escape of destruction due to the public pressure.  Lakshapana also facing threats. Number of other small water falls have been killed by the mini hydro industry. We are not ready to loose Athwelthota waterfall for this development. 

Its ours. Government officials have no right to approve such destructive project in the name of development. The so called developers too have no right to destroy our nature, beauty,  livelihood and  history for rupees ad cents. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Listen to people. Respect the environment. Ensure happiness


Hemantha Withanage
Environmental Scientist

Majority of the Sri Lankans are celebrating the victory of the joint candidate Maithripala Sirisena. They deserve to celebrate, as this is a victory of the common against some evil powers not necessarily by President Mahinda Rajapaksha but his subordinates. However, I salute President Rajapaska for facilitating smooth transfer of the power.

It’s time to think what went wrong to become people’s man to an autocrat. Many people say that power corrupt people.   But Aung San Suu Kyei, said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” I believe this is true for President Rajapaksha.

This election results shows that majority wanted the abolition of the executive presidency which gives one man an enormous power. Also it shows that people did not like to drug politics and the thuggery. Lack of good governance was a major concern for many people. I was happy to see that people even at the local level started taking about good governance, although they may have not understood it clearly.

Good governance entails many different combinations as practice by various groups. Some also believe that better governance is more appropriate word.  Participation, Access to information, Rule of law or Predictability and Accountability are the minimum factors to ensure good governance. 

As an environmentalist I believe both good governance and environmental justice are key factors for green politics. I believe that both were missing in the last decade in Sri Lanka. It is always the case that the dilemma of the most governments of saving the environment when concentrating the GDP oriented growth and development. World summit on Environment and Development in 1992 brought the sustainable development as a concept to balance the two.

When last regime decided that growth is far more important than the environment it went against the wishes of many, while some shortsighted people are happy. As an environmentalist I was against the destructive development. I was also unhappy when the country was burrowing of too much money with high interest rates making the country indebted.

Unnecessary land grabbing by the military and others, capture of wild elephants, violation of EIA regulations, destruction of Forest, wildlife, wetlands and coastal ecosystems, made me unhappy about the last regime.

Politicizing the government agencies such as Central Environmental Authority, Wildlife Department and bringing the Urban Development Authority, Coast Conservation Department under the Ministry of Defense made me unhappy too.

Such moves allowed the past regime to dictate the development. This is how they got the approval for the Colombo Port City, Yan Oya and Uma Oya Project, Matara- Mattala Expressway, Mattala Airport and Hambantota harbor to name a few. They all violated the EIA regulations and public opinion either not sorted or neglected. Local voice not heard and no respect to the environment.

I believe Sri Lanka now has very high illegitimate debt due to the recent burrowing from the Chinese Exim Bank. According to the Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development “the debts involve the gross violation of basic assumptions of debt contracts, as well as widely accepted ethical, social, political, economic, environmental values, standards and principles and the debts cause harm to the well being of the people and communities in whose name the debts were incurred and who are the ones paying for these debts ate called illegitimate debt” are treated as Illegitimate debt. I believe Mattala airport, Hambatota harbor and the Colombo port City are some project that incurred illegitimate debt. I believe that Sri Lanka should have a clear opinion on how they deal with such illegitimate debt including cancellation.

Meantime it is equally important to either abandoned some so called development projects, which are unnecessary for the country or follow the environmental regulations if the new regime want to continue in some cases.  Under the new regime we want to stop illegal land gabbing, violation of the environmental laws including the EIA regulation. We also wanted to make sure that civil society and community voice heard in development decision making. While ensure abolition of the executive powers, next constitution should ensure right to life, right to health, right to environment and nature, right to water and sanitation as the fundamental rights. We also believe that they should respect the environment and the ecology and bring ecological democracy rather than just political democracy. We also believe that they should bring the ecological agriculture and stop heavy dependence on the agrochemicals. Restoration of ecosystem is a must today. Increasing environmental literacy is also vital for the nation.

I hope that the President Maithripala Sirisena will respect to the voices of the environmental community as he agreed during his election campaign and bring a country wide environmental policy detailing the various environmental requirement and safeguards in the next 100 days. We hope Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thero, Mr. Champika Ranawaka, Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake and rest of the political leaders will assist to keep this promise and not to make the same mistake done by the previous regime.

Pact with the Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena and Environmental Organisation's Collective

Environmental Organization’s Collective

Monday 15th December 2014 at the Mahaweli Centre

Public pact for sustainable development, to ensure environmental democracy and environmental rights
  • Ensure environmental right of all communities
  • Protection on Natural resources
  • Establish sustainable development
  • Build a green economy

Ten actions plans proposes based on the above four principles
  • Stop abuse of natural resources and ensure its protection
  • Develop a practical action plan to stop human-elephant conflict
  • Ensure public participation in all development plans
  • Developing a sustainable national action plan for waste management
  • Establish an action plan for the promotion of sustainable energy
  • Promotion of ecological agriculture and local seed varieties
  • Making eco-tourism a principal economic act
  • Increase environmental literacy
  • Proper enforcement of the environmental laws and polices
  • Ensure food sovereignty and food security through a proper land use policy


Sunday, January 04, 2015

Environmental democracy in Sri Lanka

-->Sri Lanka has very strong environmental laws and lessons learned. However, as of now, Sri Lanka is one of the country in the region that violate the existing environmental laws, regulations and principles despite that Mahindha Chinthana, the bible of the current regime has given some thoughts on the environment. 

Port city which will make a 496 hectare island in the Indian ocean does not have an EIA. Yan Oya project which will destroy 3500 acres of Forest also did not considered the environmental impacts before launching the project. There are many more examples. 

In principle people who live in close proximity to natural resources should have a say when those resources are being developed. However in many recorded instances, the communities become victims of development processes, yet are fear to access the legal process either due to lack of awareness or due to other threats. This is despite clear articulation, in some instances in the political arena that communities do have a say in the decision-making process. 

For example, in delivering the famous judgment on the Eppawela phosphate mine, Justice A.R. B. Amarasignhe stated that land and its resources belong to the people and other living beings and the Government is only the trustee of such resources. 

The reality on the ground however, does not meet this idea of ownership by the people. As most political regimes function on the notion that voting in a democratic process is an endorsement of the power exercised by the State, it has become increasingly difficult for communities to fight against efforts to destroy their natural habitat and in particular, the natural resources located near them. 

Despite regulations and laws - that in theory safeguard the interests of the communities - the ambivalence in the interpretation of such law, the lack of enforcement of the said law and the corruption involved in many development projects, make it more difficult for communities to challenge such interventions and lobby with the relevant stakeholders to take their concerns into consideration. As a result, most development processes culminate in the violation of environmental and fundamental rights of the communities, the marginalization of the local communities in assuming a role in decision-making and the destruction of the natural resource(s). The lack of a conducive civic space for the public to raise their voices against such processes further exacerbates the widening gap between and development processes environmental protection mechanisms.  

Most developing countries utilize only the environmental impacts assessment regulations to harness public opinion in such situations. However we have experienced, this is far from being an adequate, effective or enforceable mechanism to ensure due consideration is given to the environment or the people who stand to be most affected by these ‘interventions’.
Ecological democracy attempts to address the fundamental flaws in current thinking and particularly in neo-liberal economic actions that gravely undermine the sustainability factor. In doing so, it allows those affected by the outcomes of environmental issues and those whose lives are intrinsically linked to the environment to assume an active role in the decision-making processes and not limit such processes to the governments and industries and corporations. Hence, it entails the principle of equal rights for all those in the environment debate - including the public, community groups, advocates, workers, academics and health care professionals - and not be limited to safeguarding the interests of the investors and the government. 

The civil society in Sri Lanka has failed to mobilize the communities towards ensuring this democracy. In other works bringing environmental factors in development decision making is an urgent need in Sri Lanka. However, the political debate is not bringing this vital discussion adequately in the stage today. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gods, power and politics

Politicians seem to be the leading worshipers of the gods during the election time. Their dirty hands become colorful with white and yellow color threads, which also shows how much they fear about loosing the election.

Every one believes the gods and deities despite their religious beliefs. Hindu chronicles believe 33 chore (330 million) gods. The same gods are in Buddhism too. The gods and goddess are not only part of the religion and culture but has a close relationship with the nature.  When they are angry, our ancestors believed that it would end up of having a natural disaster or something bad for them. This belief is a reason for the ancient people to save the mother earth. We also have spirits in our culture who save us from disasters.

Other side of the world has only one god.  But they too have spirits. A Native American Prayer says;
O' Great Spirit,
Who's voice I hear in the winds, and whose breath gives life, life to all the world, hear me!
I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every rock and leaf.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, which is myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So, when life fades as the falling sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

Mother never gets angry and always kind to her children. Even the merciless children receive her kindness. But people, the children of the mother earth abused her over the time, which is resulting all disasters we are facing today.
Most politicians, who get the powers of the god to win the elections, are not feared of the mother earth unlike the common man.  Power of the common man is therefore not important  for the survival of politicians after elections. The one who has power made all the decisions despite the public opinion.
Aung San Suu Kyei, the Burmese freedom fighter once said,

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

Sri Lankan politicians are mostly used their power in the last several decades to abuse the Mother Nature. Land grabbing, mining, logging, destruction of biodiversity etc., had the full support of corrupt politicians. It is unbelievable that over 60 elephants have been illegally captured from the wild since 2005.  Over 200,000 acres of public land has been captured illegally for diverse activities. Putting the political supporters onto the higher positions of the relevant environmental agencies allowed them to ignore the laws. The ecosystems that were home to diverse life forms are being destroyed this way.

Today it is very rare to find humans who care the other life forms. Sri Lankans are no exceptions. Mother Lanka is no more tolerable to natural disasters. Rains can sweep the entire dry zone, or mountains moves destroying life and livelihood. Human only concept now even promoted to politicians only concept.

The political leaders have no vision for balancing the environment and development. Those international conventions that Sri Lanka is signatory are just papers. Not even 1% of the Sri Lankan politicians are aware of our global obligations.

This political literacy is rather week among the general public in Sri Lanka. I haven’t recently heard a single politician taking on the politics rather than embarrassing the opposition leaders. Sri Lankan civil society is much weaker compare to the countries in Asia. This political culture need to an end to develop the country for the people by the people instead godfather political figures make everything happen on their interests and for their survival.
However, Buddhist custom reminds the ruler that it will rain in due season only if he is ‘righteous’. The wish of all Buddhists is summed up in the following.
“Devo vassatu kalena, Sasa sampatti hotuca, Pito bhavatu lokoca, Raja bhavatu dhammiko “

English translation is “ May gods give rain in due season, May the crops be bountiful, May the people be happy, May the king be righteous”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

CEJ case produced Visual Pollution Regulation in Sri Lanka

Considering the draft visual pollution regulations submitted by the Central Environmental Authority, Court ordered to gazette the same. This is the result of a case filed by the Centre for Environmental Justice in 2009, against the election posters.   
The Centre For Environmental Justice (CEJ) moved Court of Appeal 5 years ago, filing the case bearing the application No. C. A. 135/2009 seeking an order in nature of  Writ of Mandamus against the Inspector General of Police and Central Environmental Authority compelling to formulate regulation on displaying banners, posters, banners and hoardings.

Petitioner has stated their Petition that unauthorized posters, banners and other erections have desecrated the cities and major towns without taking any notice of the educational institutions, religious places of worship, buildings of national importance, historical monuments and places of scenic beauty and/ or visual quality completely obliterating such structures and of vistas. They even occupy pavements causing obstruction to pedestrian movements.

Among adverse impacts of displaying posters, banners at unusual places are visual pollution obscuring scenic views and a fall in prestige of the area with their bright colours. Also Billboards and hoardings have long being accused of being destructive to drivers and causing accidents since sings with bright colours and eye-grabbing pictures may cause drivers to look away from the road during a crucial moment many vehicles and pedestrians have been damaged and injured when hoardings crashed down on them.

It is noted that at the 1st instance of filing of this matter, the 2nd Respondent - the Inspector General of the Police has made an undertaking to remove banners, posters, bill boards and hoardings which have been erected in unauthorized place in Western Province.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Second Tree ordination held at Welioya and Soragune

Soragune Forest is the water catchment for more than 7000 farmers living downstream. This 628 acre forest is belongs to the Soragune Shrine. 

Although such "Nindagam' forest cannot transfer to an individual, the forest has been illegally sold to a  hotelier to build a 36 hole Golf Course and a 1500 room hotel. 

In order to bring the necessary attention, several trees were symbolically ordained  on the 1st March 2014 and the forest has been now handed over to the Buddhist monks to save it. Buddhist Monks lead by Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thero issued a 'Sahngaachna" to the gods to save the forest. 

The Centre for Environmental Justice took the lead in organising the Dharma Yathra started at Vihara Maha Devi park on the 27th February 2014 which reached the Forest on the 1st March 2014. Over 60 buddhist monks and more than 4000 people joined this second tree ordination ceramony.  
Dharma Yathra was very successful in bringing public attention to the forest destruction. Many temples and the local people along the route supported the 3 day long travel.

Looking at the large number of public attended the Tree ordination ceramony, I see that it is getting  high recognition by the local communities. No wonder why. The authorities have continuously failed to protect the water catchments in Sri Lanka. 

In this case, it the Commissioner of the Buddhist Affairs who has failed to act. Other than this 628 acre forest another 3000 acres belongs to Soragune "Kuda Katharagama Devalaya" has been sold to rubber plantations. This forest is also the water catchement of Weli Oya and Walawe river.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dharmayathra for Forest Conservation

Soragune Forest which is belongs to Soragune shrine has been illegally sold to a businessman to build a hotel and a golf course. People downstream of Welioya, a river that provides life for more than 7000 families are in danger due to the possible destruction of the Soragune water catchment. Yet the authorities keep blind eye on this issue.  As of the request of the local communities of Welioya and Soragune, Centre for Environmental Justice, Sri Lanka Environmental Congress, Engaged Buddhist Solidarity for Nature will launch " Dharmayathra for Forest Conservation" at the Viharamahadevi Park on the 27th February 2014. The Dharmayathra will reach Welioya and Soragune on the 1st March 2014 and ordain the trees in order to protect the soragune forest.  This 628 acre forest area is home to more than 35 elephants and many other animals.The reservoir provides water for more than 7000 families living downstream.

Let's Ordain Trees!

Let' s Ordain Trees! Protect Soragune Forest

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

“Thou shall not cut these trees” They are ordained now The story of Tree ordination in Sri Lanka

-->Hemantha Withanage
Writer is the Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice/ Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka. He is the Treasurer and an executive member of the Friends of the Earth International and the Convenor of the NGO Forum on ADB.

Buddhist monks chanting “pirith” “Kesha , Loma, Nacha, Dantha, Tacho……… wrapped the trees with a saffron and red color robes, and ordinated 1000 trees while local communities and the environmentalists were chanting “Saadoo” “Saadoo” “Saadoo”. Venerable Badullagammana Sumanasara Thero, Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thero, venerable Thalangalle Sudhamma Thero and Venerable Dr. Balaharuwe Sirisumana Thero took the lead in this tree ordination.

This first massive tree ordination ceremony in Sri Lanka was held on the 11th January 2014 in Akkara Anuwa and Dimbuldena villages in the Nilgala Forest. Fifty Buddhist monks, over 300 local people and the environmental organizations participated the event. Muslim religious leaders of the area also joined the event. Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) initiated this Tree ordination ritual in order to highlight the massive forest destruction in Nilgala by powerful people.

History of Tree ordination

Symbolical tree ordination is a ritual initiated by Ecology Monks (Phra Nak Anuraksa) a group of Thai Buddhist Monks which has also practiced by the Cambodian, Vietnam and Burmese monks in the last two and half decades. On the surface, tree ordination is presented to the world environmentalist movement as a highly clever and original idea, using the widely respected symbol of monastic robes to make loggers hesitate to cut down trees. It is a combination of bringing the pre-buddhist values of spirit worshiping and the buddhist values of respecting the nature and the political messaging of saving the forests and trees from destructive development.

It is generally acknowledged that the first tree ordination, wherein a tree not already considered sacred was wrapped in saffron-colored cloth and given monastic vows, was performed in Thailand in 1988 by the monk Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak of Wat Bodharma in Phayao Province, Northern Thailand. Phrakhru Manas arrived at the idea after hearing the story of two highway workers who had been forced to cut down a bodhi tree, and thereafter were beset with misfortune.[1]

Venerable Keeranthidiye Pannasekera Thero and several environmental activists ordinated the giant “Dun” tree located along the Baduraliya-Kukulegama road in 1997 which was suppose to cut down for the road expansion for the Kukule hydropower project.  Venerable Dr. Balaharuwe Sirisumana Thero and the farmer organisations and with the support of CEJ ordinated the giant ‘Red Sandalwood’ tree in the Badulla town in 2008 when the Municipal council decided cut it down for the road expansion.  Two trees still standing and offer shade to every one passes and refuge to other living being.

Every tree is a “bodhi” 

Lord Buddha said, that "A tree is a wonderful living organism which gives shelter, food, warmth and protection to all living things. It even gives shade to those who wield an axe to cut it down" .
Primitive man had the highest regard for the trees because in his view it was another living being. In Buddhist thinking like a being, the tree also has a soul and thus it could, when hurt or damaged, feel pain, or even bleed. Buddhism and Hindu religions believe that 33 Crore ( 330 million) of gods, goddess and deities are in the world and among them some are living in the big trees. People sometimes make small shrines under the trees to worship them. Some also believes that the spirits of our ancestors are also living on the trees. Banyan trees are commonly believes as such sprit trees.

We all know that no one ever try to axe the sacred “Bo” tree or even a branch for any purpose since Gauthama Budda attained Nibbana under a ‘Asathu Bo’ tree. The term bo or bodhi is used by Buddhists to imply two distinct meanings: in a narrow sense, it implies the Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa) tree under which the last of the Buddhas, Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment. In a broad sense, it implies any tree under which a Buddha has attained enlightenment. 

The most historical and most venerated tree is the Sri Maha Bodhi located in Anuradhapura. Any other Bo tree is believed to be treated on the similar way. Twenty eight Buddhas that we believe sat under different trees when they attained enlightenment. Ruk Atthana, Kaela, Pulila, Neralu, Sal, Na, Kumbuk, Murutha, Kiripalu, Bak Mee, Una, Sapu, Rath Karaw, Kinihiri, Kohomba, Nelli, Palol,  Atamba, Mara, Dimbul, Nuga, and Asathu are the trees that gave shade to 28 Buddha’s [2] to attain enlightenment. It is widely believe that none of these trees should be cut down similar to the ‘Bo’ Tree.  

A Buddhist monk is prohibited from cutting down a tree or having a tree cut down not only because it has life but because it could also be the abode of a deity. The Vinaya Pitaka, the Book of the Discipline, which lays down rules for the proper behaviour of monks, states specifically that there is an offence of expiation, pacittiya, for the destruction of vegetable growth, by which is meant five different kinds of propagation: what is propagated from roots, from stems, from joints, from cuttings and from seeds. [3]

Ancient Buddha followers also practiced the principle of ‘no harm to the trees’ unless the felling of a tree or cutting of a branch is necessary.  They followed the strict rituals and urged the deities and animals in the trees to move away before cut the tree and burn the forest for cultivation. 

Similarly, in the old days in Thailand when certain big trees were required for the making of the traditional royal barge or posts for the tall roof of a royal pire, an offering was made and a royal proclamation was read to the spirit before it could be cut down. This was a wise practice to preserve big trees of the forest from wanton felling by the simple folk.

In that sense the massive destruction of the forest is a modern practice and not in line with the buddhist beliefs.

Ordination of a tree

In the modern society where money has become the only determination, people look at forest as a ‘land’ and the tree as ‘timber’. There we loose all our buddhist beliefs on the nature, forest and trees. This very problem is the main reason for all the natural disaster we face today.

If one has to reverse the trend, there is no other solution than returning to our ancient practices and respecting to the religions. Among the religions Buddhism is more close to the forest and the trees. A tree is a symbol of altruism. It doesn’t expect anything, which it provides the other living being and the nature. In the modern culture humans has very little or no respect in return. Therefore, it is important to bring the ancient belief on the forest and trees.

One can ask whether ordination of a tree is the right approach and a right ritual according to the Buddhism. Thai Buddhist Monk Achan Chah once said, “They ask, “Then are you an arahant?” Do I know? I am like a tree in a forest, full of leaves, blossoms and fruit. Birds come to eat and nest, and animals seek rest in its shade. Yet the tree does not know itself. It follows its own nature. It is as it is.” (Ajahn Chah, A Tree in a Forest)[4]

Therefore one can say that every tree is an ‘Arhat’. In that circumstances we don’t want to ask the question whether wrapping a robe around the tree trunk is an acceptable ritual.  Although we were not needed to remind people that every tree is a sacred tree in the ancient society, we have to constantly remind people that tree need to be respected and worthy for worshiping.

Therefore the notion of the ordination of a tree is a timely ritual to bring back. The tree ordination, adapted from a traditional Buddhist ritual, to build villagers' and nations commitment to protect the trees from unending development is the way to live longer and respect to the rights of the other living being.
It also denoted the basic rights such as right to life, right to nature. It also respect the Sri Lankan constitution section 28.f which states that “The exercise and enjoyment of rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of duties and obligations, and accordingly it is the duty of every person in Sri Lanka -(d) to preserve and protect public property, and to combat misuse and waste of public property; (e) to respect the rights and freedoms of others; and (f) to protect nature and conserve its riches.
We have given the pledge during the tree ordination that;

“Nilgala Forest which gives shade water, coolness and air with no benefit will offer to the ‘Buddha Sasana’ to be protected as long as the sun and moon prevails. 

We admit the equal rights of the human and other living being to the forest and agree to consume the fruits and other things that can be taken without destroying the trees and the creepers.

We understand that any damage to the Nilgala medicinal plant forest created by King Buddddasa ( 397 A.D) of the Anuradhapura Era is a sin which will affect in this life and also put us in the hell in the end of this life.

Our children and we will become the protectors of this forest as the forest deities and the souls of our ancestors protect this forest.

We pledge to protect all the large and small trees living in this forest that ordained from now on. We know that harming the ordained is a great sin.”

Instead of elites and officials protecting the forest from commoners, now it is the commoners who had to protect the forest from the encroaching elites and powerful land grabbers. Instead of picking trees to be felled, the villagers now picking trees to be saved.

Let the trees remain standing and serve the nature because they are ordained now. “Thou shall not cut these trees.”

[1] Avery Morrow,Tree Ordination as Invented tradition

3  Prof J. B. Dissanayake, What Buddhists believe about the Bodhi Tree "Thou Shalt not cut this Tree!"