Preserving An All-Giving Tree

Anoka Abeyratne is passionate about making a societal and environmental impact by conserving mangroves

The December 2004 tsunami devastated the island’s coast destroying infrastructure and killing 35,000 people. “Mangrove forest cover could have reduced the tsunami wave’s power by two thirds,” Anoka Abeyratne says. Areas of the coastal strip with dense mangrove vegetation bore the tsunami impact well.

Anoka is a social entrepreneur. Her social enterprise centres on conserving and replanting mangroves in Sri Lanka. Loss of mangrove habitat in Sri Lanka is happening at an alarming pace. Mangroves are a refuge to fish, crabs, shrimps and mollusks; are prime nesting and migratory sites for several bird species; and home to animals like monkeys, fishing cats, water monitors, sea turtles and crocodile. Mangroves are also brilliant adapters, adjusting to constant exposure to hostile environmental conditions like high salinity, low oxygen and strong winds. Tourism, prawn farms, illegal clearing for settlements and pollution are the main reasons for loss of mangrove habitat.

Anoka’s primary area of focus was the Bolgoda lake. Bolgoda is one of the largest fresh water bodies in Sri Lanka spreading over two districts, Colombo to Kalutara. The pollution of the lake and mangrove destruction is affecting the wellbeing of surrounding communities. “Mangroves have so many benefits. They purify water, prevent erosion and provide fruit; it’s like an all-giving tree,” says Anoka.

Together with the communities residing in the Bolgoda lake area, Anoka and her team replant varieties of mangrove plants to populate the area. They also educate residents about the potential for eco tourism.

The communities she works with also make handicrafts such as masks, ornaments and bangles from a plant called kaduru, an associate mangrove variety. Of the handicrafts, about 70% are sold overseas mainly in Europe and North America, and the rest to local souvenir shops. They also undertake special orders for conventions. The profit benefits the communities and funds mangrove conservation. “We empowered the community to be the stakeholders,” she explains.

Anoka also partners a group of young people organised as Active Citizens, by educating them on mangrove re-plantation and facilitating their conservation efforts island wide. This has allowed them to reach areas such as Batticaloa and Kalpitiya, where the lagoons are rich in mangroves. “This is social franchising,” she says about their transferring knowledge and best practices to other conservation groups.

Projects were initially funded with their pocket money but now the British Council and the Commonwealth Students Association support them financially. “After seeing an article in the Huffington Post about the project, even Disney liked the idea and got in touch with us,” she exclaims