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Forest cover, wildlife conservation and roadside trees



By Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe

It was most welcome to read in The Island of 22 October that the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation of the new government had stated in Parliament the intention of increasing the forest cover of the country. It was also stated that action has already commenced together with other relevant bodies to plant trees by the side of newly constructed roads. While these statements are most welcome it is hoped that the implementation of these intentions is effected by those with experience in the subjects in question and with the interests of the country at heart. This has not always been the case.

An example of the latter was the Sri Lanka Forestry Master Plan produced by foreign experts several years ago and condemned by Professor of Botany, Dr. B. A. Abeywickrema (then serving on the Board of the Central Environmental Authority) as a Master Plan to finish Sri Lanka. Professor Abeywickrema felt strongly about the matter and, after encountering political opposition locally to his recommendation to review the plan, arranged an appeal to the World Bank in Washington, D.C. His appeal was upheld but the opposition he encountered from a local politician and his sycophant on this issue resulted in Professor Abeywickrema’s resignation from the Board of the CEA (which, incidentally, he told me that he did not regret since he had done his duty by the country. He, also, did not accept a cynical proposal to accord him a farewell before he left.) The circumstances surrounding Professor Abeywickrema leaving the CEA were sad. This writer had seen at first hand the enormous knowledgeable and balanced contributions Professor Abeywickrema had made during the initial years of setting up the CEA despite pressures from politicians and their ‘yes men’.

Undertaking to increase the forest cover of Sri Lanka is well and good but very often translates into expenditure of funds and effort into planting extensive monocultures of exotic species, such as pines or eucalyptus. These, among other drawbacks, provide little or no benefit to our indigenous fauna and flora by way of food or habitat, in addition to other issues such as creating a potential fire hazard. They are chosen since new plantations are not attacked by hare and other wildlife.

While concern is, quite rightly, frequently voiced as regards the protection of elephants and leopards, there is little or no public discussion of the myriads of insects, birds, fish, orchids, tree ferns, etc., in our endangered forests, which are in great need of protection and conservation. In view of the numerous climatic zones ranging from the mangroves to the arid zones to the Sabaragamuwa rain forests to the upcountry Horton Plains and to its being an island, the country is host to a huge number of indigenous and endemic plant and animal species, which has led to its being labelled a biological ‘hotspot’. It is also the resting place of birds migrating south, such as flamingos and the Indian Pitta.

For those primarily concerned with the parlous state of the country’s economy, wildlife tourism has rightly been described as a money spinner. The essential role of pollinators in agriculture and of predators in the control of various pests (e.g. the control of mice by owls) are two further areas where wildlife conservation provides something more concrete than a ‘feel good effect’. (To digress briefly, the use of pollinators in agriculture was practiced in Ancient Egypt. Skeps of honey bees were loaded onto barges, which were then towed along the River Nile and parked where a crop was in flower as the seasons unrolled. This resulted in a honey harvest, as well as boosting the crop yield. Do Sri Lankan farmers transport pollinators to crops when they are in flower?)

It is suggested that the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation join forces with the Ministry of Education to increase the awareness of the people (both children and adults, such as the police) of the plants and animals of our country and the legal provisions which have been prescribed for their protection. This is sorely needed. Till not long ago, plants in flower of the yellow orchid (Vanda spathulata) were hawked openly on the streets of Kandy and in front of the Kollupitiya market in Colombo despite it being a protected species. (Advice may be sought from Samantha Gunasekera for information concerning the orchids of Sri Lanka.)

As regards the welcome move to plant trees along roads, mention may be made of deliberations in this regard by an Environmental Committee of the Colombo Municipal Council several years back, which was chaired by this writer. The Committee was constituted of several experts in various fields, who generously contributed of their time and expertise. One item discussed, which found support, was the need to have proper maintenance of the magnificent trees to be found along roadsides in Colombo. Unfortunately, recommendations to this end do not seem to have been followed and yet another tree fell over on Flower Road recently. It is fortunate that no-one was injured.

Before concluding this brief comment relating to the undertaking of the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation to increase the forest cover of the island, the writer would like to refer to a communication received coincidentally on 22 October from the organization, AVAAZ. For those unfamiliar with the work of AVAAZ (which means ‘voice’ or ‘song’ in many languages), it is a network of some 60-million individuals living in every nation of the world. The teams engaged in the various diverse campaigns undertaken by the network are said to be based in 18 countries on six continents and to work in 17 languages. The latest communication from AVAAZ notes that half the earth’s forests have vanished with 15 billion trees being felled annually. This would translate to 476 trees per second.

The communication from AVAAZ quotes the observation of the organization called ‘Mother Jones’ that ‘Planting trees is good. Eliminating deforestation is better.’ AVAAZ is currently engaged in gathering support worldwide for a petition to the European Union, which is considering a new law to ban any products linked to deforestation. Professor Abeywickreme would have encouraged support from Sri Lanka for such a law.

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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