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Activists help children from Valikkandy village make seed balls, which they will use to revegetate deforested areas in Point Pedro, in northern Sri Lanka. Vijayatharsiny Vijayakumar, GPJ Sri Lanka
Earth

Sri Lankan Environmentalists Seek to Revitalize Once Verdant Land

Sri Lanka

The country prioritized development after a decades-long civil war. A group of activists wants to refocus communities on environmental stewardship – and they’re starting with seed balls.

POINT PEDRO, SRI LANKA — It’s not time for school at Venmathi Preschool in Valikkandy village, but the yard is a hive of activity.

Young men sit with local children, rolling balls of soil and cow dung with grubby hands and cracking open tamarind pods to extract their seeds. The volunteers combine the seeds and soil mix, roll them into balls and leave them to dry in the sun.

They have all the energy of competitive athletes, but this group is on a different mission. They are making seed balls to help repopulate deforested areas with native plants and restore natural life to once verdant land. A nearly three-decade civil war that ended in 2009 left this northernmost region and other swaths of the country economically battered. The government encouraged development projects that prioritized industrial growth. Groups like these are trying to reverse the environmental consequences.

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Students and volunteers mix tamarind seeds with cow dung and soil, then roll them into balls and let them dry in the sun. The activity is part of an effort in Sri Lanka to refocus communities on environmental stewardship.

Vijayatharsiny Vijayakumar, GPJ Sri Lanka

The men are part of an organization called Pasumai Suvadugal, or Green Trails, formed to help the environment in towns like Point Pedro, where Valikkandy village is located.

Once the balls dry, the activists and children will throw them into areas they hope to revegetate. After two or three weeks, the balls break down and the seeds can germinate. Then the trees begin to grow.

Concerns about the coronavirus have temporarily halted the groups’ activities, although members now offer seeds for home gardening.

“Our desire is to protect the environment, not only ideologically but also practically,” says Suseenthirakumar Vasikaran, a volunteer coordinator at the organization.

Deforestation has been a significant problem in Sri Lanka since the country’s civil war ended, after which the government launched projects that cleared forests to develop cities and farms, widen roads and establish factories. The government has acknowledged the problem, and in 2016, Sri Lanka submitted a report on climate change to the United Nations, pledging to increase national forest cover from 29.7% to 32%.

The seed ball effort, which may appear small, can have lasting effects. “Seed ball is a little technique that we can welcome to restore the natural environment we have lost,” says Kabilan Suntharamoorthy, a senior lecturer in planning at the University of Jaffna. “Indigenous trees that are being destroyed can be saved by the seed balls.”

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Children in northern Sri Lanka throw seed balls. When it rains, the balls will break down and the tamarind seeds will germinate.

Vijayatharsiny Vijayakumar, GPJ Sri Lanka

Pasumai Suvadugal, which is made up of 12 activists, also cleans up coastal areas, sows palm trees, picks up and disposes of plastic waste and holds public discussions on environmental protection.

Officials are backing the effort. “I have granted permission to have trees in our village, because we have enough space for it,” says Nadarajah Segar, a Point Pedro grama niladhari, or village officer, appointed by the government. “I believe that this is the easiest way to generate oxygen in the atmosphere.”

Along with tamarind, the activists use seeds from indigenous or well-established plants such as neem, naval, cashew and cannonball, all of which they can collect locally. These varieties can grow wherever they’re sown.

“We can even throw seed balls when we are traveling by bus,” says Ramakrishna Sarma Gananathan, another activist with Pasumai Suvadugal.

Vasikaran and the other activists intend to expand their activities in this part of Sri Lanka. That will mean, he says, throwing many more seed balls.

“There is no limit to the joy in seeing the seeds we have sown today as the sprouts of tomorrow.”

Josephine Anthony, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.

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