When she was a girl, Nilanthi Kumarasinghe would fill a bowl with salt and chilli powder and head into the forest. Her parents were worried it was unsafe, but to her those were halcyon days. She and the other children ran wild, spending lazy afternoons climbing trees to pluck fruit, both sweet and tart; laughing and talking as they ate them with chilli powder.
“We grew up relying on the resources of the forest. We found things there that we could not find anywhere else,” Nilanthi remembers, describing how her father used to return from his forays into the woods with large baskets of wild mushrooms. Their neighbours would bring home fruits, honeycomb and medicinal herbs.
Now 42-years old, Nilanthi is married and lives with her family in Mahakirindegama, a village near Mihintale in Anuradhapura. Her mushrooms come not from the forest but from a little shed behind her house. The seeds are grown in sawed-off PVC bottles, each container filled with a combination of mango wood dust, magnesium sulphate, calcium carbonate, soya and gram flour and gypsum to hold it all together. She uses only organic fertilisers to keep pests at bay and swears by fermented garlic juice.
Each container in her shed yields some 750 grams of mushrooms before it must be replaced. For every 200 grams of oyster mushrooms Nilanthi makes Rs. 60; abalones get her a little more, at Rs.80 per pack. Her product is in demand, all her neighbours buy from her, and she also supplies the local shops. In total, in a good month she earns Rs. 40,000.
Training and supplies from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) helped her kick start what is today a thriving business. The Community Forestry Project is funded by AusAid and implemented by the Department of Forestry in collaboration with UNDP. It was initiated to reduce deforestation and forest degradation in the dry and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka.
At the heart of the program is an awareness that the communities that live on the boundaries of the forest are in fact the best people to protect it. When empowered and equipped with knowledge of the ecosystem and best practices, technologies, market linkages, access to credit and ability to partner with the Government, private sector, NGOs and other entities, such communities can prosper.
Field operations began in 2012, with the project being rolled out across 17 districts. 23,000 hectares of forests were replanted in 167 sites and productivity was enhanced in over 3,000 home gardens. As part of the support to the Department of Forestry, motorbikes and computers were provided to field offices, thereby helping to improve their capacity and access. A Programme Management Unit was established at the premises of the Forest Department to facilitate the implementation of the program. In total, an estimated 10,000 households enjoyed direct benefits from the project, with indirect beneficiaries estimated to be some 90,000 people.
Before this work began, many of these communities were isolated, and lacking in access to basic infrastructure, water and other essentials. Most of the men in this area are daily wage workers, says Namali Ratnatunga, a forest extension officer with 15 years of experience in the department. To make money, they would often go into the forest, slashing and burning to create room for chena cultivation. Close to a small tank, this village would also see large numbers of elephants and monkeys ransacking their fields.
Now Ratnatunga sees alternative livelihoods making a huge impact. Nilanthi is one of a dozen women who work from home. Ratnatunga has helped others set up business where they raise chickens, grow lime, mangoes and beetle leaves, and run a variety of small home businesses. In the next village, Ratnatunga helped the community plant teak trees, which have provided them with the wood they need to run their furnaces. Such initiatives have curtailed forest encroachments, while leaving the communities more prosperous, with sustainable sources of income.
Ratnatunga feels the project’s focus on women has really paid off. “The work is being done by the women,” she says, explaining that the family benefits when women earn because women are more likely than men to invest in the household and in well-being of individual family members. Nilanthi puts her own earnings toward the education of her three children, the youngest of whom, a girl, is in Grade 5. “We, the women in this area, are the ones sustaining this project,” says Nilanthi with pride.