Entrance built by Haritha Mithuro at Samangala

Nature-based tourism is in the spotlight again with the Eco-Systems Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) being implemented in the country. Among the key areas earmarked for development under the ESCAMP is nature-based tourism. The funding for this five-year long project comes from the World Bank as a USD 45 million loan; it is implemented by the Forest Department.

The areas identified for development under nature-based tourism component of the project include the construction of nature trails, the construction or renovation of visitor services infrastructure including homestays. The other facilities expected to be developed through the project include wayside interpretation points, observation towers, wildlife hides, canopy walks and night safaris. The total allotment for this component of the project is USD 6 million.

Indika Prasad is a tour guide from Deniyaya. He followed a course on tour guiding at Ruhunu Tourist Bureau before taking to guiding as a profession in 2012. He obtained a licence from the Forest Department as a tracker in 2015. He is also a founding member of Haritha Mithuro, a local environmental activist group. He claims his involvement with Haritha Mithuro remoulded his thinking on the environment in general and Sinharaja in particular.

Last Poson Poya Day, Indika guided us to Sinharaja through the newly opened Samangala entrance, 11 km from the Deniyaya town. Opened to the public on 28 March, this new entry point is also the highest access into the rainforest. Our mission was to research how the local communities were engaged in nature based-tourism around Sinharaja and soon we found that Indika was an ideal resource person. Coming from a village in the foothills of Sinharaja, he expressed his innate affection for the rainforest in a one liner thus: “We love Sinharaja as much as our lives”.

Indika Prasad is committed to protecting the environment.
Indika Prasad is committed to protecting the environment.

Community to the fore

The new Samangala trail is very much a product of Haritha Mithuro. They have also built a ticket counter, which was handed over to the Forest Department. Just opposite that is a half-built structure which, we were told, was a ticket counter that was to be built through the ESCAMP funds, but abandoned as the funds were not forthcoming.

Indika spoke of the new Samangala trail with lot of pride. “We cleared the pathway of an existing footpath previously used by the villagers. We were cautious to cause the least damage to the foliage. We contributed our labour for free. We got funds through the Forest Department’s ESCAMP project for the material.”

The volunteers have done a tremendous job. They have paved stones where the surface was soggy and slippery and built steps to climb elevations. Railings have come up where you need negotiating a precipice. The two-kilometre trail takes you to a waterfall, “galdoruella”, one of a sequence of four deep inside the forest.

Wallapatta mug: Forest Department’s shame

Along the trail were the stumps of trees that would instantaneously arouse the curiosity of visitors. That was to be the least expected in Sinharaja, a strict nature reserve and the only rainforest in Sri Lanka, which is also a world heritage site.

Wallapatta is popular in the production of perfumes.
Wallapatta is popular in the production of perfumes.

“These are the cut wallapatta trees. Now you hardly see a wallapatta tree in Sinharaja,” said Indika.

‘Where on earth had the forest authorities – the designated guardians of the forest – been till all this destruction was done’ is the question that will invariably arise in anybody’s mind.

For almost two decades wallapatta (Gyrinops walla) smuggling has been a thriving business in Sri Lanka, where the country’s forests are at the receiving end. Wallapatta is used as an agarwood in perfume production.

The other dimension to the new nature trail

While we trekked, Indika told us the other reason for building the nature trail.

“There is a trail through a lodge and that is used to take its guests into the forest. That happens without any supervision by the Forest (Department)”. Indika pointed out that nobody can go into the forest without being accompanied by a guide authorised by the Forest Department.

The hotel had been issuing (Forest Department’s) tickets to its guests, Indika said. “They get these from the Forest Department, and sell them to the guests at the hotel. That’s illegal. We have been protesting against these unlawful practices for a long time. We wrote about this to the authorities. Now at last they are going to close that unauthorised trail and will use this new trail, even for the guests of the hotel.”

Mahinda Senaviratne, Director of Environment Management, Forest Department, when asked how this errant practice had gone on for so long, said: “First, they were taking guests into the forest without any tickets and that continued for some time without our knowledge. We told them that could not be done. What we do now is we sell them a bulk of ticket books, which they sell to the guests at the hotel. Otherwise we won’t get any income. In the future we will have another entrance in Samangala, and will ask them to take the guests only through that”.

Bimal Mahagedara, CEO, Rainforest Eco Lodge confirmed the existence of a trail from the hotel and the issuance of tickets from the hotel. However, he claimed that it was a longstanding trail that the villagers had used; Indika refuted this claim.

A trail constructed by Haritha Mithuro
A trail constructed by Haritha Mithuro

Homestay and nature tourism – a cog in the wheel

We met W. Dharmarathne (Dharme) in Midelpitiya, 12 km from Deniyaya, in the immediate outskirts of the Pitadeniya entrance in the southern frontier of Sinharaja. Dharme runs a “homestay” facility catering mainly to foreigners. His four-room guest house is situated less than 500 metres from the Pitadeniya entrance. Development of homestay facilities for tourists is another component envisaged in the ESCAMP’s nature tourism protocol.

Dharme said the business had been thriving till the Easter Sunday bomb blasts. “No sooner had the bombs gone off than the foreigners disappeared,” he sounded depressed. Till then, around 150 to 200 people had been trekking into Sinharaja through the Pitadeniya entrance, a day he said.

Dharme’s 25-year-old A/L qualified son Asoka helps the parents with the family business and also works as a tour guide. Asoka has learnt English, which he speaks fluently.

Asoka said there had been a lot of visitors in the past. “During the season it could be quite hectic. From early morning till late evening I’ll be on the move. I take guests into the forest easily twice, or sometimes thrice a day.” At present, he drives a trishaw.

A trek into the forest from Pitadeniya entrance covers four kilometres and may take about three hours.

Dharme is also a beneficiary of a monetary grant channeled through the ESCAMP project, for the upliftment of his homestay facility. About eight months ago he received Rs. 300,000 from the forest department as an outright grant. With that money, he has expanded his guesthouse.

Asked how he had been selected, Dharme said it was through “Sinharaja Sumithuro”, an environmental society that was formed with the help of the Forest Department. For this year’s round of grants a total of five families have been selected from Midelpitiya.

The society provides the villagers with an opportunity to learn more about the Sinharaja, says Dharme. “People are very keen to protect the forest. They will immediately tip off the authorities if someone tries to harm the forest.”

He recalled how the villagers had prevented an incident of bio piracy about five years ago, when a foreigner was caught trying to collect samples from Sinharaja at night. “He was caught with his equipment and handed over to the police. Thereafter no person is allowed to go to the forest after 6 pm.”

Although Dharme has been running his homestay for the past five years, still he has failed to get approval from the Tourism Authority.

Nature tourism without tourism authority

Tourism in Sri Lanka is primarily the responsibility of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA).

Upali Rathnayake, Director General SLTDA, contacted for comment, spoke about the Forest Department-driven nature-based tourism project under the ESCAMP.

Ratnayake felt that the SLTDA had been sidelined, despite the World Bank’s claim that it would be a key stakeholder of the project together with the Forest Department. The ESCAMP report states, “The Forest Department will closely collaborate with the SLTDA to ensure the proposed strategies and plans are incorporated into the overall country tourism strategies” (page 34). According to the report, it is also a member of the Project Steering Committee (PSC), which is supposed to oversee the overall implementation and progress of the project, while providing the much needed policy level guidance.

Ratnayake said: “I attended two workshops and two meetings organised by the Forest Department on project implementation. I made some proposals on tourism regarding Sinharaja. I think the project is still continuing. But we were not involved for a long time.

“At the last meeting we agreed on sharing part of the activities from their side and part of the activities from our side. But there was no communication from their side since then”. When enquired when the last meeting was, he said it had been either in May or June last year.

“I have clearly said that the Forest Department’s responsibility in any development activities lies with forest management and forest conservation. Forest reserve is a good resource for  tourism. But that has to be done in such a manner that it suffers no harm. When it comes to accommodation, our involvement is absolutely necessary as we are the approving authority. And also with regard to any form of tourism selection of products, assessment of their future potential and sustainability are also crucial factors.”

Commenting on homestays Rathnayake said, “For the homestays our criteria are essential. Unless one fulfills those we can’t register them.

“The immediate thing you see in a homestay is for the owner to get some economic benefit. However, the overall objective of this should be to ease off any pressures that could arise from within the community to the forest reserve and to promote conservation. Also the provider should stick to the principle of providing a homely atmosphere. Sri Lankanness and other cultural aspects too need to be looked into. Unless these aspects are carefully looked into it can work adversely”.

Rathnayake said that marketing was a very important factor in the homestay business. “However, as it is costly, a single person cannot bare that”. To overcome this situation the SLTDA has come up with a network marketing approach mentioned Rathnayake.

Further elaborating on homestays, he said, “You have to look into the suitability of the provider, how equipped he is for it, and his training. Without proper training the product will be delivered in a wrong way. We spend lot of resources on training. Our organization is well geared to that. We provide this free of charge. We take great pain on this because the importance of it to this country. I have told all this to them”, Rathnayake sounded despondent.

An academic perspective on nature tourism

Manjula Samarakoon, a senior lecturer at University of Ruhuna, is an expert on community forestry and community conservation with two Masters Degrees. He is very critical of the Forest Department’s approach to nature tourism.

“Although the Forest Department talks about nature-based tourism what actually happens in our nature reserves is nothing but mass tourism. Visitors are taken into the forest even without scant respect for the dynamics of conservation”.

Samarakoon said that if there was nature-based tourism then its main principle should be conservation. The benefits of nature-based tourism should be rechanneled for conservation.

“This doesn’t happen with the Forest (Department), which is a highly centralized structure. What they actually do is charge a fee from the visitors, collect that money and send it to the Treasury. This alone is a violation of the first principle of nature based tourism” said Samarakoon.

He also said that in nature tourism the communities around the forests should get direct economic benefits and that would prevent them from exploiting the forest unduly. Also their culture should be protected and restored.

“None of these happen in the projects carried out by the Forest Department,” said Samarakoon. “What can you bring as a souvenir from Sinharaja? Nothing!”

On community involvement in nature tourism he said, “You can get the communities from around the Sinharaja involved in production of these things, for example kitul treacle, other kitul products, cane and bamboo products such as bags, mats, kitchenware and mementos.  I know over 25 families who were involved in these traditional industries in the Kudawa area. I did research on them. They are no longer there for want of support from the Forest Department.”

Nature tourism – already on a hot seat

When the ESCAMP project office was contacted for their comment, an officer, who chose to remain anonymous, said the nature-based tourism component of the project had been temporarily halted as a result of the protests that followed the road building project in Kudawa late last year. He further said that the rest of the nature-based tourism plans would be implemented only after careful scrutiny of the entire project. A comprehensive environmental impact assessment (EIA) would be carried out and only the activities approved by that will be carried out.

When asked whether the project was carried out without an EIA, he answered in the affirmative.


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