The sugar-textured sand might have been somewhere else—Bahia, Florida, Ibiza. But not a single swimsuit-clad sunbather strolled the nameless beach at the very northwestern tip of Sri Lanka. Instead of sun-worshipping tourists, knee-height sticks dotted the lagoon.
“Imagine, here used to be land mines,” said Kosol Wattegedara, a supply officer of the Sri Lankan Navy. “Now we have mangrove seedlings.”
As part of their work, Wattegedara and his shipmates plant mangroves—a far cry from the time when the nation was locked in one of the longest modern warfares in Asia.
On and off from 1983 until 2009, a civil war between the Sinhala-majority government and the Tamil minority militia tore apart Sri Lanka. The intermittent conflicts killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people. Since emerging from a quarter century of warfare, however, the Southeast Asian nation has quickly undergone great changes. Go to Sri Lanka today, and it feels remarkably calm. Especially quiet is the north, which has yet to see the tourism boom in the rest of the country. When you fly toward Jaffna, the capital of the Northern Province, you’ll see many lonesome sandpits and pristine beaches, lacking the kind of mega resorts that have sprung up on the coast around Colombo.
Why are the Navy and Coast Guard knee-deep in brackish water here, planting mangroves?
“Our duty is to protect Sri Lanka,” the lieutenant explains. Working together with the California-based nonprofit Seacology, the Navy estimates to have planted 38,000 mangrove seedlings all around Sri Lanka.
Mangroves, shrubbery that lives along the coast in tropical and subtropical zones, are hardy plants adapted to the ever-fickle and tough conditions of the sea. They’re not exactly photogenic like palm trees, which may explain why you don’t see them gracing postcards. But they serve far more important functions. For one, their knotty roots act as nurseries for various marine species, helping to ensure the fishery’s survival. They also trap sediment to slow erosion and mitigate effects of typhoons and tsunamis by acting as natural buffers. Today, they are under a great threat—about 35 percent of the world’s mangroves have already been lost due to rising sea levels and deforestation.
As an island nation facing the effects of climate changes, Sri Lanka has decided that preserving and replanting mangroves is a matter of survival. So, two years ago, it made an unprecedented step to become the world’s first nation to protect all of its mangroves, which are estimated to cover over 25,000 acres of the country. The government lends its support, both tangible (such as its military personnel) and symbolic (such as commemorative stamps).
The most crucial work falls on rural communities—like Vidattaltivu, a coastal town 60 miles south of Jaffna. Much of the war took place in the Northern Province, where Vidattaltivu is, and as a result, the region lags well behind the rest of the country. Many of these small towns experienced an exodus during the war, so making a living is a challenge—and environmental protection often takes a backseat in impoverished communities.
Sudeesa, a local NGO formerly known as Small Fishers Federation of Lanka, partnered with Seacology, which helps protect island environments around the world, to protect mangroves while improving the livelihoods of those in rural Sri Lanka. Together they run grassroots programs that give small loans to women entrepreneurs; in return for business training and support, the participants plant and pledge to protect mangroves in their communities around the country. In Vidattaltivu they run a training center, where the women learn about business as well as the importance of mangroves.
Thavanesan Rageshwary, in her 50s, runs a small general store in town and got a loan in order to diversify her business. With a small loan worth about $70, she told me, she was able to add a grill to offer snacks to fisherman—a venture that has quickly paid back the loan. But Vidattaltivu, like similar towns around the country, isn’t exactly a thriving hub of commerce. A tuk-tuk driver I met in town was easy with a smile but told me that he hadn’t had a single fare all day.
Vidattaltivu is a modest village where Christian churches, a Hindu temple, Buddhist shrines, and homes painted in brilliant pink line a checkerboard of dirt streets; there are also many empty homes, a result of the exodus during the prolonged civil war. From here a gentle estuary—lined with mangroves—leads out to sandy beaches meeting the Indian Ocean.
Sudeesa and Seacology have ambitious goals. In just five years, they want to not only protect all the existing 25,000 acres of mangrove forests but also add another 9,600 acres—while providing sustainable livelihoods for 15,000 hardworking Sri Lankans like Rageshwary through business training and micro-loans. By no means is tourism a panacea—often it becomes a detriment to many small communities’ culture and environment. But Sri Lanka may benefit from spreading its tourism wealth from the characterless resorts catering to package tourists to other corners of the island.
“All foreign tourists want to see birds,” said naturalist Amal Priyankara, who guides two-hour boat tours for Muthurajawela Visitor Centre (+94 11 403 0150). “This is the first time anyone’s asked me about mangroves in English.”
The six-seat boat was gliding down part of the Dutch Canal, a long series of waterways built to transport spices and still used daily for fishing and logistics. We passed rice paddies, modest homes, and folks casting fishing lines into the water where coconuts bobbed. Soon we were out in Negombo Lagoon, an expansive, shallow body of saline water where mangrove forests thrive. A designated nature sanctuary that supports hundreds of distinct species of plants, the marshland is home to many kinds of kingfishers, herons, and egrets, attracting global bird-watchers. From a distance, jumbo jets were landing and taking off: We were just a few miles from the country’s gateway, Colombo International Airport.
Negombo, 20 miles north of Colombo, is a curious place—a busy beach town that has seemingly become a tourist hub solely because of its proximity to the airport, where many Europeans land, beeline to all-inclusive resorts, and hardly leave to see the rest of Negombo, let alone the country. Its beach isn’t much to write home about—certainly far less appealing and far more crowded than the ones I saw up north. And most visitors won’t see this magnificent lagoon.
The boat maneuvered into narrow channels and nooks created by the canopies of lush greenery. Sri Lanka alone has 22 different species of mangroves, starkly different from one another. Flowering mangroves, or mal-kadol as they’re locally called, produce vividly red blossoms used for traditional medicine and attracting bees, while others produce berries. Gin-pol palms mimic the shape of a small coconut tree, while many look as if they have legs, ready to walk on water. Some drop their seeds from branches, and others sprout “knee roots” out from sediments to provide oxygen to the tree. But they all have in common their ability to trap carbon more efficiently than the rain forest. A caveat? When cut down, they can release a great amount of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
“They teach you all about mangroves in schools, but it was just another subject to me,” said Priyankara, in his 20s. “But I’m really into them after seeing how important they are in supporting the wildlife.”
He scooped out a gaunt root that was floating by and handed it to me. “Plant it here,” he said. “Maybe it will be a forest when you come back someday.”