We almost cop an NGO bullet

Heenbanda Vedamahattaya

The GMSL spoke at length with Heenbanda Vedamahattaya on medical biodiversity improvement.

Bim Kohomba (Munronia pinnata) is a herb that is used to purify blood and reduce fevers. If its foliage density were slightly greater, we are sure that Lord of the Rings fans may well have mistaken it for the fictitious, cure-all magical herb of Ethelas which has the same properties. It used to grow in great swaths across the Knuckles region.  Well, once its properties became better known, a plant that used to go for Rs. 20 a kilo shot up to Rs. 500 a kilo and was harvested to extinction. It could have been protected and its harvests limited to the requirement of indigenous medical practitioners but no. Activists and practitioners alike kept its properties a secret citing, of all things – bio piracy. Well that was only a public secret with everyone attempting to get their hands on a few kilos for sale. The upshot? No one actually created any mechanism, protocol or laws to protect it and it was subject to “secret”, uncontrolled destruction. So, too, many other herbs that were once quite prevalent in the area for pretty much the same reason.


Those who could protect that biota and make it flourish are the practitioners. Not the protectionists ringing piracy alarm bells who can only shout but have no real capacity or strategy to do the needful and prevent the tragedy that ensued from their howls.


Bm Kohomba

Bm Kohomba (Munronia pinnata)

Saliyadasa Vedamahattaya of Halminiya told us this story and said that he had been given land by the Department of Ayurveda to grow his own herbarium. He asked us if we could get him the required plants but hold on. Is THAT what we should do? Sure, we could go the easy NGO route, determine that “Saliyadasa requires 10 bim kohomba plants”, go through purchasing, give it to him, take a photo, execute exit strategy and go gaily on our dumb way.


That is not our way. If we are to ensure that biodiversity is re-established and especially medical biodiversity, it would be through a system of widespread propagation and not one single herb garden. We can and we will obtain the required plants but we will also bind all of the practitioners of the area to the Department of Ayurveda and speak to them and the relevant ministry and regulators to tie all of these together in a strategic plan for improving the density and distribution of the plants similar to the process we employ for improving heirloom agro biodiversity. With Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) a key part of the CBD, that must be our strategic route.


Our field teams almost went the way of most to accede to the micro request with no thought to solving a macro problem. YIKES! Sanity prevailed since the HO was informed of the plans. We just about managed to dodge a classic NGO bullet.


Heenbanda Vedamahattaya’s Story

Man! but deep drill engagement with communities does yield up some crazy scenarios. Here’s one that Amal initially identified and Dougie later unpacked in our forays into the field these last few days.


Saliyadasa Vedamahattaya

Tragic though the outcome and solved easily if the required care was taken in understanding community needs, the story we heard from the respected indigenous medial practitioner was just too crazy to have been concocted.

No one needs to give an indigenous medical practitioner herbs to plant unless the biota has become regionally extinct for one reason or another, the practitioner cannot procure it easily due to rarity or he is just too old to do the needed trek into the jungles to get it. Heenbanda Vedamahattaya from Narangamuwa certainly didn’t need planting material of any sort for any reason whatsoever. But that is exactly what some do good brigade of NGOs had done. They had come in, already armed with a formula from god knows where to start planting medical flora on his land. We believe that the reason was an activity line in whatever project they had obtained funds that said “plant 30 hectares with 50 species of medical herbs at selected locations in the Knuckles region” or something of the sort. They really didn’t give a hoot whether these people needed them or not. All they knew was that their remote controlled, rule-of-thumb, crackpot project design should be planted on the ground come hell or high water. And that WAS the problem. NO WATER. Lol. The poor doctor needed water not plants. He was quite capable of obtaining and planting if his water issue had been solved but where in their budget lines was that? So they stick living things and living seeds into the ground, take a few photos and go away happy that they have protected their jobs and have the photographs necessary to obtain more funds for similarly stupid efforts. The plants then proceeded to do what they were planted to do – they die. A 1000 liter tank and some pipes would have had Heenbanda Vedamahattaya well on his way but no. For NGOs, addressing perceived problems is more important than solving actual problems. We shake our heads.


The Kandegama 87: They hate NGOs and welp… so do we!

Kandegama community

Dougie meets with individuals, families and communities in Kandegama to get to the actual reason why they are so suspicious of NGOs

We never shied away from calling a spade a spade. Yes, we do not like NGOs and by that, we mean the many hundreds of such be they communal, national or internationals who sell human suffering to alleviate their own. They are the worst going low-life on earth and if the reason for the continuity agony of people is because they are exploited, taken advantage of and taken for a ride by external entities from invaders to governments to businesses – well NGOVille? Please join that table of cheats in this social clubhouse we call civilization because there is no other place where we can seat you. When our field teams went from overarching observation to direct engagement at the deep community level in our field activities with 87 families in Kandegama, they became aware of a false note playing in the background. Some discord. Some disconnect. Some doubt. When that information was upstreamed to the GMSL leadership, Dougie immediately saw a problem that could land us all in social work purgatory if we were not there already.


So he rushed up to the site for a good old CID style tete-a-tete to get to the root of the problem. Oh the villagers were hemming and hawing, wishing and washing all down the line but then under that incessant probing they upped and said that NGOs has been among them like foxes among chickens, braying to the skies how much they want to protect them and ending up taking them for everything they could including all of the funds earmarked to help them become stronger – sans of course the cost of the humungous display boards that proved the fact they had done jack for these communities.


So Dougie put it to them: “Ah yes, we understand. You would be foolish not to doubt our motives as well”. He then explained that there would be no individual support provided to families, no special favours to anyone, no selective support or false signatures but that it would be collective with all support and assistance channeled via their own internal organizations and the only individual treatment at the level of households was to be the provision of seeds and training. The entire process of improving their own resilience would be theirs – and theirs alone. They would be the ones to determine if we were doing a good job or not.


And their frowns turned to hesitant smiles. Dougie had done it. A long ways still to go to gain their trust but certainly, it was a start. An issue never created by us could have easily jumped up and taken a chunk out of our own rear ends through no fault of our own if we had been less vigilant, less uncaring and less concerned about the outcomes of our work.


We suppose that the mutual dislike of NGOs between our teams and the 87 actually is a common ground on which we can meet.


The TOTs and Youth watchdogs are identified

TOT member

Ms. Anusha Kumari Rathnayaka from Aeanwala is one of the shortlisted TOTs and she is a social activist and a first place winner for rural home gardens and truly an ideal addition to our community team.

It took us literally months and incessant rounds of discussions, chit-chats, observations to long list 34 potential individuals for training as TOTs and another 60 youth as watchdogs. We tried to make sure that they would be in for the longer haul and give a significant portion of their lives over the next few months to the COLIBRI project – largely for the reward of satisfaction of having done by their communities than anything else. We certainly do not have the wherewithal to pay them for the massive effort we anticipate from them but then again, we don’t pay ourselves anything much either. Civil action does not work that way in our view and much of our work is done voluntarily and our field task was to find people with sufficient experience, knowledge and insight who will happily gift those to their friends and families. Men and women who can truly be be trained to train in this new order of the world that has all of us playing catch-up and recaliberating and rethinking hitherto fondly held values where everything reduced to “how much for how much” in a monitory sense.


We finally shortlisted 23 TOTs and 36 watchdogs to be our friends, supporters, helpers in this effort and we hope they come through with flying colors. Not an easy task with everything telescoped and all resources from time to funds in serious short supply. We hope that eight months spent in the field will count for something and that our decisions in this respect are um… not all that off target 🙂


Field activities kickoff

Field teams at Pahalagal Debokka

Our field staff engaging with a 25 family cluster at Pahalagal Debokka

Have we left it for too late? Sincerely we hope not. Its been a horror time for grassroots activities. What with the madness that has/is/will happen, we do not think we have done too shabbily at all. Sure we wish there was never a murderous bug to contend with but so does the rest of the planet. We are a few days off from our planned start date of 15th September though.


The key task as we commenced our field operations was to figure out how we will get the primary training and inputs to the farmers with the logistics still sluggish despite the country opening up a bit. Our design strategy of creating cluster groups is still valid and therefore our field teams went right into the fray, meeting the people under the best possible safety conditions and creating each 25 family cluster comprising of five groups of five families each. The whole process of engagement and monitoring will be based on the performance of these mutually supportive groups and clusters. We will be watching their performance and capabilities during and after the treatment phase and into the action phase of converting to natural farming techniques. A farming cluster will yield up a leader and the leaders of the clusters of each village will form the Village Level Microenterprise Association (VLMA) leadership. These will eventually feed the River Basin Microenterprise Association (RBMA) which will be the body that will engage with the external world in marketing produce and products of the COLIBRI initiative.


It was by no means an easy task especially with the terrain being what it is and some of our field staff had to camp out in areas such as Galamuduna to complete some of the engagement tasks because of the sheer inaccessibility of these settlements. To hear our teams speak, “underserved” acquired a new meaning in these locations. Basic, early day stuff of course but we are heartened by the response of the communities.

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