We complete two case studies on our work so far

It has been a year and a half into COLIBRI and while we had many battles to fight during that challenging and heady time what with COVID a country in economic crisis, a nation in agitation and general downturns across pretty much everything. Despite these challenges we still managed to meet our tasks head-on and during those engagements we tried not to take the easy way out, constantly rethinking our thinking. From those we extracted two short cases studies cum best practices (as part of a four study exercise) based on our experiences.


The first was on how to engage in sensitive areas where people and protected areas rub shoulders with one another. In that, we realized quickly that a community was a far bigger organism than most NGOs – indeed – most people suspect and we unpacked all of that through a fairly decent grammar while also talking about the way in which we blanket covered the area and literally left no one behind thereby actually increasing our workload but also massively improving the volume work that our donor funds were capable of delivering on the ground. You can read that study here.


The second was how we used the improvement of green cover across that terrain to increase community cohesion with everyone from state officials to medical officers, police, community farmers, youth and children, activists etc. getting enthusiastically involved in the effort that didn’t simply look at the protected area only but the larger terrain that had been damaged by rather ill-though initiatives – including myopic ideas of protection that caused more damage than it prevented. You can read that study here.



Our watchdog group “Dumbara Suraksha” is trained and hits the ground running

Twenty men and sixteen women had been shortlisted from a longlist twice that size to act as watchdogs. The Greens were careful as usual to select people by studying them for months to see if they have the integrity, staying power and commitment required to watch out for the people and the environment. From the 4th – 7th of April, they were provided with a three day immersion training at the Wingate Hotel and environs in Hettipola where there already fair knowledge of people and nature was further expanded with Suranjan, Amila (ex-greener and now the curator of an open zoo) imparting a bulk of the knowledge they were provided with.


Watchdog group training

From the classroom to the great infinite rooms of nature, the team was given the best possible training


Not only where they trained on environment but they were also given training on mindfulness and being constantly aware in all of their work. As with all such work, it is easy to be sensationalist when seeing something that looks wrong on the surface. They were warned not to succumb to such habits and to study a situation carefully before they report upstream. The team was called “The Protestors of Dumbara” or “Dumbara Suraksha”.


smartphone distribution

Smartphone Distribution


Finally, they (and the Cascade Trainers) were all provided with mobile phones to help them in their work. We had thought that they would need about a month to absorb what they knew and to start reporting back on various issues in their terrain but that was not how it happened. Instead of waiting, they went straight into their work, checking on the condition of green cover, plants, seed that has been our inputs to the community while also checking on various other issues that they thought were important for us to know about. That data stream was stupendous and absolutely amazing.


Trained physically and mentally for the challenges they will face

The Dumbara Suraksha team was trained physically and mentally for the challenges they will face


They didn’t stop there. Most of them were from farming families so they also used their mobile phones to check prices in Dambulla and to obtain the best possible prices for their own produce which was an unlooked for but tremendously positive collateral outcome.

What can we say? Well, we now have a “Green Battalion” of 56 highly trained, highly enabled trainers and watchdogs in the Knuckles.


Some of the WDG posts COLIBRI

The Dumbara Suraksha team started to really get into the act as soon as they were trained


The green cover initiative kicks off in earnest

“Green Cover” is a very fashionable word in our world – especially because there is so little of it to be found anywhere on earth these days. The KCF though, is still deep montane forest – either virgin or with substantially dark virgin growth. Its boundary areas still comparatively healthy with white forest cover. I am using local parlance here – dark is literally jungle so thick that rarely does sunlight hit the forest floor making the whole area akin to twilight in all light and white is less dense where light does permeate to the ground and lights up the area. Well, in such terms, the KCF is at present pretty sound all things considered. However, what with the protectionist approach removing farmers from their chena traditions much land adjacent to the KCF and its boundaries have been allowed to run fallow and we knew that if something was not done about that, eventually the white forest will get hammered and even the dark forest attacked.


Canopy rad at Rathninda

The whole community turned up to plant the canopy at Rathninda


However, we were careful. You see, “green cover” is not just dark wood /strong wood that lasts for decades only. For the communities living in those areas, there was also the agro-greening that was required on their own plots. There were watersheds feeding vital rivers and tanks where there were settlements that had been damaged. There were the concrete and asphalt roads whose sides had been stripped bare of all vegetation. There were swaths of fractured terrain where old tea plantations had gone missing literally – leaving a scarred and ugly scape. These were the areas that were very unfashionable – there were no rare frogs or impossible to find bats or two instances of a supposedly magical medicinal plant that had to be protected with life as forfeit. Yet they were critical to the continued harmony of the human-environment interface. This is why we redefined “green cover” to mean all of those areas that we mentioned.


Next, we got our community to understand what we saw and believe us, they got it in a jiffy. No coaching required. They knew it because it was part of their heritage – their traditions. So, instead of the GMSL doing NGO work, the community – and we mean the whole community (i.e. the farmers, the youth, the children, the men, the women, the state officials, the area business people, the local government officials, the enforcers like the police and the forest department) took collective ownership and just went in – planting canopy roads, rehabilitating damaged watershed areas, shoring up river banks, helping prune down dense foliage in home gardens, creating nurseries, transporting plants, obtaining plants from places where they had found them and just doing their thing – almost as if we were not there. This is precisely the outcome we wanted. The community to know, understand, act. That way, they will continue whether we are there or not. Green cover initiatives takes years to show success – way beyond the COLIBRI project life cycle. With their enthusiasm, the community showed that their environment and their green areas were in safe hands.


Amal and Anura COLIBRI

Amal and Aruna,our field controllers take a hand planting on the banks of the Dungolu Oya


Kids at Meegahawewa

The youth take plants deep into the jungle to improve the green cover of the Meegahawewa watershed


The near disaster at Weheragala

Talk about doing things that make us laugh at our own selves for acting like babes in the rural development woods when we should have known better. “Woods” is the crux word in that sentence. Let us explain.


Nuresry plants for distribution

We got 18,000+ of the best fruit plants for distribution to our river basin communities

Weheragala was one of the observation areas for COLIBRI but our inception report indicated that we should not try to work with them because their soil toxicity levels were too high to be impacted by a short-term project. However, we did earmark 25 families in the area because it was strategically important to the upper KCF because it borders it downstream and is an entry point for various nefarious activities including setting fire to the woods. We went in initially thinking that we would work with that limited group to create a fire-belt but then realized that we needed to expand the treatment to increase ago-biodiversity in the area as both an incentive and a response in line with COLIBRI’s conservation-livelihood link. So we selected 114 families and provided them with 8 fruit plants each as a foundation for increasing overall green cover. Tragically, since this was a last minute addition, we never got a chance to visit those homesteads individually so we were completely unaware of what was actually happening. We can give a hundred excuses why we never did something fundamental to our type of development work but we won’t. We will simply say “we screwed up” because that is the short and long of it.


home woods not home gardens

Home garden foliage so dense that no fruit or flower grew or was even required to be grown by these trees

What we hadn’t realized was that Weheragala was an NGO pea-soup. Every do-good mother’s son had gone in before us. NGO #1  gives them five fruit plants. The villages pick those up because they are given for free. NGO #2 gives them five fruit plants. The villages pick those up because they are given for free. NGO #3  gives them five fruit plants. The villages pick those up because they are given for free. They take all these inputs (most of them bad but some of them actually grow you know). They plant them willy-nilly on their small homesteads. There is no knowledge given to them on how to get a fruit harvest, how to manage their foliage and green cover or how to engage in postharvest storage. So, with decent amounts of water available and good soil nutrition because they had not used any agrochemicals on their own homesteads, these fruit plants grew into massive trees happy and content, full of leaves and…? Zero fruit. Why would a happy tree need to propagate itself? It is healthy and alive. It had never had any shocks in its life so all it had to do was grow and grow and grow.Those home “gardens” were no longer gardens. They were woods for crying out loud!


Enter the GMSL. We! In our naiveté, give them … you guessed it … not five but eight fruit plants. Granted we gave them superb specimens carefully selected, packed and transported. When we were distribution these plants, we were asked if we could give them 50kg fertilizer bags to plant them in, every alarm bell started to ring. Immediate physical visits to the homes were conducted and we found that every single one of them had a dense green canopy overhead that cut out most of the light. They wanted to plant our inputs in bags so they could shift them to those few areas where sunlight was actually available!


We did what anyone would do. We sat on a hypothetical rock, held our collective heads in our hands and shook them slowly from side to side. Stupefaction at our foolishness, disbelief at our silliness, horror at our unpreparedness were all thoughts that chased each other across our minds. It was actually laughable the way we had been taken in.


Training villagers on prunine techniques

Department resource person training villagers on pruning techniques

Well, we were not going to simply sit by, shrugs our shoulders, smile inanely, take photos and leave. Nah. That’s not our way. We got people from the Export Agriculture Department and Forest Department to come and train those folks on how to prune their green cover to get themselves a proper yield as well as increase the footprint of sunlight on their gardens. Next, we told them how to optimize and redesign their gardens and most importantly we told them in no uncertain terms not to keep succumbing to the insane idea that everything given free is a good thing.


While we managed to significantly cut the losses and reverse any negatives of our unprepared intervention and actually gave them a better way forward, we made a mental note to do something we had not really done before. Check, before doing anything in any location for other NGO action because such action is not readily visible because well… most NGO action lives only as long as a project lives as we all know. We didn’t do it at Weheragala and we almost paid for it in an NGO disaster.


Villagers pruning their trees

Villagers pruning their trees


Villagers pruning their trees

Villagers pruning their trees


The argument for coaching farmers instead of training them

COLIBRI Cascade Training in Sulugune

Our cascade trainer Swarna instructs the team of women from Sulugune on manufacture of organic inputs

We didn’t update our journey over December. What with Christmas and other happy-type events …things kinda slide and must do’s become optional do’s in those types of time brackets. Anyway, our cascade trainers hit the ground over December and January. They were fairly well trained to coach the farmers. And we mean coach – not train. Training encompasses lots of things – not all of which is directly relevant to a particular task.


Coaching over Training

For example, a person training someone else on biodiversity will instruct them on everything from international covenants through diversity dynamics of a given geography to the realities of agricultural crop diversity to the actual biological assets and what determines whether each flies or dies. This is because they need that sort of holistic knowledge if they are to train others. However, when those “others” are farmers, fighting to keep their noses above water, battling impossible odds, taking whatever comes their way to keep the home fires burning for one more day… well… those warriors have no time to be told the merits of a specific type of metal over another in the mammoty they use against a soil hardened to rocklike consistency by a two year drought. They need to know how to secure their water. They do not need to count unhatched chickens or should we say unharvested cinnamon and simply need to know how to actually get to the point where a harvest is possible. Once they’ve got their outcome, then we can start thinking about markets, prices and replenishing of seed stocks.


This is why we changed the way we do things from “training” to “coaching”. Instead of throwing the knowledge book at them or bashing them over the head with it, we simply instruct them, stage by stage, what to do to get to the next level. Our TOTs were given very clear instructions on what to say, and above all, when to say it.Their task timeline was simple. First tell the farmers what sort of mad exercise they were engaging in with agrochemicals and why they would never get anywhere in life with those. Next, tell them they have a hard journey ahead of them. Then stop sermonizing. Teach them how to create organic inputs. Give them seeds, tell them how to replenish them. Tell them how to plant and how to maintain their crops. Tell them how to harvest and store. Give them instructions on seed banking individually and collectively. Link them to markets. Get them their deserved profits. Make sure they are capable of continuing down this altered farming path. Add a final sermon on the shame of dependency. Get the hell out of the place and let the people do their thing. Each of those to be delivered in the right amount at the right time.


Just as much as we think we did a decent job of training them, we think they did a very decent job of using that training to coach the 2250 farmers. As with Bolt, the farmers now know how to get themselves up, running, planting. Next steps? Well… not now. Later.

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