C’est fini

À vaillant coeur rien d’impossible


The COLIBRI journey is done. The two year path we trod… with its usual pitfalls, snags, thorns, leeches and busted SUV engines is over. What can we say looking back? We can probably say we could have done better regardless of COVID19 or national bankruptcy or societal collapse. We can definitely say that we fought a good, clean, honest battle to improve the lot of living things in need. Be those living things those that moved on no legs, two legs or four or simply didn’t move at all… standing as sentinels and beacons of green for the world to use, for the world to regenerate, for the world to be grateful for.


In the process we did not learn what to do and how to do. We knew those like the backs of our own hands. No. We learned what not to do.


What then, did we learn?


We learned that nature and people do not follow administrative patterns nor rules of law. We learned that they would rather follow their water and follow their customs. Therefore, we learned that we cannot toss rule books nor GN divisions at those communities. Therefore, luckily, we said bye bye to those types of segregations except for reporting purposes.


We learned that people have bigger and better histories to fall back on than a few bucks now or a few tools tomorrow. Therefore, instead of waving money at them, we got them to hold up their histories to us like flags rippling and ripping in the howl of the Knuckles winds. Through those standards held up by their elderly for all to see, we learned not to try to inflict our own flawed ideas of what is right and what is wrong on them.


We learned that when a person breaks the law, we must view that societal aberration in terms of cultural senses and sensibilities and not in terms of some Roman bloke or some Dutch guy whose ideas of right and wrong are what we practice here in Sri Lanka as law. We learned that to work with real communities, we must give them relevance and purpose even to the point of not embracing but rather, turning gently aside when we witnessed their minor intransigencies vis-à-vis the oft quoted but dimly understood and rarely practiced “law of the nation”.


The COLIBRI journey completed

It was a heady journey for all involved.

We learned to address issues that those communities had and not always the issues that we planned to work on through project design. Be those issues veterinary services for their bovines and canines or a COVID mask. Through such simple interventions funded by ourselves, the communities learned to trust us because we were not doing NGO b/s and trying to clear some weird-assed indicator or budget line which, in the complexity of rural development and conservation is mostly just plain mad. Through such efforts, we hope everyone engaged in COLIBRI including the EU and ACTED benefited although project budget lines, rules and agendas – logical though they are at the due-process and due-diligence level – meant zip in the field. The field is too pulsing, too breathing, too alive to be treated linearly. Those communal symphonies and cacophonies are both intense and ring-fenced within micro-geographic agro-ecologies and the plants, animals, people and nature that live therein. Under such scenarios, we cannot parachute an idea into their midst and believe it will take root and grow. Like all ecosystems, whatever grows there must be in harmony with everything else that grows there. These communities have their own rhythm of doing things and loving things or hating things. It is important for future efforts of the EU to have obtained that nugget through GMSL reports on COLIBRI. We know our EU team is smart and we know they will adjust based on our findings. That way we will not add to that global body of metadata on aid driven development by Dugoliogas and Paldam said 14 years ago where they found that the growth and the accumulation of such projects spanning 40 years is zero!


What then did we teach?


Easily and simply stated. We taught these wonderful communities to see themselves as they should. As men and women with strong hands and stronger minds that do not need a handout from an NGO that will allow them to kick the can of life down the road a few feet and temporarily postpone decision making. Life coaching if you may and not rhubarb rhubarb training or capacity building or awareness creation which has all been done ten trilling times over in the last 40 years to no effect at all.


What did we observe?


We observed a young single mother who goes by the name Thamara hoisting 50 kg stones in a wheelbarrow stone by stone from 300 meters away to build a wall for her spice garden. Did we say, as most nutjob NGO activists would say “oh god look at that woman suffering”? No. We saluted the woman. In that small neck of the Knuckles woods, we saw a woman who was better than three of their men. We will help her build her spice garden but we will never tell her not to put that sweat into it.

We observed a young forester who fought with his own superiors to ensure transparency to such an extent that they had him transferred but who nevertheless worked with the Greens to get nature trails running right, to get homestays running good, get produce growing back on firm rails.

We observed that 60% of the beneficiaries were fully committed to the work. Working with them was a joy because they understood the simple equation that if we give 10 and they give zero then 10×0 = 0. In most cases, when we gave 10 they gave 20. It was a joy to work with such strong people. 15% were somewhat committed but lazy. With a bit of additional coaching and more than one stern finger pointed in their general direction they eventually did come around. About 5% opted out. They saw no need for assistance or saw it as being just too much darn trouble so we let them be. And, finally, about 20% were in the program but not really in. They would grin and smile as we came by, have a table full of goodies for us and behind our backs work to derail the entire project. They were vicious, manipulative low-life who were a cancer on the KCF terrain. Not easy to eradicate. We are still fighting that bunch of jokers.


We observed that those who benefited from working with COLIBRI in the best sense were utilizing our intervention to further themselves in areas that we never even thought of. They were doing other businesses with their mobile phones, they were inventing new nature trails and they were creating new products and adding to the range of their fresh produce. They were actually working twice the amount of time they normally worked in the bad old days of agrotoxins and loving it.


We observed that the youth came into their own. They were going deep into the KCF and having chats with those one off guys who went in to get a bit of meat to feed the family and encouraging such blokes to become watchdogs themselves … dismissing that hare or this deer or the other sambhur simply because there was enough carrying capacity in the KCF. The man was a subsistence hunter for crying out loud and posed no real threat to the fauna but was steeped in lore of the various plants and animals and … what better person to be a watchdog than such a person? Another might frown and them and say, if you let one person through, everyone else will also go through but that is the mad “one size fits all” argument that has been so disastrous for environment conservation across the world.


We observed that we placed trust in many people who we should never have trusted. Some of them were our own staff. They tried their best to screw the effort for our beneficiaries. Luckily, Head Office was on to them quickly but it is a point worth noting. A “lesson learned” so to speak – ha!

We observed that impossible headwinds be those related to COVID19, national socioeconomic meltdowns or lead partner delays can be met head on if we possess stout hearts and indomitable resolve. Quietly, we can say we had both as that quote from Jacques Cœur that was the strapline to this piece attests: To a valiant heart, nothing is impossible.


What do we know?


*smiles* We know that COLIBRI has come to an end but that community livelihood improvement and biodiversity improvement are tasks that will never end. The project is over but the program continues.


COLIBRI is dead. Long Live community livelihood and biodiversity improvement.


We show the project lead our work in the field


The two teams on the road from Kandy to Mahiyangana

It took some time (almost two years actually) to engineer this but finally Team GMSL hosted a few members of Team ACTED to four days in the terrain we have been working the COLIBRI project. There were a few justifiable concerns regarding the weather and god knows that terrain is tough and in some instances can create dangerous conditions in the wink of an eye. Yet, we took the required precautions and went it with a prayer to the weather gods. Owen, Zeenas, Anjalee and Akshya had, we hope, a heady time visiting some of the work we had done.


Day one was brutal with a 3 am start and a sort of trial by marginal fire in the form of leaches. Lovely critters but a bit of a pain because they marginally disrupt such crazy human ideas like agendas, aims and goals. Anyway, as we always do, we took it in our stride although Sura was particularly badly hit.


We hope the two younglings in the ACTED team got to see a thing or three that they may not have seen before. In any case, as all good partners do, Sura and Arjuna imparted what they could as the circuit unfolded not always related to COLIBRI but sometimes related to life skills, experiences, observations etc.


We were all a bit non-plussed by the preparations done by one Tamil speaking community to give us the grandest welcome – complete with garlands, religious worship and a children’s dance dressed in colourful and beautiful traditional garbs. It was wonderful to watch. Our two youngsters had to be gently reminded to just “go with the flow” and more than once had to be reminded that they were “not in Colombo” and had to take everything given as a communal salute to our efforts.


Kids dancing for us at left and Zeenas photographs a tilling machine


GMSL has never sufficiently lost its head to be politically correct and emotionally incorrect and when we saw that a given commune was going to be insulted if we paid for say… a meal… we gently let it go without spouting NGO b/s such as “pay for everything you get from your beneficiaries”. Yes we will if we know they are trying to curry favour but no we won’t if we see that 10 people in the community got together to give us a cracking good meal smiling with barely hidden pleasure as we dug into the feast of foods we would never get back in the capital. Overhearing smatterings of one lady whispering to another “I think they like…”, “Least we can..”, “whisper whisper…helped everyone…”. At least Sura and Arjuna got the drift and knew they would have been aghast if we decided to pay. Kinda proves the adage “on one size fits all and to hell with policies when realities are more relevant”.


Owen speaks to a farmer at left and Anjalee and Akshaya have a discussion with another group at the Rathninda Anicut built with COLIBRI funds

It is that approach that has made us so much a part of the communities we work with and help. They have accepted us as part of them and we have accepted them as part of us. That is how good civil organizations work and we are quietly proud to be proven to be such by the very people with whom we work for their benefit.


The terrain was hard. Did we mention that before? On one day it was blustering winds and warmish air spiced with a few cups of tea (not sugar, we had had so much sugar from every household we visited that the GMSL had a blanket rule: pleeeease if you value our health, made the sweet optional). To some extent that approach has worked. On the next day it was muggy, humid, heated, sweaty and brutally bad from a thermal comfort perspective. On the third it was cooling winds raging and swirling around us so hard that they threatened to sweep us off our feet. That is Sri Lanka. That is the KCF. The entire environment changes within a few hours ride from point to point.


Checking out a processing center at Narangamuwa built with COLIBRI funds and a small time out to enjoy the beautiful terrain that is the Knuckles Conservation Forest

We sincerely hope that the team from ACTED got what they came for although we would have liked stronger and deeper bonding with our field work over the spread of the two years. Yet, most importantly, we did manage to cement friendships between our two teams and that is rare indeed. It is not often that “partners” remain either partners or friends by EoP. Most often, the hard bitten GMSL team knows that there are only two outcomes: Either partners become enemies or one partner makes the other a slave. We made sure that didn’t happen with our relationship with ACTED and we hope they think as we do that we can remain friends over extended periods of time so we thank Owen, Zeenas, Anjalee and Akshaya for a great time, good engagement and wonderful friendship. *Salute*



Watchdog groups: This time around we actually do cop an NGO bullet

Right between the eyes mind you.


True, the watchdog groups identified 161 issues over three months from April to June. True, they used their phones to optimize their livelihoods. True, they networked with each other and created some mild but organic competition with each other.


But still (a few deep breaths and here goes)…


Look. The Green Movement in not your run-of-the-mill NGO that sells other people’s pain for its personal gain. With every action it takes, it attempts to make that action greater and more lasting by triggering enthusiasm for that specific action towards achieving the dream of a stable future for those most in need of it and that is not grand beneficiaries like the GMSL or ACTED or who-have-you. In that sense, it had never had any problems with getting into debt to make sure people are safe. That is the paramount consideration.


With that rationale uppermost in our minds, with that emotion ingrained deep in our hearts, with that drive powering our hands, we went to war for our peoples regardless of their station in life or their specific geography and we are not simply talking of the tiny space we call Sri Lanka but the whole world. We, more than most, know the world of civil action cannot be trusted to deliver as has already been proven through countless research studies. Yet, we always prided ourselves for being that teeny tiny exception that was never fearful of calling a spade a spade. Or, in more brutally honest words, we don’t call an anus the parliament or vice versa. We just say it as we see it and bread is 360 rupees a pop take it or leave it.


With that sort of warriorism, well, to put it simply, even the smallest aberration of quality in process, the slightest misstep in overall progress, the merest indication of intransigence in effort is something that we, the Greens, will always consider to be a national tragedy to which we, by our own failings, have contributed.


The first inkling of “not quite right” came to us because our Watchdog WhatsApp group “Dumbara Suraksha” suddenly seem to be thin. That is, the total number of posts were fluxing downwards and the total number of people contributing was becoming lesser and lesser.


Regarding not that he has incessantly roved through the COLIBRI terrain for almost two full years and understanding that program implementation is fraught with massive dangers, my friend Suranjan (and in no small part my mentor in these matters of social subtleties) immediately saw red flags flying from every COLIBRI signboard and threw himself into figuring out what had happened.


For a man in possession of the practical experience he has, it took him just a few days to figure out what was actually going on. Our field staff, especially our field coordinator (who, by the way, had been with us for yonks) had lied. Remember? In a previous post, we had said that their initial selections were wrong and we got them to redo the whole list of watchdogs? Well! So much for that. Despite our vetting, assertions and confirmations these bunch of losers had still managed to put their “favourites” in by coaching them on how to respond to our interview questions.  Not to put too fine a point on it….? F***!


They had behaved like every deeply deranged NGO louse that we had steered clear of. Manipulating everything from zero to infinity with that level of crudeness that pales my own French into oblivion. Skewering them with his laser vision, my friend Suranjan got it out of them. Got it out of them that their lack of reading of the “GSML-heart”, their lack of understanding of the “GSML-mind”, their lack of valuing the “GMSL phenomenon”, had rendered them less than useless to GMSL or COLIBRI. They had succumbed to the allure of NGO vantage. The free cup of tea, the free betel chew, the free meal, the free pot of coconut toddy, the free produce of hard-pressed workers, the free lodging, the free titillation of women who see the advantage of allowing these apologies for men limited “access” to sweet nothings in exchange for hard COLIBRI somethings.


Soooo, instead of the proud 59, we only have, at best? A meagre 35. Sure we will try to confiscate the phones of the posers and losers and reassign them but the horror of failure at the get-go lies heavy upon our collective hearts. Because a lot of innocent and desperate people suffered. People who looked to us for help in their times of hard, heat and hurt. People innocent of ingrained understanding of how to optimize their personal profits from NGO bullshit. Would you consider that a national tragedy? I personally do not now. BUT WE COLLECTIVELY DO!




The fault is not theirs. The fault lies with us. The leaders, the direction givers, the monitors, the evaluators. We failed. Not them. Let us for a moment forget the fact that we had no monitoring budget. Let us forget that we were working on shoestring remuneration. The onus is not with any of those. It rests with us.


Do we go with the job savers of our field and say “lesson learned” no! Thrice no for crying out loud. Sure, we have done more than anyone would have believed possible in the short time we had to do it and sure we still stand tall for it will take more than this to fell us. But for now, for at least a couple of weeks, we stand in shame.


Response to water stress

We did this through a series of simple hardware interventions. On the one hand, we built agro-wells for  families who desparately needed a strong water source to irrigate their paddy lands. On the other hand, we worked with communities to identify areas where there was a need to rehabilitate existing irrigation canals or provide connectors to optimize water availability for paddy cultivation. All of these were in the lower north-east of the KCF, in Weheragala, Dungolla, Ratninda and Sulugune areas of the treatment terrain of COLIBRI. In most cases, our monitoring showed that the actual beneficiaries were greater than those estimated by the field staff. A really pleasant surprise.


However, here we have a word of warning. When we recently went to take a look at the works under progress at Rathninda, we found a hidden leak which our field staff had failed to detect. We were not amused but thankfully, the problem was located and rectified although it goes to show that field staff do not always work with a red-light mind-set that is constantly figuring out why something will fail and not why something will succeed and take appropriate investigative steps and risk reduction strategies into their activities.


The Dungolla canal was a late addition since we had decided not to go ahead with the flower garden because we found that it was not going to be either cost effective or sustainable.

From commencement to completion - Irrigation Canal at Rathninda

From commencement to completion – Irrigation Canal at Rathninda

Work-in-progress - Irrigation canal at Sulugune

Work-in-progress – Irrigation canal at Sulugune


What we can deliver in terms of machinery, we have

GMSL CEO and field staff handing over machines to the VLMAs of Rathninda, Etanwala, Medaella and Pitawala

GMSL CEO and field staff handing over machines to the VLMAs of Rathninda, Etanwala, Medaella and Pitawala

Oh well, what can we say? A month’s delay in obtaining our second instalment resulted our inability to purchase the planned number of white pepper machines because prices escalated exorbitantly with the floating rupee and 80% inflation. We had to do some quite recalibration and readjustment based on other community needs that we were able to cover with our limited funds. So, oorid seed spliters and hand-tractors were added to the mix and the number of white pepper machines reduced.

We are being watchful on this matter and will provide them to the communities through their respective VLMAs, RBMAs since most of these will be placed on privately held areas and we know full well that there are strong opportunities for those people to end up commandeering for themselves what was provided for the entire community. We have seen that happen with other projects that have run their course in the same terrain and will not have that happen to COLIBRI provided machinery inputs.

The schedule

The schedule for distributing machinery in the KCF

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