Sri Pada season ends but polythene problem persists

Young volunteers remove 500 kilograms of polythene left behind by visitors
Malaka Rodrigo reporting from Sri Pada

On Vesak Poya, the pilgrimage season to Sri Pada ended with the sacred artefacts and statues placed on the summit for the pilgrimage season, brought down in a procession, according to tradition. Along with the ceremonial ending of the season, some 500 kilograms of polythene left behind by visitors too, was brought down by a group of volunteers.

Carrying the burden on their shoulders: Two youth descend Sri Pada with Polythene collected at the peak
Bundles of collected polythene

Usually, February and March have the highest number of visitors to Sri Pada, but according to many wayside boutique owners on the footpath to Sri Pada, this year’s crowd peaked towards the end of the season.

However, the issue of non-biodegradable bags such as polythene and plastic discarded by pilgrims, continue to litter the sacred mountain. Sri Pada is covered by the Peak Wilderness Santuary, which is one of the prime biodiversity hotspots of the country, with the highest number of endemics - notably birds, reptiles and amphibians. Due to its different altitudinal and climatic zones extending across 22,380 hectares, the forest remains unique among others in Sri Lanka. Considering this uniqueness, UNESCO named Sri Pada a Natural Heritage in 2010.

The garbage discarded by the pilgrims can cause problems to this unique ecosystem in many ways. The polythene mixed with the soil doesn’t decay and can destabilise the soil. Animals feeding on the polythene can die. Many environmental organisations started collecting the discarded polythene from the mountain, but still the root cause of dumping polythene remains untreated.

Meanwhile, the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) conducted its annual polythene removal campaign last week. YZA is a pioneering organisation that had identified the issue as far back as the 1980s, and started a cleaning programme on Sri Pada. Based at the Dehiwala Zoo, the volunteers target the last day of the season to do this cleanup, and this year too, had done this noble shramadana with the participation of 75 young zoologists.

They brought down over 60 polysack bags full of polythene and plastic weighing 514 kilograms. This figure looks like an improvement compared with last year’s collections by YZA. The Sri Pada pathway had also been cleaned by ‘Tharunyata Hetak’ a few weeks back. Additionally, the Wildlife Department based at Nallathanniya too conducts a regular polythene removal programme. The fact that the YZA still managed to collect this large amount of non-biodegradables, is an indication of the nature of the mammoth problem.

“The solution indeed lies on addressing the root cause of discarding garbage responsibly by the pilgrims. If all the visitors bring down the polythene and plastic they bring in, then there will not be a need to cleanup,” commented YZA president Sacheendra Deepankara. Most of the garbage consists of plastic bottles, toffee and biscuit wrappers, which are not even messy , to be brought back by the visitors.
Awareness is the key to tackle the problem and Deepankara stresses the need to protect this unique biodiversity hotspot.

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