ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

A mountain - sized headache

Will fines solve Sri Pada’s chronic garbage problem?

By Malaka Rodrigo

Boutique-owner Ranjith, who has a temporary stall along the path that winds up Sri Pada, is tired of telling pilgrims not to litter the holy mountain.“However much we tell people not to drop garbage along the way, they continue to do so,” says the frustrated vendor as he points to a teenager who has just tossed a biscuit wrapper over his shoulder. Picked up by the breeze, it is deposited further up the path.

A fading signboard with Sinhala lettering hanging outside Ranjith’s boutique says: “Don’t Leave Garbage Lying Around”. The vendor looks almost resigned as he packs his goods. This is the last day of the pilgrim season. The expression on his face suggests that he does not expect things to improve much when he returns for the next season.

The Team that Participated the program

Environment awareness-raising efforts have clearly not succeeded with the majority of the thousands of visitors who climb Sri Pada every year, according to the vendor. More drastic steps are required. “Fines are what we need,” he says.

Garbage on Sri Pada has been a festering problem for many years now. Polythene and plastic odds and ends disposed of by visitors litter the mountain all the way, posing a long-term threat to the Peak Wilderness, one of the country’s pristine ecosystems. According to regulars who visit Sri Pada, the garbage problem was a lot worse in the past, but thanks to environment protection efforts by various organisations and concerned parties, the problem has been brought under some control, but a lot remains to be done. Visitors still continue to litter the sacred mountain.

But others are hopeful and say there is a simple solution to the problem: Ask the visitors to bring back with them the litter they generate on their journey. One group actively involved in cleaning up Sri Pada is the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA). During a recent litter-clearing operation, YZA members noted that more than 75 percent of the garbage found on the mountain comprised plastic bottles and toffee and biscuit wrappers.

They point out that carrying your own litter is not a burden: an empty plastic bottle (the mega kind) weighs 5 grams or less, and that toffee wrappers weigh “almost nothing”.“Also, toffee-wrappers are not messy like used lunch packet wrappers,” said one YZA member, “and can be easily put into your pocket.”

The more bulky garbage items could be dropped into the dozens of garbage bins lining the sacred mountain path, the YZA team said. Some recommend harsher measures to tackle the problem.“You have to impose a fine on those who dispose of garbage irresponsibly,” says G. Rajapakse, a retired teacher from Galle, who is making his 24th ascent of Sri Pada. “Without penalising action, you cannot get anything done in Sri Lanka.”

Mr. Rajapakse says the new generation of Sri Pada visitors has “different values”. “They tend to treat the climb up Sri Pada as a fun outing and not a sacred exercise at one of the country’s most hallowed sites,” he says. He blames “changing values” for visitor indifference to keeping the mountain clean and unspoiled.

At the Nallathanniya beat office, we met a team of wildlife rangers who have been appointed as caretakers of the Peak Wilderness. Ranger Tharanga Kasun took us to the back of the beat office and showed us a mountain of plastic, polythene and paper garbage. The sheer size of the heap was an indication of the mammoth proportions of the problem, and the urgent need for action.

Members of the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) spent the Vesak Poya collecting garbage on Sri Pada. The association, which has its base at the National Zoological Gardens, is a pioneer in the Keep-Sri-Pada-Clean campaign. The YZA launched its first Sri Pada clean-up in 1998, and has since conducted several such programmes at the holy site.

One organisation that has joined in the environmental effort at Sri Pada is HSBC, which has appointed two persons to collect non-biodegradable litter, under the supervision of wildlife officers. Initially, they were deployed to work on Sri Pada only during the pilgrim season, but they have since been asked to work during the off-season as well, in view of the volume of garbage involved.

Kasun is optimistic that some 80 percent of the remaining non-biodegradable material can be collected. But in the long-term, it is visitor awareness that will make the difference, he said.

Last September the Peak Wilderness was upgraded and declared a nature reserve; it was previously rated as a wildlife sanctuary. This upgrading allows wildlife officers to take sterner action against those who spoil the area’s virgin beauty.

Many environmentally concerned parties would like to see polythene banned at Sri Pada. Polythene for now is the most widely used wrapping and packing material. Almost all consumables, from chewing gum to biscuits, come in polythene wrappers. They would also like to see people being penalised for irresponsible garbage disposal.

Meanwhile, pilgrims say they have no place to dispose of their garbage while making the climb. They say there are fewer garbage bins around than in years past and that they remain uncleared and uncleaned for days and weeks on end. They said urgent action was needed, in time for the next Sri Pada season, in December.

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