Just the other day, I had to look up the World Bank website for some information on a project. I noticed that Sri Lanka had some 4.8 billion US dollars in aid for various development projects. The website of the Ministry of Economic Development shows that it is managing some 31 projects worth some 130 [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Small grants but hidden, large benefits


Just the other day, I had to look up the World Bank website for some information on a project. I noticed that Sri Lanka had some 4.8 billion US dollars in aid for various development projects. The website of the Ministry of Economic Development shows that it is managing some 31 projects worth some 130 billion Sri Lankan rupees. These serious disbursements and major projects will have sweeping impacts on human well-being and very likely improve the living conditions of many needy people. These are the projects that make headlines in newspapers and provide fodder for dinner table conservation in Colombo.

Clockwise from left: The truck that sells the Aloe vera health drink (© MCRCF); water collection from a well for chemical analysis; Panama, mangrove assessment in Panama (Kumudinin Ekaratne © IUCN, Sri Lanka); an underwater meadow of sea grass (© Terney Pradeep Kumara)

In contrast, the Small Grant Facility of Mangroves for the Future — which disburses grants below two million rupees to local communities — is unheralded, unapplauded and largely unseen.

The MFF Small Grant Facility (SGF) is a window for financing sustainable, local level initiatives in coastal areas, through small grants. The main objectives of the SGF are to finance small projects to support local community action for the restoration and management of coastal ecosystems and their use on a sustainable basis.

The SGF grants disbursed in Sri Lanka are between 300,000 and two million rupees. Grants in Sri Lanka have been given to communities all over the coastline.

Last year, I wrote about the benefits that some of these small grants have had on communities (See http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130224/plus/aloe-vera-the-wonder-plant-to-save-puttalam-lagoon-34086.html and http://www.sundaytimes.lk/131006/plus/small-steps-for-conservation-64665.html). But in addition to the benefits to specific communities, these small grants have yielded unexpected results, on a bigger scale.

Firstly, these MFF grants have served as a springboard for the extension of the reach of the original project. For example, the Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation Foundation (MCRCF) initially obtained a grant of 580,000 Sri Lankan rupees to commence Aloe vera cultivation in Kalpitiya on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. The target beneficiaries were 30 fisher families who were taught to cultivate this plant; buy-back was guaranteed. The leaves were purchased by the cosmetics industry, while the excess was turned into a drink and sold commercially in a mobile selling cart. As the demand for inclusion in this project grew among fisher families, MCRCF sought another grant of the same amount and added 15 more families to this project. Recognising that in the east, after the cessation of civil unrest, livelihood opportunities must increase, MCRCF obtained yet another grant from MFF and focussed their attention on 10 fisher families in Panama. This time, both grantee and the community chipped in with matching funds for this endeavour.

Meanwhile, back in the Kalpitiya area, the demand for the Aloe vera drink increased, requiring a wider and more efficient method of distribution. MFF provided yet another grant, which was used, with matching funds, to purchase a truck that would serve as a mobile selling unit, involving 32 fisher families. The net result is that the reach of the original project has increased in terms of communities involved — from 30 to77 fisher families — as well as location — from the northwestern coast to the east. The overall impact is that 15% of the target beneficiaries are now spending 80% of their time on cultivation, while reducing their time fishing, i.e., reducing fishery pressure on lagoons. In addition, the production of the Aloe vera drink has doubled, increasing the income of these fisher families.

The second unexpected benefit from these small grants is that other partners became interested, wanting to be involved. The Postgraduate Institute of Science,University of Peradeniya obtained a standard small grant from MFF to study groundwater quality in the Panama coastal area. Their results showed that there was salt water intrusion and pollution from agrochemicals in 33 ground wells assessed. Following up on this study, with a follow up grant from MFF and with a matching grant from the Ecological Association of Sri Lanka, these same researchers set out to examine the seasonal and spatial variation of water quality in the Panama lagoon. Their results indicated that salinity, turbidity, nitrate and chloride show strong seasonal variation. The lagoon receives a substantial amount of water from surrounding streams, which are loaded with heavy agricultural runoff, which pollutes the lagoon. These results have roused the interest of a Swedish university, which has partnered with the Ecological Association of Sri Lanka to further advance these studies. Results from the first study was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The third benefit is the slow and steady accumulation of scientific knowledge that will serve as a baseline for sound decision making. Prior to the small grant projects on groundwater and lagoon water quality in Panama, nothing was known about this topic. The results of the above studies will be invaluable when a groundwater management plan for the area is developed.

The eastern coast has not been accessible for over three decades. With support from MFF, another team from the Postgraduate Institute of Science, University of Peradeniya has been studying mangroves in the eastern coast, initially beginning along the stretch from Panama to Okanda, and then from Panama to Pottuvil, documenting the number of species found, as well as the relative abundance of each species. A map of mangrove distribution has been prepared. Along these stretches, in Sahastrawela, the researchers found anomalous 50-foot mangroves, quite unlike the stunted mangroves of the dry and arid zones, looking instead, like the lush mangrove vegetation of the wet zone. The research team’s interaction with villagers revealed that this peculiar strand of mangroves supports a herd of elephants. The threats to the mangroves in this coastal stretch area are from rapid development. These data have already served to initiate conservation action: following a recommendation of the MFF National Steering Committee, the Forest Department has initiated the process to declare this 6.5 ha patch of mangroves as a Conservation Forest.

Also gathering scientific knowledge, is a team from the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology, Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology, University of Ruhuna, which has been slowly gathering data on sea grasses along the north western coastline. Very few people know what sea grasses are, much less their importance to humans (see http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130707/plus/underwater-meadows-of-grass-51586.html for details). In addition, very little is known scientifically about these strange underwater marine flowering plants. Starting with the Puttalam lagoon and then extending the physical reach up to Thalaimannar, this team has been sampling sea grass meadows, and gathering baseline knowledge hitherto unknown about this group of marine plants. Again, the distribution of different sea grass species and their abundance has been mapped.
On paper, the number of beneficiaries from MFF’s Small Grant Facility in Sri Lanka is 1,538 and the impact of the implemented projects is distinctly local. In reality, slowly but surely, the reach keeps getting larger, and the influence, much wider.

MFF and its goals

Mangroves for the Future(MFF) is a regional initiative comprising a consortium of international intergovernmental organisations such as IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as well as CARE International and Wetlands International (WI). MFF seeks to achieve demonstrable changes and results across four key areas of influence: regional cooperation, national programme support, private sector engagement, and community action.

In Sri Lanka, the SGF is managed by IUCN Sri Lanka under the overall direction ofa National Steering Committee.


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