Tourism in Sri Lanka — the tropical island nation just a stone’s throw from the tip of southern India — is on an upswing, thanks to thousands of miles of sugar-sand coastline, lush interiors dotted with tea plantations and the mystique of a place that’s still relatively undiscovered.
And while the country’s pristine beaches, not yet overrun with tourists or towering condos, draw budget and luxury travelers alike from around the world, a different kind of coastal tableau — shallow, shore-hugging waters where mangrove forests grow — is not only worth exploring, but a matter of national attention.
At Negombo, a laid-back beach town roughly 20 miles north of the country’s capital, Colombo, tours of the area’s wetlands start across the street from the Muthurajawela Visitor Centre, in the gray-green waters of the Dutch Canal.
This long, narrow waterway was built in the 18th century to transport spices and now links Negombo and Colombo. As the sun sinks towards the horizon, I climb aboard a modest, motorized boat for a 90-minute tour led by Amal Priyankara, a 26-year-old naturalist and Negombo native.
As our boat slowly plies the canal, Priyankara points out birds that, to an untrained eye, are slow to appear among the leaves, branches and brush.
In the 30 or so minutes it takes us to reach the end of the waterway, we spot white-throated kingfishers, cormorants, graceful green and purple herons, cattle egrets, red lapwings and other colorful birds.
Eventually, our boat arrives at the canal’s northern mouth and moves into the wide-open Negombo Lagoon, a shallow, 3,000-hectare expanse of saline water surrounded by dense, green, leafy growth.
We cruise at a comfortable clip for several minutes, passing the occasional fisherman and school of silver flying fish. With the sky growing pink and gold above us, Priyankara motions to our captain, who sidles the boat up snugly along a thicket of shrubs, their long, narrow roots reaching down into the water like skinny, splayed fingers.
Long, green pods with pointed ends dangle from several of the plants’ branches, like javelins waiting to pierce the placid surface.
“Rhizophora mangroves,” says Priyankara, giving a name to the tangle. Sri Lanka is home to 29 species of mangroves. He’s seen 16.
The importance of mangroves
“Mangroves are a really big topic in my country,” he says. “Schools are teaching kids about them.”
Education is key as mangroves play a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s — and the world’s — coastal ecosystem that extends far beyond the aesthetics they bring to a boat tour.
They provide critical shelter for young fish (replenishing coral reefs and fisheries, thus facilitating the livelihood of Sri Lankans who fish for a living) and sequester up to 50 times more carbon dioxide than other kinds of forests, making them indispensable in combating climate change.
They also act as a buffer against tropical storms, reducing damage to coastal communities. (Some studies have shown that areas with more substantial mangrove forests fared better during the 2004 tsunami than did communities without them.) But for all their virtues, mangroves are also at risk, having been dangerously depleted in recent decades thanks in large part to the country’s shrimp-farming industry.
“Sri Lanka generally lacks rules and education about the environment,” says Priyankara.
Women leading the way
That’s all changing now, though, thanks to Berkeley, California-based Seacology, which is about halfway through a five-year partnership with Sri Lankan NGO Sudeesa (formerly known as the Small Fisher Federation of Lanka) to teach Sri Lankans about the importance of mangroves.
The organizations provide small-business tools and micro loans to 15,000 local women in exchange for their commitment to help conserve, rehabilitate and replant all of the nearly 22,000 acres of mangrove forests that grow along the country’s coasts.
Anuradha Wickramasinghe, chairman of Sudeesa, says that the organizations targets women in particular because “much of the information and direction in households here is funneled down through them.”
Through the organizations’ Sri Lanka Mangrove Conservation Project, women in 14 districts and 1,500 small communities located near mangrove forests complete mandatory three-day training on mangrove conservation, business management and livelihood development before receiving micro loans that allow them to start or expand their own small businesses.
These range from roadside snack bars and grocery markets to drying and selling fish for household cooking to handcrafting rope ties for fishing boats, to name just a few.
In 2016, the organizations opened the Seacology-Sudeesa Mangrove Museum on the grounds of Sudeesa’s headquarters in Chilaw — roughly an hour’s drive north of Negombo on Sri Lanka’s west coast — as a place to educate locals, students and ecologically minded tourists about all things mangroves.
Visitors enter the new museum through a spacious theater where a film offers insight into the ecology, plight and conservation of Sri Lanka’s mangroves.
Inside the sunlit exhibit hall, visitors find dozens of species of mangrove-dwelling creatures — carefully preserved and neatly displayed in jars and on shelves — plus diagrams and illustrations depicting everything from different types of mangroves to the plants’ eco-mechanics.
On nearby Colombo Road, dozens of the program’s micro-loan recipients gather daily in a small, open-air marketplace to sell their wares — fresh fruit and vegetables, packaged local spices, terracotta garden pots, colorful clothes, and handicrafts, among other goods.
“We feel very proud,” several of the women say of their business achievements.
Support from Sri Lanka’s navy
Seacology’s and Sudeesa’s reach within Sri Lanka is extensive. The organizations also run a Northern Regional Center in Mannar, in the country’s quiet, war-ravaged north, where many of the women who cycle through the program are conflict widows.
As in Chilaw, the Mannar facility is home to a mangrove nursery (there are three nurseries in total throughout the groups’ facilities), where seedlings are nurtured and prepped for replanting in wild coastal habitats.
And farther north still, near Jaffna, Seacology and Sudeesa are working with Sri Lanka’s navy to replant mangroves and to spread the word about conservation throughout the surrounding communities.
Together, the navy, Seacology, and Sudeesa have planted about 38,000 mangroves around Sri Lanka. For the officers who were enlisted then, this life — marked by conservation and community outreach — is a far cry from the tense civil war that raged here less than a decade ago.
Back on Negombo Lagoon, the sky starts to darken, and it’s time for our tour to end. As we motor away from the mangroves, I take a last look over the side of the boat, marveling at all of the life that the mangroves sustain — both under water and on land.
Making our way back toward the Dutch Canal, Priyakara explains that the mangrove ferns that make up the foundation of several small islands within the lagoon were, for a time, on the country’s “red list,” an ominous marker of conservation status for Sri Lankan flora and fauna.
But thanks to protective measures put into place in recent years, they’re now on the rebound and off that list.
Surrounded by the lush beauty of Negombo Lagoon, one can’t help but hope that, as tourism continues to flourish in this tiny island country, so, too, do its precious mangroves.