Gobar Times
Open Forum

Road to Reconciliation


Biodiversity takes a
backseat in conflict. Across the world, most armed onflicts occur in iodiversity-rich tropics – rich forests serve as useful cover and source of food for armed groups, while armies clear jungle from roadsides and cut vast swathes of forest around camps for better visibility. Forests canopies are lost to bombs that leave them scarred and burnt, and also destroy the undergrowth.

For instance, 10 per cent of the world’s palmyra, or palm trees, are in Jaffna in north Sri Lanka, where most of the conflict was being fought. Here, both sides cut massive quantities of palm trunks to erect bunkers.


In Jaffna, parthenium or ‘goats feet’ weed was brought in accidently by Indian soldiers in the 1990s, and has now spread rapidly throughout the province. This parasite severely affects crop yields and is difficult and expensive to remove as it reappears with each rainy season in uncultivated areas, along roadsides and even in planted fields.

Landmines, undocumented and hidden in the lush undergrowth present a huge hallenge. Most elephants in the north of the country are killed due to mines. Likewise, de-mining operations using tractor-like machines that churn the ground destroy ground biodiversity.
Civil wars don’t stop with a peace treaty. A big challenge facing the country is to heal the
psychological scars of the war, especially among children. In all, the three decades of war took about 100,000 lives and displaced close to 300,000 people, turning citizens into war refugees. Children paid the heaviest price. Thousands were orphaned, and many thousands more were psychologically scarred. Children also faced psychosocial problems caused by poverty, domestic violence and alcoholic parents; many were naturally unhappy, introverted and traumatised. Older persons have the ability to cope, but such scars on the young easily develop into lifelong personality disorders
“Nature is diverse, yet
has unity. An
ecosystem comprises
different habitats, yet
they all combine to
make our planet.”

— Professor Sarath Kotagama

‘Reconciliation through the power of nature,’ is an innovative project designed by Sarath Kotagama (right), a professor at Colombo University and the country’s preeminent ornithologist. Here, nature is used to heal the psychological scars among Tamil and Sinhalese children, and in time, restore the biodiversity that had been stripped during the long decades of civil war.

The project started in 2010, and is funded by Dilmah conservation. It is implemented by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) and its local partner, Centre for Children’s Happiness, in 15 schools and eight children’s clubs in Jaffna District. Close to 452 children are directly involved. After induction workshops, two teachers from each school are selected to guide and anchor project activities. Similarly, village level children’s club officials are trained to guide children to monitor bird populations.

Jaffna district is also famous for many species of migratory birds, but interest in birdwatching is low. The project covers all parts of Jaffna, including some outlying islands.

“We use nature as a tool and birds as the principal organism in nature to bring about reconciliation,” tells Professor Kotagama. Children love birds and nature as it is entertainment. There’s nothing to explain as such, and easy to involve children,” he says.

Psychologists working with war-scarred children had earlier tried art and music therapy, and forms of trans-cultural psychosocial interventions. But nature has proved the best medicine. “Nature is very powerful in terms of bringing minds together and teaches children to be thoughtful of each other, rather than thinking of differences,” he says. Nature also acts like a de-stresser and helps children relax. Group work helps in team building, and increases communication skills and leadership. Birdwatching helps improve creativity. Nature is a perfectly childcentric learning tool. “To do birdwatching, you need patience. You also need to cooperate with each other, and you need to be systematic,“ says the professor.

“We use simple
English language
phrases such as,
‘See that bird. See
how it is flying’.
— Aditya Batra

Here, learning is fun. Children are taught how to observe birds in a field setting, where basic scientific
information is shared on birds and their habitats; and the project activities include night camps and nature games.

The first step was to interest children in nature. In the second phase, children from the South And the North will be brought together to work on the common platform of nature.

Language barriers between Tamil and Sinhalese were overcome through the ‘English through birds’
module, in which children from both communities are encouraged to use English as a link