The Story of the Ittapana Mangroves

Itthapana Horawala is an enthralling area, extending across (insert area)ha on the banks of the Benthara River, close to the Benthara Tourist Zone. 20-25 years ago, life was simple and sustainable for the local population, who relied predominantly on agriculture to maintain their lifestyle. Saline water intrusion from the nearby Benthara river estuary rarely affected their farming activities and famers in the area were able to consistently reap plentiful paddy harvests due to the fact that the unique traditional rice varieties used had a higher tolerance level to increased salinity and water levels. According to the villagers, the “Karijja Wella” also provided effective support to mitigate saltwater intrusion up to a point. A small canal with elevated banks the “Karijja Wella” would flow parallel to the main river, in between the river and the paddy fields with gates at different locations. This traditional system functioned through an ingenious mechanism to reduce the salinity of water used in paddy lands from the river at the high tide. In addition to paddy cultivation, women of the household frequently engaged in weaving mats, hats, bags, and different types of handicrafts using reeds grown in the nearby swamps, which generated good supplementary income at the time. Accounts from elderly women in the village reveal that the reed based weaving industry was lucrative enough to fulfil the financial requirements of both education for children, and most household expenses. The handicrafts were sold in areas like Paravigama, Miigama, Aluthgama and Mathugama and offered a creative and financially sound outlet for local women. The villages of the area remained self-sufficient in other ways too, with several families dedicating time to fishing which would provide an additional source of protein at the dinner table. Some families carved out a living from trading mangrove related vegetables such as Karan-Koku, Kekatiya, Lotus-roots etc. providing a varied diet and extra income from selling Lotus and Watakeyya flowers at the closely located and famous Buddhist temple, Kandewihara. Another feature of life included small home vegetable gardens and cattle farms which made life easier in the villages despite a lack of money. Overall, the villagers had something special; a sustainable existence and a deep-seated love and respect for the natural world around them. Even today, from recently conducted interviews, we learn that locals in the area still have a strong passion and desire for this traditional way of life.

However, over time, multiple forces adversely affected the delicate existence enjoyed by residents of the area. Saltwater intrusion gradually began to increase and reduce the productivity of the paddy fields, rendering large areas no longer capable for arable farming. Farmers didn’t receive any financial compensation or higher prices for the unique rice varieties they grew in these harsh habitats using more sustainable agriculture practices, so ultimately the practices and rice varieties dwindled. Further exacerbating the increasing economic strife endured by locals was the introduction of cheaper plastic mats and mass-produced products which substantially reduced demand for reed-based handicrafts. Unable to keep pace with the collapse of local industry and agriculture these mangrove communities were forced to turn to alternative sources of income. Paddy cultivation completely halted and approximately 300 acres of paddy lands were subsequently abandoned then quickly overtaken by alien invasive species (AIS) such as Dillenia suffruticosa, and Annona glabra. As the environmental issues grew and communities drifted into poverty, outside investors started to invade the mangrove forest around the river to exploit the area for financial gain. Taking advantage of the close proximity to the Benthara tourism area, wealthier businesspersons and companies opened non-environmentally friendly tourist destinations, and unregulated boat services appeared along the riverbank which was rapidly being cleared of the once lush mangrove forest. As a result of both large- and small-scale tourism developments in the area, the Benthara River mangrove environment has become one of the most endangered mangrove systems in Sri Lanka. Seemingly very few people could see the social, economic and environmental benefits of mangrove conservation and sustainable resource extraction, and the entire area appeared to be on the brink of collapse. 

However, in 2004, environmental economics specialist Dr. Suren Batagoda an alumnus of Faculty of Applied Sciences, USJ, learned of the past and present situation of the stricken Horawala-Ittapana mangrove community. With a desire to help this rural community and the unique ecosystem, he embarked on a comprehensive study of the sustainable economic potential of this mangrove ecosystem.

Surprised by initial results, he took immediate actions. Identifying the need of the community to earn money through eco-friendly businesses, he constructed a small building in the area with the necessary facilities for a beverage manufacturing factory. The surprising venture aimed at using un-utilized Mangrove Apple fruit (Sonneratia caseolaris) for beverage manufacturing and sale. The business quickly drew attention from local villagers and in the pilot project phase produced 30,000-35,000 bottles of Mangrove Apple per month. With low overheads, production and sales of this magnitude ensured the business was a success. A resulting side effect from the success of this sustainable business was a resurgence in reed-based handicraft manufacturing. The area appeared to be on the upswing with locals now viewing the mangrove as a necessary resource that should be preserved for future prosperity but unfortunately due to the ill health of Dr. Batagoda he was unable to maintain these operations of which he had dedicated so much of his life. Once again, the fate of the mangroves slipped into uncertainty. 

Fast forward to 2019 and the time when Dr. Batagoda discovered the Center for Sustainability (CFS), at USJ. He was impressed with the many successful projects conducted by the CFS in the areas of environmental conservation, habitat restoration, eco-tourism and eco-businesses. In a great act of generosity and altruism he decided to donate the land he had bought at Ittapana-horawala with the beverage processing factory building to the university. New life will once again be breathed into the factory building by converting it to a mangrove research facility for researchers, students and the wider academic community.

After 18 months of hard work by the CFS team under the guidance and supervision of the CFS director and senior lecturer in DFES, Dr.Priyan Perera, baseline data was collected on ecology, sociology, economy of the Ittapana horawala area. The data was subsequently used to create a masterplan with the objectives of uplifting the economic status of this rural community while simultaneously conserving the Horawala mangrove ecosystem. This masterplan aims to cover three main aspects, protecting the mangrove ecosystem, enhancing local and nationwide knowledge, and improving the economic status of the community.

The masterplan highlights the importance of the following key areas of focus:

1. Establishing a field research center for national and international researchers, university students and school students to study the mangrove ecosystem and spread awareness on the importance of mangrove biodiversity.

2. Restoration and rehabilitation of destroyed or degraded areas through clearing invasive plant species and planting mangrove and Mangrove Apple plants.

3. Creating a mangrove arboretum with Sri Lankan mangrove and mangrove associate plants which can maintain and enhance the mangrove gene pool.

4. Establishing and maintaining native fish aquarium and endangered fish species breeding center

5. Re-starting the Mangrove Apple beverage processing factory, empowering local women and introducing an improved product to the market with the support of the Department of Food Science and Technology, USJ

6. Restoration of previous reed lands and restarting the reed-based handicraft production industry, in collaboration with the relevant stakeholders and government authorities. Furthermore, a separate center will be established for reed product marketing, promotion, new business development and innovation.

7. Re-farming abandoned paddy lands by providing sustainable farming knowledge, improved/traditional salt tolerance rice varieties, proper technology and guidance. The harvest will be promoted separately with restructured pricing which takes into consideration environmental best practice and quality certification

8. Maintaining a traditional food and beverage restaurant targeting local and foreign tourists using the labour and products of the local people

9. Maintaining 3 ecolodges for tourists utilizing expert management practices from a collaborative effort with the Forest department and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority any other government organizations (Including Eco Trails, Eco and Animal Exploration Tours)

10. Enhancing geographical location and ancient value of places such as Pahurakanda temple to the economy by organising bicycle trips between Ittapana-Horawala Mangrove Resource Center and Yagirala forest research center in collaboration with relevant government organisations and authorities. 

11. Introducing the concept and practical know how of carbon trading to the community and getting them involved in mangrove conservation through mangrove maintenance.

12. Development of additional businesses including mangrove related local industries and innovations.

As a university we have an academic team with excellent technical knowledge and experienced, dedicated, staff to carry out all these activities, our financial capabilities are very limited. In spite of these challenges, we at the USJ are ready to do what is necessary to enhance our small but precious Island through these new avenues of environmental conservation. Working with other parties across all sectors will inevitably lead to greater success for the aforementioned mangrove projects and ultimately the protection of one of the country’s most important habitats and natural resources. 

If you are inspired by the story of the Horawala people, understand the environmental and economic importance of this mangrove ecosystem or have a general interest in protecting Sri Lankan biodiversity, then please join us on our journey. Whether it be as an individual or an organisation any kind of contribution you can make is of vital importance to protecting this area and the local community. Do your bit to help make the Sri Lankan mangrove ecosystems the best they can be.