Revolution Off The Beaten-Track

We planted ourselves in the epicenter of trouble – the northern edge of Yala National Park. When we first stepped foot in the hamlet of Dambeyaya in Okkampitiya, Buttala, life here was torn asunder by a protracted war. People were driven off this border village by a protracted war; one more bloody attack occurred while we were there!

On the other side of Kumbukkan Oya (River) that separates civilization from the deeps of the Yala National Park, the protracted war offered the perfect circumstances for destruction of one of the country’s greatest assets. Strewed across Yala were countless ancient treasures and a feast of nature – in the form of a resplendent habitat rich in flora and fauna, laced with precious stones. Fortune hunters, loggers, miners and poachers were burning the midnight oil – absolutely unchecked.

We researched the burning issues grappling nature – and a downtrodden people of this vast natural haven of Sri Lanka’s south-east. This is where Geo-Explore Foundations ‘out-of-the-box’ approach came to the fore. KumbukRiver, a one-of-a-kind responsible tourism project was born in the year 2005. Centerpiece of this grass-root revolution off the beaten-track was a towering eco villa in the shape of a 40ft elephant, the mascot for the Foundation. KumbukRiver captured the attention of the world to Sri Lanka’s richness in bio-diversity and brought it to the forefront in Asia’s forays in responsible tourism.

KumbukRiver soon emerged as Sri Lanka’s highest awarded resort on the world scene, winning the Travel Oscar as the world’s leading eco-lodge and is also among the world’s top 10 most unusual hotels. International publicity won KumbukRiver the support of the State machinery. Divisional Secretariat of Buttala provided its ready support while villagers, the most challenging aspect for any grass-root level organization readily accepted the ‘outsiders’ in their backyard. Winning hearts and minds – and respect, was half the battle won and would form the onward strategy for the Foundation.

Sri Lanka’s Vanishing Forest Cover

Ceylon in 1920, as Sri Lanka was known then, was endowed with a forest cover of 49%. That’s half of the landmass of an island once known as the world’s Garden of Eden. By 2015, Sri Lanka’s forest cover had dwindled to 29%*. At the rate in which deforestation is occurring, the destruction is rapid and alarming! *UNREDD
Deforestation and forest degradation reportedly account for 17 per cent of carbon emissions, more than the world’s transportation sectors combined. Agriculture, logging and commercial development are primary contributors to the epidemic that’s destroying our habitat as you read this.

Guardians of Nature

First to be enlisted on to the cause of GEF, through KumbukRiver, were poachers, loggers and miners, all plying an illicit craft for living. GEF’s far-reaching Geo 360’ model where a combination of education, inspiration, ownership and economic success and accountability was homegrown, on the field with villagers driven to vandalize nature in order to survive soon emerged as its most ardent guardians. Among GEF’s primary focuses at present is an ambitious reforestation programme.

Major Contributors to Deforestation

While bringing the attention of the world’s media and its tourists to a truly remarkable responsible tourism experience, GEF, together with, KumbukRiver has been a mouthpiece for nature and a beacon of hope for people. A 15-acre land, once destroyed by ‘slash and burn’ cultivation is now a growing forest, growing naturally for the past 14 years. Another 3-acres form planned reforestation – forming the inaugural efforts of our reforestation mandate.