Sri Lanka is a country with rich biodiversity–about 3368 plant species belonging to 1294 genera and 132 families have been identified, and around 800 of these are endemic to Sri Lanka (Rajapakse, 1998). Most of these plants were utilized in building healthy rural communities under the precise guidance of traditional local healers, members of the elderly, and indigenous communities during the past. In addition, the forest played a vital role in fulfilling basic human needs such as timber, firewood, medicine, and food plants. These plant species have unique therapeutic and nutritional properties with a potential in solving acute global health problems. They are connected with ethical, cultural, spiritual, and social activities recognized from the earliest days of human history.
The childhoods of past generations were invariably journeys that introduced them to wild fruit trees that grew in abundance in their immediate environs. Madam (Syzygium cumini), himbutu (Salacia reticulata Roxb), uguressa (Flacourtia inermis Roxb), and kirilla (Grewia microcos L) to name a few, are among over 100 wild fruit varieties that were part of the process of discovering the world. Those flavors and discoveries were naturally of indelible nature. Unfortunately, these are simple childhood pleasures that generations to come will likely be denied.
The reliable elderly community has revealed that the availability of over 100 such wild fruit species are not well-known, and only a few have been domesticated and are widely focused as commercial crops. These lesser-known fruits were an integral part of the Sri Lankan rural lifestyle and have enhanced the country while providing their daily therapeutic supplement in order to lead a healthy lifestyle without any extra cost. The leaves and fruits of kovakka (Coccinia grandis) have the power to stabilize high blood pressure, while additionally known for their detoxification capability as blood purifiers (Jayawardhana, 2014b). Also, guava has been considered as a “super fruit” because it is rich in fiber and vitamins A, B, and C (Fonseka, 2008). On the other hand, the Ceylon olive (Elaeocarpus serratus) and wild olive, or weralu, are species indigenous to Sri Lanka. Rural communities have been using the fruit as a natural form of hair care for generations. Many personal care manufacturers are currently using extracts of weralu to formulate anti-dandruff shampoos (Jayawardhana, 2014a).
Unfortunately, the present generation (already accustomed to modern technology) is not prepared to carry the indigenous varieties or knowledge over to the next generation, or do not even know how to identify the basic native plants and their properties. Similarly, a wide range of lesser-known traditional food plant species are also disappearing rapidly due to continuous clearance of forest cover and are destroyed as ‘weeds’ due to lack of awareness.
Loss of biodiversity and diminishing plants of the country have been identified through the National Strategic Plan of Conservation of Biodiversity in Sri Lanka by well-known professionals under the Ministry of Environment and Forest resources in 1999. In addition, Sri Lanka has been designated as one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots in the world (Ministry of Forestry and Environment in Sri Lanka, 1999).
In 2002, the Native Forest Foundation (NFF) in Sri Lanka conducted a baseline survey on the availability of such species in the rural elderly community and identified that there is a wealth of information on traditional knowledge associated with plants and trees, but there has been a dramatic loss of such knowledge and species. Due to this exercise, the Founder of NFF decided to dedicate personal land for the purpose due to non-availability of resources to purchase new land and was in the process of establishing a mini-arboretum on a one-acre plot of land in 2005. This initiative was mainly to serve the purpose of recovering loss of natural resources in wild fruit and selected medicinal plant categories in collection, conservation, and propagation with the establishment of a field gene bank as a conservation and education unit with over 200 such species.
In addition, the goal is to provide a facility where people can learn, exchange, and research with hands-on experience from local traditional knowledge bearers to the next generation. Thus, NFF has selected Sunday Schools, which are places regularly visited by children and are typically endowed with sufficient space for the purpose by their local partners in order to get the young generation involved in regenerating their interest and creating wider awareness on the value of available local natural resources.
Our rationale for selecting Sunday Schools is mainly due to easy implementation at a practical level since there is extreme difficulty in entering primary schools with extensive red tape to obtain approvals and poor interest of the children during school hours as they are in a rat race to achieve their educational goals in a highly competitive environment. NFF conducts programmes irrespective of religious interests in churches, temples, and all other religious institutions where there is adequate land space available. In addition, NFF is in the process of introducing the concept of “Wild Fruits for All” in building up a small orchard with 15-20 lesser known species by incorporating traditional home remedies as a part of reawakening the ancestral wisdom amongst the young generation in the future.
Therefore, proper education that includes transmission of knowledge for attitudes and practice is a prerequisite in promoting traditional native plants. In this process, NFF promotes active participation of the present generation with hands-on exercise in a “Field Gene Bank” to collect lesser-known wild fruit plants and to propagate and popularize them to show the importance of conservation. NFF also covers sustainable utilization and creates new income avenues as a valuable resource for the benefit of the future generation of the country. Furthermore, another component of the arboretum is propagation of these species as ex-situ conservation plots in Sunday Schools, benefited with the existence of 4Bs (Bees, Butterflies, Birds, & Bats).
In 2009, the Tear Fund (UK) recognized the arboretum and its activities when selecting their inspired individual and fellowship programme (www.inspiredindividuals.org) with necessary assistance to extend the plant propagation in Sunday Schools for a period of 3 years. NFF has been able to conduct over 114 interactive awareness sessions in 62 Sunday Schools covering over 2400 students by distributing another 2500 plant species with 62 agricultural motivational kits during this period. The Tear Fund further generously assisted in putting up a building by incorporating traditional ecological architectural concepts to accommodate the volunteers, students, library, and administrative unit.
In addition, the arboretum has been assisting both local and foreign students to fulfill their academic dissertations in Anthropology, Environmental Science, Ethnobotany, and Agriculture. “The Significance of Sihalese Buddhist Cultural Beliefs and Concepts of Sacred in the Conservation of Plants in Sri Lanka” was one of the remarkable dissertations carried out by a student at the University of Kent (UK) in 2003 in association with NFF.
Furthermore, the arboretum is providing a venue for foreign volunteers who are keen on working with the younger generation in plant conservation. Over 60 foreign volunteers from different parts of the world have contributed with their resources so far. At present, NFF has a collection of over 60 species of wild fruits and another 72 species of medicinal plants; they have collected a broad spectrum of traditional knowledge pertaining to plants and trees in Sri Lanka; and joined the global network of the Sacred Seeds sanctuaries in 2013 (http://sacredseedssanctuary.org/gardens/native-forest-foundation-gampaha-sri-lanka).
The program is further expected to collect another 40 species of wild fruits, compiling and publishing the traditional knowledge booklet, to establish a plant nursery in order to propagate the plants amongst Sunday Schools; and to seek opportunities to build up partnership or collaboration to further expand the activities in a more professional manner in the future.
Damitha Rajapakse has more than 30 years’ experience in Fast Moving Consumer Goods categories with a diverse product range of pharmaceuticals, personal care, and nutrition in two large multinationals as a marketer. He is actively involved in community based initiatives to protect and conserve local cultures and native plants, particularly in the areas of ethnobotany, traditional healing, conservation, and childhood learning. He is presently in the process of building up a mini arboretum plant resource center with native wild fruits and medicinal plants and documentation of traditional knowledge associated with native plants in Sri Lanka. firstname.lastname@example.org
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