Stand Up For Colombo’s Trees – How I Became A Hippie.

I am not a habitual protester. In fact for the most part I have a fairly well developed sense of laissez-faire sri lankaise ie what to do?

There’s a war- what to do? journalists keep disappearing – what to do? etc.

But the other day I was traveling down Reid Avenue and saw, well… the standard mob from the municipality – men in grubby t-shirts with manic grins ripping into the street’s beautiful mature trees with screeching chainsaws and all I could think was- What??? someone ought to do something.

It was just such a callous and wanton act of vandalism. Those trees were enormous, clearly over a hundred years old and left over from the days when the ‘garden city’ of Colombo was a model for the rest of Asia. Now that the city seems keen to reclaim/regain its green heritage, at least if you believe the government slogans, decimating some of the city’s most outstanding greenery seems particularly senseless. They weren’t widening the road, they were redoing the pavements – but surely trees are more a boon than bane for pedestrians. Safety ie. the trees might fall on someone isn’t a major concern on Reid Avenue – they border a park and aren’t within striking distance of any buildings. They might fall on the road? There are much more dangerous things on the road than trees- 138 buses for example, and we don’t chop them down. Severe pruning would have been sufficient. Of course if a tree really is rotten and about to fall it has to be removed, however there should be some sort of transparency- in this case a dozen trees that had stood for decades (how could they all have been dangerously rotten) were removed. Most likely out of a thoughtless desire to complete the pavement as easily as possible combined with the lure of an enormous amount of sell-able timber.

Thinking about this senseless destruction actually made me angry so I was thrilled to see that a group of concerned Colombars – led by Jan Ramesh and Indika Arulingam were organizing a protest against wanton tree felling in the city. For the first time in my life I resolved to attend a demonstration and actually participate- not cover it as a journalist or gawk with a sense of irony.

So dutifully at the allotted time – 4 pm, I turned up at Reid avenue. 400 people had confirmed they were attending on the protest group’s Facebook page so I was expecting a little crowd. However the pitfalls of social-media organisation mean that out of everyone who clicks yes online only a fraction will actually turn up. After a few minutes wandering down the road I spotted 10 people fiddling around with cloth and paint by a felled tree at the far end of the road. Sensing failure it entered my head to turn around and head home but seeing the little group diligently painting slogans and signboards I dutifully introduced myself and started doing what I could to help draw peoples attention to the deceased trees.

They, or maybe I mean we, set to work creating placards and negotiating with the police who seemed amused by the idea of a tree, rather than a rights or union, protest. As the little group stood there scrawling on cloth and dealing with the police a trickle of other protesters kept turning up. Some brought their own signage, banners and fliers others seemed to have turned up just because they saw something going on but soon there were 60 or 70 people, lining the road waving banners and generally making themselves heard.

While it was far short of the number organizers would have liked it was enough to count as a legitimate protest and attract the attention of passers by and the media. Swaranvahini, Derana, Lanka Deepa all turned up. Which was the idea. Not to stand around and mourn cut trees but to show those that control the grinning men with chainsaws that people are interested in the city’s greenery and that wantonly cutting trees makes you unpopular, causes general bad publicity and isn’t worth it.

It was surreal spending two hours on the side of a busy road holding placards for trees. Having spent my whole adult life sniping at hippies suddenly I was a tree hugger. But well I’m a Colombar more than anything else and this city needs to cling to every bit of greenery it has. A protest in this case is honestly not a futile or self-indulgent exercise (or doesn’t have to be). A complex decades old war is one thing but cutting trees is different. It doesn’t take too many people to make a difference- 200 people on the street and thousands more angry and the government may well decide it’s just as well to keep some fairly harmless trees in place.

So despite a lifetime of protest skepticism I’ll be at the next tree protest too (hopefully there wont have to be another one). This is our city and in the absence of any sort of transparency and coherent opposition if you want to have even the slightest chance of being heard organizing interdependently and getting on the street/publicity is more or less your only option.

Crucially these sorts of protests need to reach beyond the English chattering bohemian classes.

Finally thanks to some very valuable research by the protest organizers we discovered that the blame for the felled trees seems to rest more with the UNP controlled CMC than the mighty Rajapaksa regime…. The government controlled UDA said they had nothing to do with the tree felling and when pushed the UNP controlled CMC mumbled something unconvincing about roots affecting drains. Regardless of whose to blame the over all indifference and lack of transparency is the issue and the point has to be don’t do this again…

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