Cycling together in Palmyrah country

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This year’s ‘Yathra’ organised by Eco-Friendly Volunteers (Eco-V) saw youth from the North and South getting a firsthand view of the northern environment. Published on SundayTimes on 08.07.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180708/magazine/cycling-together-in-palmyrah-country-301256.html

‘Vanni Yathra 2018’- a cycling journey by youth from both the North and South highlighted the importance of joint ventures in protecting nature. Launched on June 4 from Kilinochchi, the journey ended in Vavuniya covering over 200 kilometres in nine days.

Vanni Yathra team cycling past Palmyrah trees unique to the north

The team behind the effort- Eco-Friendly Volunteers (Eco-V) had previously organized seven such ‘Yathras’ or journeys covering different parts of Sri Lanka. ‘Yathra’ means journey in Sinhala and the participants are called ‘Yathrees’. Bicycles were used for these journeys which have been going on since 2011 with the aim of promoting the ‘poor man’s vehicle’ as an eco-friendly mode of transportation, said Eco-V’s president Kanchana Weerakoon.

Isyar Newton was the leader of VanniYathra 2018. Newton has been a ‘Yathree’ since 2011 (he was 31 then) and took part in the past six such journeys. Newton was an ex-LTTE combatant and very thankful for the opportunity he got to take part in the ‘Kelani Nadee Yathra’ (journey along Kelani river) in 2011 while he was under rehabilitation.

“Kelani Nadee Yathra’ was a turning point in my life. It was the first time that I got to see the beauty of Sri Lanka and got to know youth from different parts of the country. These ‘yathras’ helped me to realize that youth in Sri Lanka are like-minded as we had loads of fun while campaigning for the environment,” Newton said. “I feel 30 years of my life got wasted due to the war and now feel very productive as I’m now fighting a new kind of battle to protect the environment.”

Newton changed his lifestyle, became vegetarian, stopped drinking fizzy drinks, and now campaigns against environmental pollution and an unhealthy lifestyle. He has participated in many training programmes and became an environmental activist and champion from the Northern Province. “Newton learnt Sinhalese very fast and became the Sinhala- Tamil translator for our programmes. Whenever we had a programme, he always travelled from Kilinochchi and early morning at 6 a.m. he would be at our door-step,” Eco-V’s president Kanchana said. “He became “Our Newton” and I’m happy that he did drive his own JourneyVanni Yathra,” she added.

The 15 youth from North led by Newton were joined by 15 from the South led by Chapa Erandi – another young Yathree who emerged through Ruhunu Yathra 2016. Chapa lives in Deniyaya, in the Matara district and was delighted that she received the chance to explore the North closely for the first time. The team explored the forested areas while travelling and learnt about the plants and different eco-systems in the region. “The chance we got to observe lots of birds at Nandikadal lagoon is the most memorable,” Chapa recalled.

Newton and Chapa planting a tree while a child looks on

Chapa found the campaign interesting as it helped them to educate the Northern community. Healthy food, hygiene and clean water, climate change, healthy living and reducing the carbon footprint are some of the topics this youthful team spoke of. “Northern communities after 30 years of war, only today get to deal with these concerns.

“Language was a barrier, but we were divided into a number of groups, so that our Tamil colleagues could help us to pass the message of conservation to the people,” Chapa said. “Meeting schoolchildren in Pudukuduiruppu was special, as unlike schoolchildren in Colombo, they rarely get the chance to learn about the environment and biodiversity,” she added.

Kanchana also said the bicycle has been used for the journey purposefully as it has become a global symbol of shifting towards sustainability. However, in the social fabric of Sri Lanka many people are choosing motorcycles, cars and three-wheelers for travelling, even a short distance. The bicycle was the Northerners’ main mode of transport, but soon after the war many have changed their lifestyle and shifted to motorbikes and scooters. “Elevating the status of the bicycle in society and showing people the various functions and sustainable attributes to cycling was also an objective of Vanni Yathra 2018,” Kanchana concluded.

Spreading the environmental message among the local community

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