A salute to Iranganie Serasinghe: A great tree that stood the test of time


Last Sunday, 5 June, was World Environment Day. 2022 marks 50 years since the iconic 1972 Stockholm Conference or the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, where the importance of considering the environment in development and the optimum use of resources by the current generations and conserving them for the future generations so that they could equally enjoy them, was highlighted by bringing the idea of ‘sustainable development’ into light. Accordingly, the theme for World Environment Day 2022 has been selected as ‘Only One Earth’ focusing on ‘Living sustainably in harmony with nature’, reiterating on sustainable development which was introduced in 1972. Celebration of Environment Day began with the theme ‘Only One Earth’ which is reminisced with this year’s celebration.

As in many parts of the world, a special celebration of the World Environment Day 2022 took place at the National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka. The event was organised collectively by the National Zoological Gardens, the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (fogsl), the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) and the Base for Enthusiasts of Environment and Zoology (BEEZ). The programme consisted of a field session at the zoo for the kids and youth, a forum of eminent speakers and a commemorative celebration of a much loved public figure, who has been an icon of environmental protection in Sri Lanka, urging and inspiring many generations till now.

The very special guest was none other than Iranganie Serasinghe. She is much loved by the public as a veteran actress of Sinhala cinema, teledrama, as well as stage dramas. Apart from the iconic and memorable roles portrayed by her, she is known as one of the leading ladies in the forefront of environmental conservation campaigns of Sri Lanka. Coming from Mudugamuwa, Ruwanwella, little Iranganie Meedeniya grew up in a serene and beautiful environment between Gurugoda Oya and Ritigaha Oya surrounded by the luscious greenery of forests, filled with bird songs. This upbringing instilled in Meedeniya sisters to stand up for conserving the natural environment of Sri Lanka and as a renowned actress in the country, Iranganie, now ‘Mrs. Serasinghe’ had the opportunity to bring out the message to protect environment towards the public.

Iranganie Serasinghe is a founder of the Environment Foundation (Guarantee) Limited, a founding member of the Ruk Rakaganno movement, a key figure in the ‘march for conservation’ and has always spoken up against environmental devastation without any fear. An orchid, Dendrobium Iranganie serasinghe, has been named after her to honour her great service to the Sri Lanka’s environment. At the event, Serasinghe unveiled a reminiscent plaque displaying the photograph of her planting the Thimbiri tree with young Samanthika de Alwis, right next to the now grown up arbor giant. Commemorating the same event 42 years back, she planted another sal plant with the fogkid, Laurendi. Incidentally, last Friday, 9 June, was her 95th birthday.

Iranganie is a natural rebel. She decided to study further and pursue drama studying method acting despite her aristocratic family background. A talented actor in the theatre, she accepted Rekhawa because she wanted to act naturally without following the then famous Indian culture. This rebellion naturally transpired to the then environmental struggle of Sri Lanka to protect the lowland wet zone forests that were rapidly exploited for timber extraction. Emeritus Prof. Sarath Kotagama reminisced how she, who was an extremely popular public figure back in the day; as the Lamathani of Bakmaha deege film, humbly accepted his invitation to the March for Conservation and how she bravely led the fight in bullock carts.

“Serasinghe’s environmental services are little known but of great impact to the society of this country. Her contribution to Sinharaja conservation during the mid-1970s was remarkable. The image of her waiting under the Thimbiri (Malabar ebony) tree looking up at how it has grown might be the best representation of how environment should be celebrated today, regenerating the One Earth we have for tomorrow taking an example from her life. It was planted in 1980 to commemorate the beginning of March for Conservation. She has marched from Colombo to Kandy. Her planting a Sal tree on the Environment Day in the vicinity of the 42 years old Thimbiri/ Malabar ebony tree with another kid is also an important symbol for future generations. Iranganie Serasinghe is one of the eldest living women environmental activists. Her services must be highly appreciated and recognised today for campaigning to conserve our natural heritage,” stated Prof. Nihal Dayawansa, President of fogsl.

“My generation has failed in our duties. The youth are skilled and resourceful today. We are still not recognising their calibre or not giving the youth enough respect and opportunity”, claimed Dr. Jagath Gunawardana, urging the present youth to take the lead in addressing the challenges of environmental conservation and needs of the time. He highlighted the exemplary personalities present at the forum and asked the young audience to take note from their qualities, especially Serasinghe, the Chief Guest and key personality of the day. Hasantha Wijethunga, President of YZA agreed stating that the current youth should step up for the challenge of conserving the environment.

Prof. Kotagama, another key figure involved in the Sri Lankan environment reminisced the March for Conservation movement and the fight to protect Sinharaja, how he started it with the then youth of the country including the present fora and the involvement of YZA and fogsl membership then.

Director General of the National Zoological Gardens, Dr. Thilak Premakantha highlighted the importance of sustaining the environment for future. As the custodian of an important ex-situ conservation facility of the country, he emphasised that both in-situ and ex-situ conservation should be linked for successful conservation. He also expressed that the Zoological Gardens was very happy to host the event and ‘welcome back’ Serasinghe on behalf of the whole staff, commending the collective organisation of these youth. Anoma Priyadarshani, Director Operations of the National Zoological Gardens stated that as an extension of the Environment Day celebrations, the zoo will be willing to support the field session for fogkids once each month.

It is commendable to observe that several youth and environmental organisations have gathered to celebrate a common cause giving due recognition to the figures that inspired them as well as who fought to spread awareness of the importance of environment and strived for its conservation.

Considering the current plight of where we are, it is crucial that we protect the natural environment we have from shortsighted unsustainable development activities. We should not look for instant results to find answers to current issues ignoring the long-term consequences that create worse problems that sink us in deeper troubles. Therefore, taking inspiration from the protectors of environment that conserved it for us up to today, such as Serasinghe, we must act promptly and bravely to sustain our environment. It is the best way to respect them for saving the nature for us.

Text and Pix by Dinithi Hemachandra