Growing mangroves harvesting opportunities

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By Shaahidah Riza 2016-08-15

By Shaahidah Riza


At 13, in 2004, when most young girls would focus on school and deal with raging hormones, Anoka Primrose Abeyrathne had her plans down to pat. Witnessing the colossal destruction caused by the monstrous waves that savaged Sri Lanka's coastline, that year, Abeyrathne knew what she had to do. She commenced a project replanting 12,000 mangroves, in order to mitigate the effect of a future tsunami. At the tender age of 13, this teenage girl was environmentally conscious and was wise beyond her years. She and her team had spent extensive hours in research and had observed that in areas where there was a dense mangrove growth, the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami was much less.

Fast forward 12 years, this little girl and Mother Nature's saviour has grown in to a smart woman, and is the founder of her own social enterprise, Growin' Money-Sustain Solutions, which has branches in India, Cambodia, Maldives and Bangladesh. Featured in the List of the 20 Most Influential and Powerful Young Persons of the World 2012 by Huffington Post and Youth Service America, her dossier of achievements is hefty, so is her popularity amongst young social entrepreneurs around the world. She is the youngest female recipient of the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development, New Champion of the World Economic Forum and is a Global Youth Ambassador with Office of the UN Special Envoy on Global Education, A World At School and the Office of Sarah and Gordon Brown. Abeyrathne was youngest founding member of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers in Sri Lanka and a Royal Commonwealth Society Associate Fellow. She is the youngest of the 12 Shapers on the United Nations-World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Council working on mainstreaming sustainability with the Post 2015 Development Agenda and is the Policy and Advocacy representative to the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network.


Despite the time consuming schedules such tasks would entail, she also graduated with a LLB (Hons) from the University of London, was a Thomson Reuters Law Scholar and obtained a Masters degree in Development from the University of Colombo. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in Sustainability at Harvard University. She is the only female representative from the Asia-Pacific on the UN-Habitat for Youth Advisory Board and the first Sri Lankan to be so elected.


Equal Footing
Speaking to Sati Chronicles, Abeyrathne asserted that she did not let herself be subjected to gender profiling; as a result she managed to go to new heights, as reflected by her achievements. Elaborating further, she added,
"My view of things was different. I always thought that I was on par with everyone else. I never thought of taking a step back just because I was a girl. I always viewed myself to be on an equal footing with everyone else. Perhaps, it is because of this mentality that I feel that I have been successful and the fact that I am woman has not stopped me in anyway," and noted that self confidence is vital in order to push oneself to do better. However, she refers to her achievements with a mixture of charm and humility, "I am the only woman, who was appointed as a representative for certain organizations, there are so many women with potential who hold back a lot."


Reflecting on her childhood, she observed that her parents never shackled her based on her gender. "I was brought up in a liberal household. I played cricket with the boys, captained the football team at university, climbed plenty of trees and walls, there was no distinction when it came to opportunities between my brother and I.
There were certain relatives who were not pleased with the manner in which I was brought up, however my parents kept me insulated from them." Abeyrathne, albeit being a tomboy as a child, grew to embrace her femininity, and added that it has not in any manner or form stopped her from the more arduous and less conforming roles she has to adhere in running her own social enterprise. "I like to dress-up, and put on make-up, wear pretty shoes etc. I don't however let that neither define nor restrict me from what I want to do. I don't let it make me feel like I am substandard, just because I am female. I see myself on equal footing with any professional, any day."


With such a testimony, it is easy to assume Abeyrathne to be someone from a very privileged background, thus her work has been cut out for her. However, she disagreed,
"I have always tried to be self sufficient. I always try to distance myself from anything I don't have to work hard for. I agree that my parents and my family background helped me to some extent, but I did most things on my own. I have walked for miles, when engaging with Growin' Money. I've taken the bus. I even paid for my own education."


She acknowledged the fact that one does not choose to whom they are born to, be it to privileged parents or otherwise. "It is all about what you do with it. I could have partied and spent my life away. But I would rather focus on more vital matters," she stressed.


World Merit- New York
Recently Abeyrathne was awarded with another accolade to add to her gigantic dossier of achievements. She was chosen by World Merit, an organization which has partnered with the British Council and works towards achieving the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). She is one of nine ambassadors chosen globally, and was appointed as the country representative for Sri Lanka. She will be spending two weeks in New York as part of this programme. Abeyrathne and another candidate had been nominated for this opportunity, but she was favoured based on her commitment to sustainability and the related work she has been doing for more than a decade.


"For me it was not just about posting a photo of myself doing some work, it was about actually doing it and coming up with people who actually benefitted from it, them in turn supporting our collaborative work, that actually goes a long way. When there is a cascade effect of a whole level of people being helped and they support you, it's much easier to get your work done because they trust you. World Merit programme entails a training that would lead to an action plan," she explained, "I am focusing on one sustainability development goal; sustainable cities and sustainable communities (SDG 11). Sri Lanka is becoming urbanized.
Colombo and cities like Kandy are developing at a faster a rate. But we lack so many important development aspects. For example, we lack efficient transportation, we lack an efficient education system and we lack sustainability in development. I am trying to improve those. We are lacking so much of greenery. There are plenty of places we could use to create an urban vegetable garden. There is so much going to waste and it does not bode well for the country, especially when we are having an economic downturn. I am trying to find solutions by learning from the experiences and practices other countries have adopted to achieve the SDGs. I will be focusing on creating an action plan for Sri Lanka, and see whether it can be adopted here."


Women's Enterprise
Abeyrathne's life and soul is her beloved mangroves venture, Growin' Money-Sustain Solutions. This project has created several employment opportunities for women in the coastal region, who are now economically self sufficient.
"Women were the easiest candidates for the programme," she said, "Most of them tend to stay at home. They had children and household chores etc. It was easy for me to recruit them, they were reluctant and hesitant at first, but they were also interested in making money. Most of their husbands were fishermen or farmers, and the money they earn is not enough to sustain their families. These men also spend most of their earnings on alcohol. The women were much more efficient with their money. They make a variety of objects out of mangroves such as curio objects, masks and jewellery."
Most interesting is the fact that these women are not in Abeyrathne's employment. "They are part of the social enterprise, which is self sufficient; and it's their own enterprise now. I am in a more of a mentor/directorial role," she explained and added that she does not benefit from a profit. However, 10 per cent of this social enterprise is allocated to help more women with similar opportunities. She observed,

"They make themselves stronger as they grow; they reduce poverty, and establish equality. They don't have to worry about issues such as theft in their neighbourhood, as there is a better sense of equality in those areas. They are also not financially dependent on their husbands, as well." This venture has lead to over 40,000 replanted mangroves and a social enterprise and education programme helping over 5,000 villagers in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Maldives and Cambodia with over 20,000 volunteers.
Explaining her journey further she acknowledged that the British Council played a tremendous role in improving the venture.
"We had formulated an idea about this a while back. British Council helped us through their International Climate Champions Programme, which was later supported through the Global Changemakers Programme and subsequently through the Active Citizens Programme."
Abeyrathne who has done an extensive amount of work with regard to environment and climate change, is focused on taking her work to greater heights. Despite all of these though, even Abeyrathne gets asked awkward and intrusive questions. Reminiscing on the early years of the re planting programme, she explained that she solicited the support of religious leaders and the Grama niladhari officials. "Who would want to listen to a girl?" she asked. "I have been told to focus on finding a man to get married to by some people. Will they ever ask these questions from men who are heads of companies, obviously not?" she said. That has not stopped her from doing what she loves best which is saving the environment. She is also not against marriage, and noted, however, that she has not yet met a suitable life- partner.


Seeking a Goal
Recounting her experiences, she added that women have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good as men. "When men see you supersede their standing in society because of your hard work and education, they tend not to like you and may even see you as a threat," she said, and went on to add that regardless of gender, it is important for one to be a proactive citizen for the betterment of the community they live in.


She further emphasized that it is paramount to have goals in life. Regardless, of what gender or age one belongs to they have purpose in life, she explained and added,
"I see so many people who don't have goals in life. They don't know why they are here on this planet for. If they are not sure of their purpose in life, they definitely have to find out what it is.


Until you find your purpose, you will probably just drift around, just living. I wouldn't call that 'living', you just exist. But when you start living, when you find out your purpose or goal, you tend to decide what your life is going to be like and start working towards something. That is the point at which you become something much more greater than just existing."
Abeyrathne is in essence, Captain Planet brought to life, her achievements and service to the environment and conservation remains colossal and unmatched.

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