The Model Ecolodge Initiative remains central to the strategy to build sustainable tourism based on Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity richness. The Sinharaja Ecolodge will be benchmarked for ecotourism by:
- Environmental best practices in design and management, following international ecotourism guidelines in Sri Lanka for the first time
- Community Outreach Programmes for resident-community integration in the sustainable development process of the area in which they live
- To support conservation activity in the forest buffer of the threatened Sinharaja Rainforest a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- An awareness campaign building strategic alliances with academic professionals, cultural institutions, conservationists and media and the garnering of an international eco-cultural market share boosting Sri Lanka’s ecotourism potential
- Independent evaluation of environmental and socio-economic sustainability with the intention of formulating an international standard for ecotourism in Sri Lanka.
The tea worker community consisting of 37 families, resident on the site, was marginalized, isolated and lived in extremely poor conditions at the time the project began. It was imperative that the project initially invested in upgrading their basic facilities while considering a longer term strategy to empower them to access opportunities that would be available once the Ecolodge began operations.
It was clear that the project’s success also hinged greatly on the rehabilitation of this community as they were as much a part of the forest as the rest of its exotic inhabitants.
In the short term, basic facilities required an immediate upgrade. In the long term, the community was poised to benefit from a partnership with Ecolodge and its operations.
The resident community compared uniquely to eco-tourism products globally as they formed a full-time labour force for the 25 hectares of tea grown in the Ecolodge property. They were not typical of rainforest communities who have a traditional relationship with the forest environment and so elicited a limited appreciation of their surroundings. Employed by the tea estate, they possessed little in the way of traditional craft skills which posed an added challenge to the community development objectives of the project.
With no obvious platform for partnership overshadowed by an extreme need for better living conditions, co-operation from the local community was integral if best practices in ecotourism were to prevail.
The next closest community in the area was 8km away. But they were mostly tea smallholders with a good standard of living and so did not relate to the outreach programme except perhaps in terms of providing a supply chain to the operations of the Ecolodge.
In ecotourism projects worldwide, communities benefit primarily through mutual partnership such as employment or shares in exchange for land etc. However due to existing ownership complexities a more traditional approach was adopted.
A rural sociologist from USAID made this assessment: basic living standards of the community would have to precede skills development and outreach work because the abject living conditions required immediate relief. The dilapidated line housing at the centre of the site was very exposed and relocation seemed to be the most practical answer. Thus the first activity was to build a new tea worker village in a different location with improved housing, power supply, clean drinking water and sanitary facilities, a better school, crèche, clinic and a cooperative store. USAID would share fifty percent of cost with the Rainforest Ecolodge for this activity.
Medium and longer term areas of the community outreach programme with USAID funding would look at health, education, social services and life skills – empowering the community to have a voice over the future of their affairs. A community-managed cooperative society and options to supplement incomes alternatively would be in place. These initiatives had the enlightened support and recognition of the management of Enselwatte Estate.
The community outreach programme is a long-term sustainable development objective of the Ecolodge to develop and improve quality of life of the neighbouring tea estate community with their participation.