Photo courtesy Dushiyanthini

When I heard that the large, beautiful trees that pave Reid Avenue in Colombo were being felled, my heart broke. I was so stirred inside – and it was hard to explain to anyone else why this particular incident had moved me so much.

When I came to Bangalore, my first thought was that this was another city that was home to large, beautiful, old trees – trees that had stood for decades, centuries perhaps, trees that had seen change, seen families come and go, people grow old; trees that had seen governments topple and others take their place, many of these trees probably saw the end of colonial rule and the beginning of the life of Independent India. It made me miss Colombo just a little less. It has been hard to imagine returning to Colombo and seeing the grand old trees on Reid Avenue uprooted and chopped up, lying sadly on the side of the road until they are put in the back of a truck and taken away.

The trees being cut-down on Reid Avenue are the perfect example of the kind of ‘development’ that Colombo, and some other parts of Sri Lanka, are now facing. With the strange yet unsurprising allocation of the Urban Development Authority to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence, these projects for infrastructural development and urban beautification have been unstoppable. While it’s hard to deny that in some instances, Colombo has indeed become more orderly and ‘beautiful’ as a result of these projects, what’s essentially worrying is the way in which they are carried out. Typically, you wake up one morning and they are tearing something down or building something up, and you have no idea why or what it is, when it’s going to be done or what the next step is. There’s little or no information accessible to the public – the residents of the area or otherwise concerned citizens. These projects sometimes involve something like the felling of very old, very large trees and we have no idea why. Lack of information and public awareness is just one head of a many-headed beast; the other very frightening one is the fact that these projects seem very obviously thought up by individuals who know nothing about urban development, or development, at all.

And this is where the real problem lies. All across Sri Lanka, from Kalpitiya to Pasikudah, there’s development taking place at an alarmingly efficient rate, and it all looks frighteningly badly thought out. Beaches are ravaged and luxury resorts are built with no heed paid to the damage to surrounding ecosystems and environment, small local businesses are brought down and boutique restaurants and hotels replace them. Roads are widened, bridges and highways are mushrooming across the parts of the country that the government cares to develop and homes and indeed trees are removed to make way for these. Many of these large-scale, high-cost projects seem detrimentally unsustainable – economically, socially and environmentally. They are plans which are made at the whim and fancy of those at the helm, plans which once decided on, by God knows who, are simply carried out – without consulting the relevant experts, sometimes not even consulting the relevant authorities, without a second of consideration for the long-term impact they may have on the local community and the environment if implemented incorrectly, and without so much as a thought about what happens after. But then, those are very qualities that have been the defining features of every decision made by this government: it simply does what it wants, when it wants, because it can, without thinking too much about how it affects everyone else, and certainly without a care for the future.

A Facebook group was formed days after the first trees on Reid Avenue were cut down, and pictures of the tragedy – gruesome and heart-rending, like any innocent casualties of war – reached many online in Sri Lanka through the social networking site. The group, called Stand Up for Colombo’s Trees, organized a protest on November 29. They are different from the average youth-activist groups one sees online; they seemed to have a very thorough understanding of the problem, having done the homework of talking to the relevant authorities to ask for reasons, rather than simply jumping to angry conclusions and resorting to mindless and ineffective vitriol online. Secondly, what they purportedly wanted to protest was not merely the actual felling of the trees, they wanted to protest lack of public awareness and information. They quite rightly see the trees public property, and therefore their protest was to lay claim to our right know about what happens to them and why they were being chopped down.

According to their Facebook page, the Colombo Municipal Council claimed that the roots of these trees had damaged the concrete pipes/sewer systems/roads. The roots had to be removed from the ground, and therefore the trees themselves, as leaving them without firm roots made them a public safety hazard.  The page further reports, ‘However, no effort has been taken to enlighten the residents of Colombo city about the reasons for cutting down these trees which we have come to love as part of our neighbourhood, and as part of our common heritage and pride. Further, we spoke to UDA, and no one at the UDA was aware of the felling. The Landscape Division that plants trees was also unaware that the tree cutting was underway.’ Jan Ramesh, one of the founders of the group, also said that the CMC had said that rootballing – the ideal way to carry out this kind of operation, where the tree is removed from the ground by its roots without being harmed – was too costly, which is why they were instructed to carry out the cutting-down approach.

The protest, by all reports, seemed to have been refreshing itself – it seemed much more than a tree-hugger tantrum, and therefore will probably have been more effective too. It was a small but informed and interested group of people that gathered on Reid Avenue on November 29, to demand their right to knowledge, their right as citizens to fight for the trees, and to ask that things be implemented in a planned and sustainable manner. The group wished to ‘share a common loss’, create awareness, and to find out if the proper steps were being taken in the aftermath of the felling of trees, first with regard to what happens to the felled trees, and secondly with regard to whether new trees would be planted in their place in a manner that wouldn’t result in the same problem 50 years down the line.

To me, the act of cutting down the Reid Avenue trees was symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the way our country is run; the way that matters extremely delicate and important are resolved by snap-judgments, and decisions that affect us all are made in forums where there is no balanced representation of views and opinions. The way that the cheaper method is always preferred over the right method, when we know that it’s precisely this kind of thing that a city municipality should be spending on, not election campaigns. The way people in Colombo knew nothing about it, except that it was happening, and have no official platform on which to object to it or find out about it was to me symbolic of the way this government has trained us to ask no questions of it. And more importantly, it was symbolic of this ‘development’ we are being subjected to, this ‘development’ that’s about getting things done the cheaper, quicker way and pays no heed to consequences or concerns.

There are several troublesome aspects of this ‘development’, the most important being the fact that it’s a façade. It is the shining veil that hides the true monster: the oppression of an entire minority population, the military occupation of their land and property, disappearances, torture in prisons, intimidation of dissenters, corruption. In Sri Lanka, where we have the whole gamut of criminal activity occurring at the highest level of authority, this ‘development’ is what hides real horrors from average citizens. It is what stands between a normal man and the mess that this government has made of post-war Sri Lanka. It is what stands in the way of him voicing his discontent, because when he wants to say he’s concerned, they say, but why, look at all the ‘development’ we’re giving you.

So in a country where you can’t talk about accountability for war crimes, transparency, or the continued oppression of a people, maybe it’s the trees we can talk about. In a country where it seems like you can’t fight for law and order or justice, maybe it’s the trees for which we can fight. In a country where you can’t say how much you hate the way things are, maybe it’s the trees for which you can use your voice. Save the trees, because it may be all we can save.

Search for Stand Up for Colombo’s Trees on Facebook: you can join the page to share information and stay updated on any new developments. 

  • Jayalath

    We are not known what type of development is taken place in this country . There is no doubt about developing the country , which is imperative ,but it should be benifited to every single person in the country and with preserving the environment , as a part of prime preservation of environment that protecting the valuable trees around us are far important .

    Last week published an artical on this site with very important details about the amount of forest we have , according to the details of that artical that we have only about 9% forest , so we are living in a time that we need to think twice before cut off a tree. In this case that I believe our politicians should think about the potential hazards could happen to the environment in the future doing all these developments .

  • Judy Waters Pasqualge

    Thanks for the article and thanks to the students. In one incident was encapsulated today’s development model and the need for various forms of protest. The experience is common to most countries, and most locales, where the model is being implemented; about this all peoples can mourn. But it illustrates a wonderful contradiction: the model itself comes from outside, and is a model that cannot be adopted in part — the whole package must be allowed in, right down to the personal actions of those with the power to implement it; at the same time, the protest mirrors so many others, focussing on one topic of crucial import everywhere. People coming together out of agreement on topic, and not out of allegiance to any one class or group or party, or with the primary desire to lead, IS the wave of the future of protest.

  • T

    Everything, from people to trees, is collateral damage for a bigger, better Sri Lanka.

  • HR

    Seriously – you need to get your priorities right. So many people in SL are suffering BECAUSE of Human Rights violations, abductions, disappearance etc and the author of this silly article is “heart broken” about the felling of some “trees” in Reid av??? I am sorry – but this is plain ridiculous and this article is a waste of space and time!!.

    Have you heard about the 4 boys from the Jaffna University who have been arbitrarily arrested and held by the SL Army. Does any one even care for protesting the illegal detention, torture and inhuman treatment they must be going through? Yeah i guess not – coz in Sri Lanka tress are more important than humans!!.

    • concerned

      Thank you HR for raising the issue and trying to wake up the conscience of the community!!!

      If the people were concerned about human lives in Sri Lanka, we would not have the Genocide of the Tamils and still continuing human rights violations and discrimination!!!

      Still people continue to go by as if they “hear no evil, speaks no evil, sees no evil”

      The island is full of blood, and skeletons and living corpses!!!

      • HR


        I totally agree with you. This country is full of hypocrites and fake carers who act like they “care” about anything let alone trees, HR violations or whatever – when in reality the only thing they care about is themselves.

        Anyway no use wasting our intellect writing to such idiots and time wasters.

        Best wishes to you!!

  • @HR – ‘The author of this silly article’ has written about many things in her time, and has stood at many protests against all of the things you’ve mentioned and more. I don’t think it’s silly to mourn the lack of democratic rights in Sri Lanka, and the onset of authoritarianism; which is essentially what this article is about – you might know that if you’d actually read it.

    Wait – I don’t need to defend myself or prove to you who I am or what my priorities are. Please don’t make assumptions about me or my values based on what your interpretation of this post is. And don’t condescend; of course I know about the Jaffna students. And I know about a lot more. Again, something you’d know if you’d read this properly.

    If you’re organizing any protests about the Jaffna students, let me know. I’d be glad to write about that too, and send people your way. I’d happily come myself.

    Thank you for your comment.

  • Pingo

    HR, people may scoff at the concern about trees but they are important and their fate is symbolic of the concerns that many have about other issues.

  • Excelsior

    What do you need trees for? What we want are more roads for our new Benz and BMW cars. That’s what progress and development are all about. Instead of the shade of trees, go out and buy an air conditioner to keep you cool. We need more MacDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and Domino’s. Why don’t we have some WalMart stores here? People will think we are completely backward without the likes of WalMarts. I think every block should have at least one Crescat shopping complex. More highrise apartments and big things to impress people coming from London, New York, Shanghai and Saudi Arabia. Don’t be stupid! Just chop down all those trees that are so old fashion and useless. Excelsior!

  • P.Riyad

    What ever is wrong with people who mourn about removal of dangerous old trees that fall on people and vehicles during storms. Do they want to live in the past..the future is for the young and it meansremovingrelics and replacing with new growth, trees included!

  • Manel Fonseka

    Subha, thank you for your fine article. I wish I had known you 4 years ago when I was trying to publicise the early stages of tree murder (aboricide?) at the beginning of Reid Avenue, in order to eradicate its annoying branches from a huge ad that had just been erected in the DBU grounds. Letters to the press and to Ruk Rakaganno (of course I do nto expect a small NGO like theirs to be able to rise to every such happening). Of course, it is vital to arouse public awareness and action about the arbitrary alteration of our loved environments. This scarcely means that one is unconcerned about the violation of human rights! Had HR really read your article he/she would have seen the “wholeness” of your concerns. The step by step demolition of the graceful, shade giving, non-threatening (except to advertisers) tree, imported and planted by the Forestry about 30 years earlier was an utter act of vandalism. In any other country the perpetrators (perps as American crime fiction calls them) would have been hauled before the law courts. But here they simply received largesse from the display of the ad, one way or another. Did the Municipality assist in cutting it down or was it an entirely private act? i wish someone would find out. A huge, mainly BLACK ad was considered more worthy than the 30 year old year, and ti loomed over Tun MUlla handiya for several years. This, despite the then CJ Sarath Silve, ruling against such huge ads in the city. Strangely, however, when a 16 storey Buddhist centre was to be opened on Havelock Road, the ad was removed! What was left of the tree however, was finally eradicated a few months ago. Had I a garden I would have tried to transport it there — and probably been copped in the process!