The Dignified Empowerment and Sustainable Development Centre in Kalkudah in the Eastern Province which was set up to empower and uplift the lives of the underprivileged in the area was declared open by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently. The Centre was set up by Merril J.

Fernando Charitable Foundation (MJFCF) at a cost of Rs 1.2 billion. It expands over a 20 acre land and functions as a holistic development and climate change centre for the Eastern Province.

The Centre also aims to include the disabled in the area in its programmes to empower them and to enable them to live independent lives. Dilmah Conservation, which was set up to carry out environmental conservation endeavours and MJFCF, it’s charitable wing have been collaboratively working in the East for over a decade to uplift the war and Tsunami smitten communities and to undertake environmental conservation activities in the less developed areas in the East.

The MJFCF Centre aims to impart knowledge and develop skills of the youth in the area in highly demanded vocations. Thus, the youth will be equipped with the required skills to solicit employment opportunities in the local as well as in the international market. This can substantially help eliminate the unemployment crisis in the area which has led to many unwholesome plights.

The state-of-the-art IT facility at the Centre conducts IT and computer courses from basic to advanced level for people of the area who cannot afford to pursue such courses at other vocational training institutes.

The Culinary and Hospitality School named ‘Empower’ is set up to train the youth in the area in the culinary and hospitality fields which have a high demand in the local as well as international job market. The courses that are designed at the Empower Culinary and Hospitality School will enable the youth of less developed areas and low-income earning families to get a highly recognized qualification in the industry to obtain employment in the respective field.

Empowering women, the disabled and small entrepreneurs of the area are placed at the top of the Centre’s agenda. Training sessions, classes and demonstrations are conducted at the MJFCF Centre to empower the community and to upgrade their livelihood. One of the aims of the Centre is to eliminate poverty in the area and to pave way for the underprivileged to lead a dignified lifestyle.

The MJFCF together with Dilmah Conservation has carried out many developmental as well as conservational endeavours in the Eastern Province over a span of 12 years. The Greening Batticaloa project, conservation of Eastern Marine Ecosystem, setting up of the Toppigala Heritage Park, upliftment of the Eastern Coastal Veddah Community are the prominent projects that the above institutions have carried out in this less developed and poverty-stricken area of the country.

Greening Batticaloa

In a bid to increase the green cover to minimize the deforestation that can lead to climate changes and also to abate the high temperature in the area, the “Greening Batticaloa” programme was introduced in 2011 which aims to plant 1 million cashew trees in the District of Batticaloa by 2020. The other objective of the programme is to empower the low income earning families by planting cashew trees on their land and selling the harvest. Cashew has high demand in the local as well international markets.

Commenting on why they chose cashew plants for ‘Green Batticaloa’, the Head of Dilmah Conservation Asanka Abayakoon said that cashew shows high adaptability and is fast growing. “Cashew requires little attention and one tree produces 1 kilogram of yield annually. Cashew is also highly expensive and we expect that through the “Greening Batticaloa” project, disadvantaged communities in the area will contribute to the economy by Rs 1 billion annually once the cashew is harvested”, he said.

Dilmah has set up a cashew processing centre in the East comprising a cashew drying oven, peeling machine and a cashew nut roasting machine for the purpose of helping the Eastern Province’s under-privileged families to earn a livelihood.

He said that Dilmah Conservation also works in collaboration with local farmers to introduce drought-resistant crops that can be grown under adverse climatic conditions. Climate smart technologies will be introduced to the farmers to successfully overcome the adverse effects of climate change and to yield a better produce.

Conservation of eastern marine eco-system

With the intention of raising awareness among the local community on the importance of conserving marine habitats, Dilmah Conservation initiated a “Marine Habitat Conservation Programme” in the Province.

Under this programme, the conservation wing of Dilmah, documented the Kayankerni Reef located in Kalkudah on the Eastern Coast. This reef is an abode to an innumerable and diverse array of corals as well as marine flora and fauna. Through the research, it has been found that the reef provides home to over 200 species.

Apart from the live flora and fauna, there are also historically significant shipwrecks such as SS Lady McCallum (sank in 1926) and The British Sergeant (sank in 1942) in Kayankerni which provides abode to the marine life.

Due to the irresponsible activities of humans, the reefs as well as the eco-systems hosted by the ship wrecks are susceptible to be destroyed if due attention is not paid. Therefore Dilmah is presently working on having it declared as a protected site.

The conservation programme also extends to Komari, Manmune, Paskikudah, Pigeon Island, Red Rock and Salappai Aru.

Toppigala Heritage Park

To protect the bio-diversity and the natural heritage of the war-stricken Toppigala area, Dilmah Conservation set up the Toppigala Heritage Park to educate the public on cultural, environmental and historic significance of the area. The public is educated on the above fields through three dimensional models and interactive educational sessions.

The Toppigala War Memorial was also set up at the site which was built to commemorate the war heroes who lost their lives in the battle to protect their mother country.

Uplifting Eastern coastal Veddah community

This programme was initiated to preserve the diminishing cultural identity of the indigenous Eastern Coastal Veddah community and to uplift their livelihood. Dilmah also sponsored the aboriginal community’s clan meeting known as ‘Variga Sabha’ in Vakarai with the participation of inland Veddahs as well as the Eastern Coastal Veddahs which was attended by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the aboriginal leader of Australia.

During this clan meeting, the inland Veddahs received the opportunity to meet their eastern counterparts for the first time.

The annually held cultural and religious ceremony known as the ‘Sadangu Festival’ is sponsored to foster the religious and cultural identity of this Eastern Veddah community. Dilmah also pioneered in carrying out a survey of the Eastern Coastal Veddahs to indentity the socio-cultural traits as well as livelihood patterns of this aboriginal community.

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