Eco-paper, from elephant poo
Sri Lanka has long lacked for innovation, but conscientious conservationist Thusitha Ranasinghe has come up with an amazing technique that can turn elephant dung into greeting cards and paper. In the process, he not only provides a livelihood for hundreds of rural Sri Lankans, but puts a profit in the protection of local pachyderms.
By Ron Gluckman / Columbo, Sri Lanka.
IN THE TRAGIC CONFLICT consuming Sri Lanka for decades, there have been lulls in fighting, but no sign of any long-term solution.
Local entrepreneur Thusitha Ranasinghe has hit on a winning formula to turn the tide in at least one battle. His tool of peace: Elephant poo.
Across Asia, wherever they roam, elephants have been pushed from forest and jungle by farmers clearing land. Nowhere else, though, are the consequences quite as deadly.
Every month, on average, says local naturalist Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, rampaging elephants gore or trample to death five Sri Lankans, mainly villagers trying to save crops. Far greater casualties befall the beasts; 120 perish in conflicts with humans each year, he notes.
In this war between people and pachyderms, Ranasinghe has united combatants for a mutual good. Employing rural villagers to collect elephant dung, his eco-firm Maximus mixes this with other waste material, producing high-quality recycled paper.
The unique business won World Challenge 2006, a global competition for innovative ecological ideas hosted by Shell (and co-sponsored by Newsweek). “The recognition is important,” Ranasinghe says. “It shows the value of what we are doing and helps publicize our products.”
An accountant by training, Ranasinghe, 40, concedes that such appreciation for his idea wasn’t initially forthcoming. His family had been in the printing business for generations, but practically all poo-pooed his proposal. “Almost everyone thought I was crazy,” he chuckles. “Not that I can blame them.”
Inspiration came from a program he saw about a ranger in Kenya, who made a kind of papyrus from elephant dung. The material, he notes, is ideal. Grass and leaves eaten by elephants adds texture to the finished stock, most of which is turned into greeting cards or hotel stationary and menus.
“The first question, always, is what does it smell like?” chuckles Ranasinghe. Actually, the paper has no smell thanks to a 10-day process that begins with washing the dung, then boiling the mixture. “It took a long time to get right, nearly nine months.”
Launched a decade ago, Maximus began with seven workers and a small factory near Kegalle, about 85 kilometers from Colombo. The firm has 150 workers in three sites, and a fourth is planned right in the heart of Sri Lanka’s battle zone pitting minority Tamils fighting for an independent homeland against the governing Singhalese.
“This is not just conflict resolution,” he says. “It’s all about working together for development, helping people, as well as elephants.” By employing locals, Maximus enlists them in protecting, rather than poaching the animals.
“I never really was a conservationist,” he adds. “I just think of myself as a normal person. But I was always aware of the situation, and not just facing the elephants. Also the breaking of corals in the sea. I was just concerned about normal things.”
He recalls drives with his grandfather in southern Sri Lanka, where Yala Park hosts huge elephant herds and has been compared to safari parks of Africa. “We would see elephants on the road, and my grandfather told me how they had been dislocated.”Now, they are increasingly seen as a resource. Profits from poo paper are small, he concedes, but that’s not the point. Adding value to elephants is the goal. “People can see that now,” Ranasinghe says proudly. “We’re winning them over.”
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia since 1990. He roams around the region for a wide variety of publications, including Newsweek Magazine, which ran this piece as part of a package in 2007 on some of the world's most dynamic social entrepreneurs.
Elephant pictures by RON GLUCKMAN. Others courtesy Maximus
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