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The “Garbage Queen” of Sri Lanka

Ajantha Perera has declared war on the mountains of rubbish in Sri Lanka and created public awareness of the need to recycle. She now plans to team up with other former DAAD scholarship holders to develop global concepts.

The stench of decay. Flies. Thick black water seeping out of the hillside. “So that’s what hell on earth looks like”, Dr Ajantha Perera thought to herself as she carefully placed one foot in front of the other on the slippery mountains of rubbish close to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. “Luckily I had learnt to ice-skate in England, which improves your balance”, she explains.

“I saw people dressed in rags there”, she recalls. “The only way I could tell them apart from the rubbish itself was because they were moving.”  Perera recognised that this was a problem towering up right before her eyes.  “And nobody felt any sense of responsibility.”  She wondered to herself: “What is the point of having a doctorate if I am unable to solve this problem?”

“The rubbish tip became my university”

That is now a good 25 years ago. Perera had just returned home from Germany after completing her PhD in environmental science. At the time, Sri Lanka found itself in the middle of a bloody civil war, but this did not deter the young researcher. Time and again, she would make the trip out to the Meethotamulla landfill site on the outskirts of Colombo, where she would talk to the people who poke around in the refuse discarded by others. “I learnt a great deal. The rubbish tip became my university.“

The rubbish collectors were looking for paper, glass, plastic, tin cans and car tyres which they could sell for a few coins to recycling centres. One day, a newspaper reporter came by and asked Perera what she was doing hanging around dirty, stinking rubbish dumps. An article about her appeared in the weekend edition, with a photo. She was subsequently contacted by television stations, and Ajantha Perera became famous more or less overnight.

Perera, who became a Christian during her time in England, explains that God showed her the way to the rubbish tips. On TV she talked about environmental protection and recycling, and got the rubbish collectors in front of the camera. Perera came to be dubbed the “Garbage Queen”.

“Previously, people hardly knew what the word environment meant”, explains Perera. There was no awareness of the importance or value of nature, nor even a word for recycling in the Singhalese language. So Perera coined one: “prathichakkrikaranaya”, a compound of the words “prathi” meaning “again” and “chakkraya” meaning “cycle”. Perera spoke with rubbish collectors and ministers, with representatives of schools, universities, religious communities,  institutions  and  rural  municipalities, fighting for her cause on all fronts. And she did all of this while civil war continued to rage in Sri Lanka. She tells how she – a Singhalese woman – even strolled into the camp of the paramilitary Tamil Tiger fighters and asked their leader to please stop using polyethylene for decorations so as to avoid plastic waste.

Study in Munich

During her childhood, Ajantha Perera experienced Sri Lanka as a large, beautiful and unspoilt paradise of rice fields, rubber and jackfruit trees, and  water ponds. A diplomat’s daughter, she then spent two years with her family living in India, and then moved to the United Kingdom. She did a degree in biochemistry and physiology in Sheffield. Back at the University of Colombo, she heard about the possibility of studying in Germany on a DAAD scholarship. She applied, and was successful: she did her master’s and her PhD at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich. Her knowledge and her degrees in environmental science were to bear fruit as soon as she returned home.

Not everyone was so enchanted by this woman who liked to call a spade a spade and was determined to hold politicians and society publicly accountable. “Some people made jokes about me, wanting to make me look small and saying that I only wanted to be famous and that I should stop appearing on television”, she recounts. But there were others who encouraged and supported her: “The media never turned against me. And in 2011 the American Embassy in Sri Lanka nominated me for ‘International Woman of Courage of Sri Lanka’.”

Ajantha Perera came closer to a solution to the problem, step by step. She developed a national waste recovery programme and brought municipalities  together to establish recycling systems and find the necessary funding for them. She became the advisor to the new environment minister.

“We need thought leaders”

Dr. Ajantha Perera was born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in 1960. A diplomat’s daughter, she grew up in Sri Lanka, India and England. She did a BSc in biochemistry and physiology at the University of Sheffield. In 1987 she came to Germany on a DAAD scholarship to do a master’s degree, followed in 1992 by a PhD, in environmental science at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. Back in Sri Lanka, she founded the National Program on Recycling of Solid waste in 1993, and from 2007 to 2013 was advisor to the environment minister. She has been an assistant professor environmental science at Fiji National University since 2013. A member of the National Environment Council of Fiji and founding member of the Green Scouts Movement of Fiji, Ajantha Perera is married and has two children.

Assistant professor in the Fiji Islands

These days, Perera no longer dedicates herself only to Sri Lanka’s landfill sites. Five years ago she accepted a post as assistant professor of environmental science at a university in the Fiji Islands. In addition, she is a member of the country’s National Environment Council.

In May 2018 she travelled to Vietnam as the initiator of the Green Champions of South-East Asia environmental protection competition staged by the DAAD in Hanoi. DAAD alumni were called upon to submit their “green” projects. “The competition brings people together who are offering solutions. Sustainable, cost-effective and measurable solutions that can also be applied  elsewhere”, says Perera, going on to explain that the DAAD’s extensive alumni community provides a good breeding ground for developing and passing on expertise. “We need thought leaders in the area of environmental protection” Perera  comments, “people who bring about change.” People like the Garbage Queen.

Author: Anemi Wick, LETTER, issue 02/2018

The DAAD alumni magazine LETTER tells interesting stories from science, culture, Germany and the DAAD alumni network.

Through her Sauti Kuu Foundation, Auma Obama is supporting children and young people in her native Kenya. The Germany-Alumna is convinced that, with the right support, everyone can take control of their own lives.

Read more

September 2018

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