Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Transitioning into International Cooperation

Months of planning and correspondence with Sri Lankan colleagues in preparation for my Fulbright yielded something unexpected: An international network of support and cooperation. I'm not sure how it started but it may have come from the day when Dr. M U A Tennakoon wrote to say he'd pick us up at the airport. 

Dr. Tennakoon is the director of SAP SRI, an NGO involved in research and training in sustainable irrigation systems at the village level. Among other projects SAP SRI has been working on rehabilitating a tank in Alisantha, close to my field sites in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Chris Koliba, a Fulbrighter and colleague who I met in Colombo last May, suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Tennakoon in the first place. Our correspondence grew over the months until at last I asked Dr. Tennakoon for a face-to-face meeting when I arrive in mid-September. It was then that he offered to fetch us at the airport so we'd have time to visit, and to plan what I thought would be our sole visit the following day. 

I guess I realized then that something bigger than I planned for was happening. Instead of letting the Fulbright do its due diligence of picking us up at the airport he was putting himself into the not inconsiderable inconvenience of fetching us himself. He had also asked me to put him in touch with colleagues at Rajarata University so he could coordinate my activities up there. So what was kind of a fantasy for me, wandering among the dry tank beds, exploring with a couple of colleagues, was becoming something worthy of attention and sustained cooperation, a scale of activity I'm not used to in my job as a fairly solitary teaching professor. 

I decided to re-read some of the emails from Dr. Tennakoon. I realized I had overlooked SAP SRI's connection to various United Nations  agencies like the GEF and UNDP. My bad. I'm used to ignoring alphabet soups. But instead of ignoring this time I got busy on twitter and in a few minutes I was in touch with some pretty centrally situated people in those agencies. More people came on board and soon I was asked not only about my blog, but approached for a potential media production. This at the same time as new contacts in Sri Lanka and throughout South Asia popped up in twitter. 

I'm used to getting things done in the classroom, not getting involved in the big world out there. My phD and subsequent research in botany was similarly inward-facing, in spite of international fieldwork I undertook and completed. Here now is the chance to stay small, the village, the tank, the bed of reeds, in work that has international implications. What amazed me is that there's a network out there to support and amplify this work. My Fulbright started as a project on landscapes in transition. I feel like something in me is transitioning too. 

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