Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ecosystem, society, and poverty collide in Sri Lanka

I recently visited an unusual place in Sri Lanka in which poverty, nature, and the built environment collide in a national project with long-range implications. I spent five days in Dehiattakandiya, a planned town built as part of “Section C” of the Mahaweli Accelerated Project, a place where environmental, social, and political perturbation continue to affect the Sri Lankan landscape


I came to Sri Lanka in September, 2015 as a Fulbright Scholar. My research goal as a cultural landscape ecologist was tostudy ancient irrigation systems focusing on village tanks. The so-called “tanks,” a name derived from 16th century Portuguese cartographers who labeled them as “tanques,” are sustainable human-built ecosystems. These gorgeous lakes are concentrated in parts of the country at one per km2. They fulfill a variety of human uses, including irrigating rice fields, providing fish and other edibles, bathing places, and a source of flowers for religious offerings. They are integral as a natural resource, supporting wildlife, ameliorating a hot, seasonally dry climate, and enhancing the water table. I hoped to glean intangible data from the tanks to learn their cultural significance in the broader scope of Sri Lankan society. I wanted to understand “what makes them tick.”


As I explored dozens of the 30,000-odd ancient tanks, some of which are over 2500 years olda serendipitous turn of events took me to a “perfect” looking tank not far from Polonowurra that was built in the 1970s. I realized I was not the first person to set out on a quest for tank intangibles. Engineers, designers, and rural planners were looking at these problems decades ago. The focus of my inquiry changed as I started looking for more contemporary tanks, and this landed me in Dehiattakandiya


Dehiattakandiya (and the rest of “Section C”) was hewn out of virgin jungle in the mid-1980s, a time when scientists and the general public were well informed about the consequences of forest degradation. In a sense it’s a surprise that the project went through to completion, as it involved perturbation of a major chunk of the Sri Lankan landscape. Equally disarming is that the project was undertaken with major input by a Canadian engineering firm, usingsignificant funding from the World Bank. We are used to criticizing the recent involvement of Chinese developers in rapacious projects in Sri Lanka. Section C epitomizes this kind of destructive development. It is considered by some to have been an exercise in “nation building,” but ecological factors aside, the consequences of the project left a deep scar on the social fabric and national psyche of Sri Lanka.


Dehiattakandiya looks like planned towns anywhere in the world where major water developments such as hydroelectric dams and irrigationschemes are built. Broad avenues, spacious roundabouts, and divided roads, most of which are hideously rutted and mostly empty, characterize the town. A planner’s dream of a bus station was muddy and dingy when we arrived, crowded with students just finishing Saturday tuition classes. The “traditional-style” market places, well laid out with broad tile overhangs looked equally incongruous. Subsequent to our visit I read working papers describing the need to make Dehiattakandiya“pretty” and “coherent” as an urban space. The plans for Dehiattakandiyaaccentuated an idealized urban form as the goal, underplaying social problems that might ensue from the imposition of a “new town” in the middle of the rainforest. 


The real problem in Section C is the rural areas just outside town. The agricultural landscape was engineered to reference Rajarata, the ancient Dry Zone region around the imperial capital of Anuradhapura. Contemporary tanks with invented names like “Nagaswewa,” most of which are only partially operational, dot the landscape. Canals that resemble ancient Sri Lankan waterworks supply distant rice fields, in contradistinction to the traditional practice of the village tank in relation to its local paddiesSection C is a manufactured landscape that makes a political statement about place and power.


In the 1980s some 70,000 dirt-poor,landless settlers were brought to Section C, a place in which they have achieved a modicum of success. Our exploration of the countryside showed us village communities with neat cottages, well-tended gardens, and the requisite dogsand motorbikes. There is substantial economic inequality--theseveral humongous SUVs belonging to our guesthouse host suggested that. But more to the point, the poor settlers brought here were pawns in a dangerous, incendiary demographic game. To the east of Section C lie areas in which significant populations of the Tamil and Muslim minorities live.Dehiattakandia, like Ampara to the south and the new town of Welikanda to the north, became (and arguably wereplanned as) a Sinhalese majoritybulwark against the Tamil-speaking East. 


In the relationship between poverty and the built environment there are three points to consider. Environment, social fabric, and immediate stakeholders form a kind of triad of interdependence. In Section C it seems that the stakeholders (the Sinhalese settlers) scored the best. Through their hard work in an unforgiving landscape they established agricultural communities that provided them with a viable (though perhaps only marginally sustainable) living. Their presence came at the enormous cost of the devastated ecosystem in Section C, which is now primarily a monoculture rice-growing region dependent on agrochemicals and a semi-functional irrigation scheme. Along with the environmental impact, the social impact of these settlements served to increase the disequilibrium among ethnic sectors of the Eastern Province. Section C isemblematic of a Sinhalese-dominated central government that continues to oppress its Tamil-speaking minorities. It remains an instructive question in a country that faces challenges of poverty, environmental degradation, and an inequitable distribution of resources and political power.

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