Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Power and vulnerability in a Sri Lankan landscape

My Fulbright research in Sri Lanka focuses on cultural landscape ecology in the context of irrigation systems. The unexpected directions this work has taken me is radical, I think, in that I've had to start trying to put it into fiction. Some of the weirdness of my findings just doesn't seem to fit into a well-mannered academic "non-fiction" modality. The thrust of these findings has to do with agricultural irrigation lakes ("tanks," as they're called in Sri Lanka thanks to 16th century Portuguese cartographers who labeled them this way) as symbols of power in the landscape. 

Several months ago when I was at the Agrarian Services Office in Batticaloa I was handed a very large book of the irrigation systems of Sri Lanka. Two maps in particular stood out. They said everything about power and vulnerability vis a vis the tanks, though I didn't understand it at the time. I do now and so I'm showing these maps here. One map shows tanks that are in operation, represented by blue dots on the map. There are some 30,000 tanks across Sri Lanka and they are widely used for irrigation, bathing, wildlife refuges, a source of food, and a boost to the local water table. A working tank is a strength to its community. Tanks that function provide services, beauty, and community focus. I've hypothesized that tanks also connote power, dominance, and ownership over the landscape. And I've documented this, especially in contemporary (not ancient) tanks that were built to introduce a traditionally Sinhalese landscape to parts of Sri Lanka that were not Sinhalese. 

I studied one other map as I pored over the volume waiting to go into the field with irrigation engineers. This one showed abandoned tanks, denoted by red dots. I took the picture to focus on Sri Lanka's north and east, Tamil-majority areas that were devastated by the 30 years' war that nominally ended in 2009. You see in this map an indication of the devastation that communities faced here. The abandoned tanks also contribute to degraded ecosystems. Tanks and tank communities, though built and maintained by humans, are very much a part of nature.

I guess my memory was jogged regarding these maps because of a discussion I had the other day. Someone here at the Fulbright conference in Jaipur mentioned that tanks around Anuradhapura may have been destroyed by invading Indian troops when the Sri Lankan capital was moved from there to Polonowurra. The region subsequently became malarial, depopulated, and reverted to jungle. It wasn't until 1000 years later that Rajarata (the area around Anuradhapura) was rebuilt. And the largest part of that rebuilding was tank irrigation systems. 

So it's awful when you look at the map of abandoned tanks to think about how many communities in the past thirty years or so we're ruined, forcibly emptied, depopulated, wiped away in connection with the now-disused tanks. What seemed to be just a page or two in a technocrat's working manual actuallybelies the horrors of war, loss, and societal disintegration. It's discoveries like this and the pain associated with them that has forced me into "fiction" mode. The "truth" can't hold it. 

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