Friday, 9 November 2012

Going Green in Sri Lanka

Chris, one of Bellbunya Sustainable Community's founders has been in Sri Lanka for the AGM of the Global Ecovillage Network Oceania and Asia and he has just visited Eco Community Sri Lanka...

The speedometer on the bus read 0km/h which didn’t seem too inaccurate as I alternated between roasting my rear end on the gearbox and standing. I was on my way to Eco Community Sri Lanka (ECSL), about 6 hours from the nation’s capital, Colombo.

Chaminda, one of the founders had responded enthusiastically to my request to visit and exchange our ecovillage insights and lessons.

Eco Community Sri Lanka sits on 52 acres in the dry zone of central north Sri Lanka. When I visited there were about 12 community members onsite and 2 international volunteers. The community has been in place for only 1.5yrs and, from my research, appears to be the first ecovillage in the country that has been entirely created by its members, rather than being initiated by a program of an NGO. (However, if anyone knows of any other independently created ecovillages, please let me know).

The community was started by a group of friends, studying Chi Gong together under their teacher Aruna. Thilena contributed his savings from 5 years of factory work in Korea and Eco Community Sri Lanka was born.

Aruna describes their vision as "mutual completion" which is about working together to achieve shared goals. He believes that each person has a special "Universal Task" and that in finding and following this "task" we will be building a better world for all. Following this philosophy, Chaminda left his well-paid job as an NGO aid and development worker to volunteer fulltime at ECSL to make a "real difference".

A down side of the large amount of international development aid that Sri Lanka receives is a culture of financial dependence that sometimes develops in NGOs. In contrast, ECSL is entirely self funding. Community members have contributed their own resources and they have a number of farm-based businesses, with more in development. ECSL has 450 loman brown chickens, 1400 indigenous chickens (most are not yet at the point of laying eggs), 38 turkeys, 48 cows, 37 goats. They sell on average 3600 chicken eggs per week and 350 litres of milk. They have two plantations of 800 organic papaya trees, 60 cashew trees, hundreds of pumpkins and eggplants and, when the rains come, will plant rice.

At this stage, much of the development is experimental, an ongoing learning and evolution process. For example, change will soon be made on the chicken front. The loman brown chickens are susceptible to disease and need to be kept in their barn. At the end of the dry season, feed for the chickens is costing more than their eggs are worth. However, the local chickens are disease resistant and can free range to feed themselves and their eggs (although less frequent) fetch double the price of the loman browns’.

Right now, everyone is hoping for rain. The paddy fields are bare. Other farmers have burnt their fields (they don't do this at ECSL) and are waiting to plant. The monsoon is now a few weeks late, which makes things very difficult. And it's not just for the farmers. Each night now up to 50 wild elephants come seeking food. Farmers try to scare them away from their homes and crops with fire crackers, yelling, bonfires and lights. It's dangerous and tiring but, at this time of year, it's a struggle for survival. These conflicts are common in Sri Lanka, as wild land for elephants to free range diminishes.

At ECSL, they are wondering how to balance the needs of people and nature. Stephanie, an Irish permaculture teacher from Auroville in India is developing a permaculture plan for the kitchen garden. A permaculture plan for the whole site would be great - trees, mulch and compost are particularly important.

Buildings are efficient - compact and made of local materials, with traditional mud walls and palm frond roofs. The community is off the grid, with a number of small solar panels providing for LED lights and a water pump.

One of the intentions of ECSL is to experiment and share useful technologies and lessons that they learn for the benefit of local subsistence farmers. For example, the community here has developed a natural pesticide, made from a number of local plants, that they have distributed to the neighboring farmers to try. They are also developing their organic papaya orchards to demonstrate to local farmers that they can be grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. As they develop their herds of cows and goats, they intend to develop a cow and goat bank system, including training and support, to assist local farmers.

The need for agrochemical-free farming was highlighted to me by the alarming level of kidney failure in Sri Lanka. Current research by the World Health Organisation shows a growing problem around the world - that began to emerge amongst poor rural farmers in the 1990s. It appears that ground water tainted with cadmium and arsenic from chemical fertilisers and pesticides are a key factor. Chaminda and the crew are trying to work out how best to assist the farmers in their area.

On the social level, sometimes ECSL volunteers teach English at the local school. They have also established and run the WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) network in Sri Lanka.

As a small and new community, ECSL has achieved a surprising amount already. They are warm and welcoming and provide volunteers with a great opportunity to be a part of the life of a small rural community. They are open to new community members and volunteers (particularly if you have skills in website development or alternative technologies). For more information, go to http://ecocommunitylk.blogspot.com

Article by Chris Gibbings. Chris is co-founder of the Bellbunya Sustainable Community (www.bellbunya.org.au) on the Sunshine Coast in Australia and Vice President of the Global Ecovillage Network Oceania and Asia (http://genoa.ecovillage.org/).