Sunday, December 29, 2013

Damniyamgama: An Eco-village in Lagoswatte Sri Lanka

The 9th anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami had just passed and it seemed fitting that we visit a relocation village for people affected by the Tsunami.  The village of Damniyamgama, located in the interior of Kalutara (a village an hour south of Colombo) is the first official eco-village and was constructed by Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest non-governmental organisation.  The project received aid from many agencies overseas such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). 

A Typical Village Home
The Tsunami displaced about 250,000 people along the eastern and southern coastal belts.  After the disaster, many of these people lived in refugee camps, with relatives or in rented housing till a more permanent solution was found.  Unfortunately, the community that came to live here was not an intentional one in the true sense of the word.  They were displaced by a natural disaster unlike anything they had experienced previously and have been thrown together by their circumstances rather than by choice.  Many of these people were fisher folk and used to living on the beach, so living inland would have been quite a transition they needed to get used to.

It took us a little while to find our way to the eco-village.  Fortunately, in Sri Lanka, there are many people who are only too willing to help with directions and so with a few stops to ask for help, we finally wound our way through a rubber plantation and to the entrance of Damniyamgama.   A lady walking along the street points us to the caretaker of the village and we find a man who was more than willing to spend a few minutes with us and answer our questions. 

Communal Area
He ushers us in to his office located in the communal area.  We pass through a community meeting area, a library, a pre-school, a bank, a doctor’s office and children’s park.  On first glance, the village appears tidy and well kept with most of the essential facilities located on-site.  I must mention here that this blog is based on one person’s perspective and hence may have had a different slant had we spent more time in the village and had the opportunity to talk to more people. 

The village caretaker tells us the community moved in to the village in 2006, two years after the tsunami hit.  The village comprises of approximately 55 virtually identical earth-brick homes.  The residents have a temporary ownership of their home for a ten-year period and will be given ownership at the end of this period.  Each home has a couple of bedrooms, a living area, a kitchen and toilet facilities. I have spotted a number of rainwater tanks around and ask if they are operational.  He tells us
Village Care Taker
that he uses his rainwater tank to supplement the town water supply, but most people don't use the tank due to the time taken to maintenance it.  Each tank services about 5 homes, so maintenance must also be done in co-operation and collaboration with your neighbours.  Despite the cost, turning a tap is easy and convenient and most residents perhaps have not truly grasped the need to be more self sustaining and self reliant especially given the nature of rainfall patterns here. 

We enquire if the village is self-sustainable in food.  Being a lush, tropical country, cultivation is usually not difficult in Sri Lanka and most village households would have a number of fruit trees and some vegies growing in their gardens.  Sarvodaya had originally initiated a scheme that ensured this village was virtually completely self-sufficient in their basic food needs.  A co-ordinator from Sarvodaya provided the essentials of fertiliser, seeds and seedlings and provided the training to ensure cultivation happened on-site.  Unfortunately, with this co-ordinator moving overseas, the scheme appears to have fallen by the wayside.  The residents are caught up in their own lives and busy making a living.  No one has stepped up from the community to take over the co-ordination of the food production, which appears to be a shame. 

We wonder if a few people were willing to put their hands up to be the cultivators of food and everyone contributed a few rupees toward buying the essentials required, if perhaps this would not ultimately benefit the entire village and reduce the financial burden of each household.  Unfortunately,
Typical Rainwater Tank
the village seems to lack the co-ordination we have seen in similar eco-villages in Europe where food production plays a central role in their operation. 

Having spotted a few solar panels on the roofs of houses, we enquire about renewable energy.  He informs us that the solar panels are connected to batteries and needed to have special wiring and bulbs to operate.  We are informed that the company that makes the bulbs does not exist anymore and that the panels are not really operational.  I was surprised to hear they needed special bulbs for use with the solar panels but didn’t really get to the root of the issue. 

It’s time for us to get going.  The caretaker has been helpful and answered many of our questions.  We get the impression that people are happy here in the village and grateful to have a place to live.  Yet, perhaps they have not been empowered or educated enough to understand the benefits of an ecological life and we wondered if this were the reason some of the ‘eco’ aspects of this village appear to have fallen by the wayside.  There used to be a fair bit of volunteering and ‘shramadana’ or communal activities that had happened previously but that to has fallen victim to the fact that people in the 21st century don’t appear to have any time. 

The village of Damniyamgama is a great starting point for ecological development in a country such as Sri Lanka.  A displaced community of people have now found homes and are forming bonds with their new neighbours.  However, projects like this need dedicated people on-site to keep the momentum going.  While in Europe we found that communal living seemed to generate a lot of committees and meetings to keep them ticking over, here in Sri Lanka there seemed to be an absence of such gatherings and hence no rallying point for the community to grow and move forward to a low carbon future. 

The Future Generation

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