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Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya’s Home Gardens

Part VI of a series – If you haven’t already, please read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V before continuing. This series is part of my work for the Sustainable (R)evolution book project.

A coconut shell is an excellent, biodegradable planter.
The coir (husk fibre) is extracted and mixed with soil to become a potting mix
with particularly good water retention capacity (the fibre reduces evaporation).

All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

The world’s largest water harvesting earthworks has transformed Sri Lanka, or at least large parts of it, from aridity to lushness. This mainframe design provides biological resources that villagers can use to maximise biodiversity for personal and environmental health. In similar fashion the ‘mainframe design’ of the ‘invisible structures’ of Sarvodaya’s community network provide avenues for the free flow of permaculture information to help achieve this goal. The good news is that many villagers are making use of these resources and this potential, despite constant attempts by Big Agri to lure them, through offers of free product samples and demonstrations, into chemical dependency.

Nandana Jayasinghe (inset), Director of Sarvodaya’s Agriculture Cluster and Development Education Institute in Thanamalwila, southern Sri Lanka, took me to see several sample home and market gardens. Nandana’s work is to help build on village level independence by supplementing, but not supplanting, local knowledge with permaculture techniques suitable for their climate and culture. Over recent years Nandana has been organising annual Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) courses with visiting international trainers, as well as many other workshops.

Nandana tells me that about 80 villages within their network are specifically practicing permaculture, and counting, whilst remaining villages almost universally reject chemical based systems due to their disharmony with Sarvodaya’s agreed principles of prioritising the health of their environment.

After months without rain, mulch dries up and is easily blown away by regular
strong hot winds. Practitioners try to plant wind breaks to help here.

A buried clay pot, once filled and covered with
a rag, slowly percolates water to plant roots
whilst eliminating loss through evaporation

Gardening brings its own unique challenges for every locale in the world. While many of us are looking for biological solutions to creatures like slugs, aphids and caterpillars, your average permaculturist in Sri Lanka deals with ‘pests‘ of a whole other breed. Imagine walking outside to find dozens of peacocks feasting on your crops, for example. Keeping a determined monkey out of your yard is virtually impossible, and elephants…?

The ethical basis of permaculture intersects very well with the Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka, who have a deep respect for the right to life of all creatures within the biosphere. Where a rifle would quickly become the ‘solution’ in other parts of the world – where the goalposts keep getting moved on what are regarded as ‘acceptable remaining population levels’ for various species, as we grow our economies – it is not even considered in most of this country, and would be greeted with scorn from neighbours. Instead, people here experiment with other imaginative alternatives. In regards to elephants, specifically, I had several villagers tell me the only people they’d heard of being killed by elephants were those who had previously resorted to violence against them – the family of a murdered or injured elephant would return to take revenge.

Sarvodaya villagers try to learn how to get along instead.

The Sri Lankan elephant, largest of the Asian elephant species (weighing up to
5400 kg), can wreak havoc in a home garden. Numerous methods are used to
discourage their presence, from hanging glass bottles together in trees
(which spook elephants by their sight and also sound as the wind disturbs
them), along with other reflective items.

A tree house serves as residence for a guard who is tasked with frightening
hungry elephants away at night by means of flashing lights and noise.
I saw trees larger than this that had been pushed over by elephants….

Monkeys are amongst the biggest challenges home gardeners face.
Despite appearances, this monkey is not being aggressive. It is simply yawning.

Much of Sri Lanka tends to be naturally arid. Where gardens are not in close proximity to a reservoir (called ‘tanks‘ in Sri Lanka) or their canals, or even where they are, water harvesting systems become an essential improvement. Many households featured rainwater harvesting tanks, provided by Sarvodaya. On my visit not a few were disconnected, however, simply because there had been no rain for months and unflushed empty pipes attracted lizards, snakes and other critters. When the rains come again, these are reconnected to supply drinking water and irrigation from rooftop rainfall.

A temporarily disconnected rainwater harvesting tank

Everywhere I went I asked the same question – particularly of older people: "Over the course of your life, have you noticed a change in weather patterns? And if so, what exactly?" Without exception, they all respond with "We get less rain." Nandana thus encourages and educates in the use of swales, composting, mulching and other water conservation practices. Permaculture can go a long way towards adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately composting toilets are not considered here. The concept is culturally abhorrent to Sri Lankans in general and are thus disregarded outright. I suspect this may change over time as water shortages become more acute….

A palm frond covered trellis over vegetables protects from harsh
mid-summer sunlight and reduces evaporation.

One thing you find if you travel in 2/3rd world countries is that the people there usually look at you as if you’re somehow better off than they. It surprises them to realise you’re actually there to learn – that you’re there because they have something you don’t. In this case it’s a localised interdependence that secures them against the economic and social vulnerabilities we face in a globalised, peak oil world. I have immense respect, even envy, for communities that are able to provide for all or most of their own needs. An on-the-ground realisation of this appreciation often seemed to fill the people with a renewed sense of pride in what they’re able to achieve through their own labours and ingenuity. And so it should.

A biodiverse garden in the higher altitude district of south central Sri Lanka
provides more than 95% of this family’s food needs.

Because of the hoops you have to jump through to get organic certification,
Sarvodaya encourages home and market gardeners to develop Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes instead.


Biodigesters are a permaculture design technique that are especially appreciated – with some home gardeners managing to make a closed loop for their energy requirements in this way. Families that have enough land to keep a few cows, and about US$100 or so for initial installation, can easily supply enough methane gas from a biogas system to fuel all their cooking requirements.

This biogas installation consists of three concrete lined chambers (see pic above). The one on the right is about two feet deep. Cow manure is shoveled into water here. The slurry flows through an underground pipe into the centre chamber, which is about 12 feet deep and three feet wide. Methane gas builds up in this chamber and flows through the small hose you can see running towards the house and into the kitchen (below). Overflow from this central chamber goes into the chamber at left, where it can be shoveled out and mixed into composts.

The nice blue flame indicates the clean burn you get from methane. The waste from three cows is more than sufficient to keep this fire burning for this family of eight, all day, every day – cooking grains and other food and boiling drinking water for improved health.

A few metres away, across the kitchen, is what they had to use before the biogas installation. As you can see, the gas cooker saves a lot of work in collecting oft-scarce firewood just to see it choke their lungs and the atmosphere. Dead wood can now be composted or used in construction instead and carbon emissions are reduced. Nandana estimates there are about 60 – 70 such biogas installations working efficiently within the Sarvodaya network to date.

Continue on to read Part VII….


  1. Wonderful Sarvodaya home gardens news, thanks Craig, (can’t we promote & install biodigester free gas cooking in Australia or USA…what’s stopping us, the big gas companies?) glad you emphasised the pro-nature ethics coming also from their Buddhist values. I realize the global eco crisis won’t be solved with just techniques, even those as good as Permaculture with DIY bio-gas cooking. The global community also needs the deep, enduring motivation of nature-honouring spiritual values.
    In past comment I mentioned that David Suzuki says in his book “The Sacred Balance” that a key reason why we in the west lost the plot with the environment, was our loss of the concept of sacred value of the earth and all its species. I’m continuing research and action in Islamic, Buddhist, Christian and Aboriginal traditional beliefs as a basis to work with church & inter-faith groups organising seminars on environment, Permaculture and faith or spirituality……I welcome other people to network with me on this.

    Actions have included Permaculture workshops at Uniting Church national Eco-Social Justice Expo “Faith and the Eco-Crisis” and a 1 day seminar at a theological college next to Macquarie University, Sydney, inviting everyone interested from the community and Uni.
    The 40 seat room was crammed, there was only standing room for the late-comers. We’d arranged a diverse panel of well-informed speakers (e.g. spiritual types from Wilderness Society, Uni dept of Enviro Science, and an overseas aid agency, etc).

    NOte that some of the right wing/redneck climate change scorners, try to stir up spiritual fears against our efforts, so we need to refute them with spiritual answers. They claim that the whole climate change and environment movement “is a plot to bring human society under pagan nature-worship”…I’ve argued with 2 of them , one is a prominent business leader (pro-development, naturally – or more accurately, “un-naturally”) in Tweed Heads near you, Craig at PRI.

    Fortunately there are some religious groups doing eco-renewal and planning Permaculture community gardens. One is Al Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Culture in Sydney, who do bush regeneration at Cooks River, and plan to partner with a Christian church in a community garden (like Geoff’s in Jordan).

    A wonderful book on faith, nature and the eco-crisis’ cultural-spiritual roots, by an Islamic scholar is
    “Man and Nature – the Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man”, by Professor Seyyed Nasr (Ph.D Harvard), who taught at Iran University and Washington University in the USA. He takes a Sufi-based approach and covers Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism and Hinduism. Brilliant, inspiring stuff, I keep on re-reading it.

    He does not spare the grossly materialisic consumption obsession of our dominant western values.

  2. G’day, Nice work Craig….its been interesting to watch your series as I was in Sri Lanka in the last days of the war and in the weeks after that working for World Vision assessing their USDA projects. We spent most of our time in the Batticaloa region where things are a bit dryer; nonetheless there was a lot of good work going on with a couple of programs that were working with over 17,000 households doing much of the work you’ve described…I will forward this all to my colleagues over there in the hope that further collaboration might occur….

    All the best and more of it please….


  3. I have graduated from Haramaya Universirty in the Department of Conservation enginering in Ethiopia. I am working in Mizan Agriculture College as instrucror in Natural resource department, on the course of soil water conservation and Alternative Energy. I have read about the Biogas technology in your websitews, . Even I do have a research which might be your institution help me. My research title cocern on ‘evaluation of the potential of veteever grass on production of Biogas’. The main reason why I am doing this research to motivate farmers on plantation of vetever grass on their soil water conservation structure activities. I could send my proposal if necessary for your institution. What is your advise as well as your technical or training support on this burninig essue?. I am looking forward your posative response.

    Your best

    Amberber Wasihun

  4. i was looking for an article to write some sentences on home gardens for my daughter studying in grade one. this one gave me a lot and i was able to gain a lot of knowledge. very interesting and illustrative thanks for the author

  5. We are going to start an eco garden in Sri Lanka and would be very interested in having a bio gas facility. Any helpers are welcome.

    1. Hey carroyl. I know im only5 years late on the reply. Did you end up building a biogas system. If not would you like to build one. I have never buikt one thou Ive been studying alot about them. Email me if so. Im living in sri lanka 😊

  6. Hello everybody. Is there by chance anyone who knows of biogas? We are starting to build an ecovillage in the hills. All kind of advise and help will be welcome

  7. Can dry composting toilets work with cultural practices that require water for cleaning one’s self after toileting?

  8. Mr Rasairo
    What sort of Help you Need .You can start the Hedroponic Project .It is very rich vegi and also you can start with out artifical fertilizer use only compost (Example Cow dung )

  9. im a sri lankan…can i visit sarvodayas garden? where is it? and is it possible to do a permaculture course there? thank you

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