Part VII of a series – If you haven’t already, please read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI before continuing. This series is part of my work for the Sustainable (R)evolution book project.
One of 55 eco-friendly homes nestled amongst newly established gardens
An hour or so south of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo is the fishing district of Kalutara. Although only one of many regions hit by the 2004 Tsunami, post-disaster relief efforts here were unique in that Sarvodaya determined to use the situation to create Sri Lanka’s first eco-village.
Max Lindegger on Lagoswatta
I consider my involvement rather minor as we arrived in the area only a short time after the Tsunami and were working under time pressure. There are many aspects I like about the village however (I have been back a few times):
On the other hand I understand that the villagers found it difficult to adapt to rainwater. Time will tell. Maybe they will get used to it eventually like we do in Australia!
On my original drawing the road passed below all the houses. This was changed by the local government. I tried to avoid the need for any children having to cross any road between home and the community facilities. I understand that the lowest houses (where I had suggested the road should pass) experienced some flooding.
Also, it had been reported that some of the timber used in the construction of the homes was substandard. Not surprising with the huge demand on all building materials at the time.
Designed with the technical advice and guidance of world renowned Australian permaculture experts Max Lindegger and Lloyd Williams, who are affiliated with Ecological Solutions Inc. and Global Eco-village Network (GEN), the village has become a model of sustainable development.
The Sri Lankan government allocated a parcel of land situated five kilometres inland for the purpose, and financing for construction came via Sarvodaya as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC), the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the Asia Pacific Forum for Environment and Development (APFED). The combined gifts culminated in the construction of Lagoswatta – a model eco-village, situated on a gentle five acre slope bordered by rice fields, that is now home to 55 families from three villages in the area.
I was of course very keen to take a look, and so after winding our way from the coast, through small farmlets and a rather beautiful and shady rubber tree plantation, I arrived in Lagoswatta for a brief look.
Beginning in April 2005 and completed in 2006, an important aspect of of the work was the involvement of the intended residents in the construction process itself – providing an excellent opportunity to build a sense of ownership and self-determination for their future, whilst giving survivors a sense of purpose that helps them deal psychologically with trauma, loss of loved ones and their subsequent dramatic change in circumstances.
Each earth-brick home in Lagoswatta is virtually identical, measuring about 46 square metres (500 square feet) and consists of two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and sanitation facilities. Each home has its own garden, and practical involvement of residents are positively encouraged with training in composting, gardening, recycling and also maintenance of the solar panel and battery that provides electricity to each home – something many residents never had before. Homes are also equipped with a recycling receptacle and on the edge of the village is a small recycling station where materials are separated and stored for monthly collection. The project also included a Subterra biological soakage system for household greywater.
Water for drinking and irrigation is one of the biggest problems Sri Lankans face. Construction for Lagoswatta thus included fourteen rainwater harvesting tanks to collect roof run-off, five drinking wells and two communal bathing wells.
An important aspect of design for any eco-village are those that encourage community interdependence. In addition to housing, a multi-purpose community center was built that includes a doctor’s office (manned on Mondays), library, computer room, a childcare/Montessori school centre and a playground – all encouraging community interaction and the pooling and development of the creative abilities of individual villagers. Programs assisting in social mobilization and livelihood support foster this development as well.
A boy plays in the community childcare centre
The edge-of-town recycling station – emptied monthly
One aspect of village life I found interesting was that, unlike other Sarvodaya villages, where the very first stage of development is ‘awakening’ to the Sarvodaya principles based on earth care and the ten basic needs, the villagers of Lagoswatta were somewhat thrown together suddenly at a time of extreme stress. Additionally, many of the villagers were previously fisher folk, so once moved from the coast to Lagoswatta they’ve had to take on a whole new existence. Whilst villagers on the whole largely seemed content and adapting to their new surrounds, it was clear to me there wasn’t the same industriousness and cohesion found in some of the other villages who had opted to join the Sarvodaya network out of acknowledgement and appreciation over time of the principles that forms the basis of the movement.
In other words, these people were somewhat thrown together out of necessity, rather than inspired choice.
A Lagoswatta villager harvests compost from his bin
Practical examples of this could be seen by observing the state of different gardens in the village, where some were making excellent use of their land – cultivating quite a diverse range of fruit, vegetables and herbs and developing a lovely shaded environment that is a major advantage in the tropical heat – while others were making merely token efforts.
Some villagers were making excellent use of their garden space
I spoke with a few villagers about how well their solar system worked. One man spoke despondently about how after only four years the battery had already failed and he couldn’t afford the 15,000 rupees to replace it. Considering this man didn’t have power in the shack he and his small family lived in prior to its destruction, I was conscious of how this ‘upgrade’ in their life was making them dependent on polluting technologies that were too expensive for them to maintain. When I mentioned the failed battery in a neighbour’s house, it was explained to me that the first man had not been maintaining the battery as he was told (topping up with water) and so killed it from neglect. Considering this, I remembered that that particular man’s garden was also largely non-existent, indicating either a general lack of pro-active interest or difficulty in adapting, and it made me appreciate all the more the importance of Sarvodaya’s stepped program that prioritises individual transformation at its base.
Each home has a battery that stores power from a small roof-mounted
solar panel. The only appliances for most houses are normally only lights,
a radio and/or television.
As they say, a house does not a home make. In the same way, a collection of buildings and people does not an eco-village make. It became obvious to me that you cannot just lump a divergent range of people together and call them a ‘community’. A truly successful community requires some planning at a spiritual level to facilitate cohesion – and this centres in all involved being inspired with a sense of positive purpose and collectively shared goals. Disasters like that which gave birth to Lagoswatta obviously do not provide the luxury of time for such considerations, but I think this is an important facet to consider wherever possible.
Villagers said their conditions were improved – homes were warmer in winter,
cooler in summer, and power, water and garden features were all appreciated.
The good news is that Sarvodaya’s efforts in this regard continue to this day, and Lagoswatta has become an excellent model for not only Sri Lanka but also for village development and disaster relief efforts worldwide.
The community centre is appropriate for culture and climate
The community library was spartan, but it’s a start
Composting toilets are culturally unacceptable to Sri Lankans, so Lagoswatta
utilises septic tanks for black water. Outside are rain-fed washing facilities.
A typical Lagoswatta kitchen. Some homes house two or three families, as
families would open their doors to relatives struggling after the disaster.
A children’s park completes the picture. The sign reads:
"This park is a gift to the children from the American people."