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….