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Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya Builds Community and National Resilience

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

The 2300 year old sacred fig of Anuradhapura in north central Sri Lanka
All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

It was kind of humbling, and strangely reassuring, standing next to one of the oldest living trees in the world. It is, in fact, the oldest known human-planted tree. Its limbs are aided by vertical supports now, lest they tumble, but despite being 2300 years old, its wide spreading branches were still flush with green leaves.

This is the sacred fig of Anuradhapura in north central Sri Lanka, known as the Sri Maha Bodhi. The tree was planted in 288BC, and, in a sense, is even older since it was planted as a branch from an even earlier tree – transported from the original at Bodh Gaya in India, under which Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha, is said to have attained enlightenment.

The Sri Maha Bodhi tree is supported by man, yet it continues to support us

The sapling was transported to Sri Lanka as a symbol of Buddhism arriving to the island state, and planted by King Devanampiyatissa, whose conversion to Buddhism had a profound effect on the development of Sri Lankan culture and politics.

Aside from its religious significance, to me the tree is a symbol of resilience; of nature’s ability to endure, and serve. Despite being fenced in by armed guards, protective barriers and the floods of visitors that bring gifts of lotus flowers and prayers, the ancient tree still provides the valuable functions of habitat, shade, and so much more.

I like to think of the structure of great trees as representing the way our own communities should develop. Rooted in common ideals, branches reach out purposefully towards the light, working symbiotically, in multiple ways, with everything else in the environment. The tree lives, and lives long, because it works in multiple, harmonious relationships with everything around it.

Globalised Dependence, or Community Based Resilience

Resiliency is the watchword of the hour for cities, towns, villages and individuals worldwide today. Multiple vulnerabilities have emerged, from energy dependence and peak oil, to food miles and agricultural specialisation, climate change and community disintegration. Globalisation and its associated Structural Adjustment Programs, as dictated by the IMF and the World Bank, have put nation after nation into positions of extreme susceptibility, or outright trouble. Social stratification, acute poverty, debt, hunger and even war are the outcomes. Yet, local governments are still mostly encouraging globalised dependency on a detached, centralised government and industry.

We feel these vulnerabilities on a day to day basis, but they become even more pronounced when tragedy strikes. Sri Lanka has seen more than its fair share of tragedies in recent years. How the Sarvodaya Shramadana community responded to these should be of interest to us all.

The 2004 Tsunami

From whence the waves came….

Fisherman smiled or looked inquisitively, whilst stray dogs growled suspiciously, as I walked, camera in hand, along the beach and small wharf that is the heart of the fishing village of Hambantota.

The boats and buildings are all mostly new replacements

The township, sited on the beautiful southeastern coastal area of Sri Lanka, bustled with boats and activity, even though the sun was only just rising. Despite the hour, a few of the larger motorised boats were already returning with their first catch of the day.

Tuna catches at sunup at Hambantota wharf

The scene was peaceful. Serene. Five years earlier, and a few hours later, however, it was anything but….

Disaster Strikes, and Strikes Hard

Sunday, December 26, 2004 was market day in Hambantota. People came from surrounding villages to buy and sell vegetables and seafood, and, being the holiday season, the village, unfortunately, also attracted more than its normal quota of visitors. There were Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and others from the surrounding region – all enjoying a pleasant morning on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Although the Sri Lankan government had already been alerted to the earthquake off Sumatra, the massive wave hit the people of Hambantota without warning, just after 9am.

Deadly chaos ensued.

Most of the structures were small, brick buildings with no lateral reinforcement, something which the government had previously been warned about and criticised for not addressing. While many deep rooted trees survived, almost all of the low lying buildings were flattened.

A fisherman paddles passed a sturdy but destroyed building (left),
and a rebuilt one (right)

When the waves receded, between three and four thousand bodies remained behind, strewn across the harbour, town and nearby lagoon, along with the carcasses of animals and wreckage of boats, vehicles and buildings. Much of the township’s population was forever gone, and those that did survive were left with their world turned completely upside down.

Local Assistance Came First

Nandana Jayasinghe, director of one of Sarvodaya’s sustainable agriculture institutes, is a pragmatic, energetic type. Nandana was stationed almost an hour north of Hambantota. After getting word of the disaster he wasted no time in responding – organising local Sarvodaya villagers to assist in every way possible.

Within six hours of the wave’s impact, Nandana and others arrived from Thanamalwila with three ten-ton trucks full of food, water, blankets and other supplies. These were to be the first of many support deliveries. The contents changed over the following days and weeks – including shipments of teddy bears and other toys for traumatised children.

Aside from the deliveries, Nandana and others worked at the site for weeks, helping to coordinate temporary housing and taking on the grisly cleanup task.

Nandana Jayasinghe, Director of Sarvodaya’s Agriculture Cluster
and Development Education Institute, Thanamalwila, at their regional office in Hambantota – occupied by Sarvodaya after the
tsunami, as a base for their labour

Waves of Compassion

  • Number of houses Sarvodaya built for the Tsunami victims: 1104
  • Toilets built: 5593
  • Drinking wells: 2274
  • Compost bins: 2450
  • Children’s parks: 85
  • Water tanks: 185

Scenes like this were played out across Sri Lanka’s east, southern, and south-western coastlines. It is estimated that in Sri Lanka alone, more than 35,000 souls perished. Similar to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans, a disconnected, centralised government struggled to perform and was broadly criticised for their inaction both before and after the event. In Sri Lanka local community networks were able to assist far more rapidly, and more appropriately.

Government erected a memorial next to the lagoon

Sarvodaya’s efforts extend even to this day, with practical attempts to rebuild the livelihoods of these communities along sustainable lines – building resilience against future disasters, natural or otherwise – and building valuable community infrastructure to benefit all today.

It’s the deep rooted trees that survive.

Continue to Part V in this series: Sarvodaya Builds Community and National Resilience, Part II


  1. Hi, I am living in Moratuwa, ex-Sarvodaya and campaigning for a sustainable world.

    Can we meet, soon! 0382231993 0777 699171


  2. Natural disasters in all their forms bring with them tighter community bonds and a refocusing of the importance of local issues over centralised administrate issues. Its good to see that we all have the same trait across the planet, a willingness to pull together in the most dire situations. Its just a shame that the worlds entertainment and media companies keep so many people so entranced that it takes a natural disaster to open our eyes.

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