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Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya Builds Sri Lanka’s First Eco-Village

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):

  • I think it succeeded in bringing together families from a number of villages. This is never easy and it looks like they all get on together well. The old settlement just past Lagoswatta has been integrated rather nicely as well.
  • Most of the modest homes do have some food growing with some families doing so very well. Many families harvest at least some vegetables or fruit every day from the garden.
  • The recycling efforts were successful from observations last time I was there. This is in a way surprising as these families had no background in recycling.
  • Overall it seem that the living standard of all the families were lifted with the modest infrastructures and the layout succeeds in creating a social unit.

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!


The tank reads "Problem is water,
solution is rain water"

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.

Continue on to read Part VIII….


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."

Continue on to read Part VIII….

11 Comments

  1. “It is fundamental to the difference between a free anarchial society, in which there is a voluntary exchange of ideas of equals, and a highly authoritarian society, in which most individuals are subservient to large government and business organizations”.

    This quota is from the book A Pattern Language, p. 742, by the architect Christopher Alexander, who I learned about here: https://permacultureprinciples.com/flower_building.php

    Unfortunately I live in the last kind of society, where the bureocrasy and entrepreners force people to live in inhuman dwellings and communities. I like to live in an ecovillage myself, preferably by Lake Mjøsa here in Norway, but I don’t know if it is possible to create something so nice here like they have done in Sri Lanka. I really envy them!

    Anyway, everybody planning for an ecovillage, I highly recommend A Pattern Language! Gen Europe was menchened in the text, but I didn’s see a link, so here it is: http://www.ecovillage.org

  2. Hmmm, if you don’t like it there are plenty of other countries to try. I recommend Somalia, it’s great this time of year. And has a definite ‘anarchical’ thing going on. Let us know how you get on there.

  3. I always thought that the “if you do not like it then leave” mentality was pretty counter productive. Does not seem to accomplish anything but defending the status quo. This is not to say I share Holmstad’s view but like he said, we need a society that values the free exchange of ideas. This exchange is something that will never be accomplished if we politely show everyone the door who happens to thinks out of step with the direction we are collectively heading.

    More related to the article, I have really enjoyed this series and feel the ‘Western’ world could gain much from this. That the first state of development is ‘awakening’ speaks volumes. In the United States it seems people only awaken when confronted with a nervous break down or life threatening situation, and even then the social forces(debt, marketing, peer pressure ect.) strive to lull them back to sleep. Thank you for all your hard work Craig!

  4. To Alvinois
    ”The mechanistic idea of order can be traced to Descartes, around 1640. His idea was: if you
    want to know how something works, you can find it out by pretending that it is a machine. You completely isolate the thing you are interested in – the rolling of a ball, the falling of an apple, the flowing of the blood in the human body – from everything else, and you invent a mechanical model, a mental toy, which obeys certain rules, and which will then replicate the behavior of the thing. It was because of this kind of Cartesian thought that one was able to find out how things work in a modern sence.

    However, the crucial thing which Descartes understood very well, but which we most often forget, is that this process is only a method. This business of isolating things, breaking them into fragments, and of making machinelike pictures (or models) of how things work, is not how reality actually is. It is a convenient mental exercise, something we do to reality, in order to understand it.

    Descartes himself clearly understood his procedure as a mental trick. He was a religious person who would have been terrified to find out that people in the 20th century began to think that reality itself is actually like this. But in the years since Descartes lived, as his idea gathered momentum, and people found out that you really could find out how the bloodstream works, or how the stars are born, by seeing them as machines – and after people had used the idea to find out almost everything mechanical about the world from the 17th century to the 20th century, people shifted into a new mental state that began treating reality as if this mechanical picture really were the nature of things, as if everything really were a machine.

    For the purpose of discussion, in what follows, I shall refer to this as the 20th century mechanistic viewpoint. The appearance of this 20th century mechanistic view had tremendous consequences, both devastating for artists. The first was that the “I” went out of world picture. The picture of the world as a machine doesn’t have an “I” in it. The “I” , what it means to be a person, the inner experience of being a person, just isn’t part of this picture. Of course it is still there in our experience. But it isn’t part of the picture we have of how things are. So what happens? How can you make something which have no “I” in it, when the whole process of making anything comes from the “I”? The process of trying to be an artist in a world which has no sensible notion of “I” and no natural way that the personal inner life can be part of the picture of things – leaves the art of building as a vacuum. You just cannot make sense of it.

    The second devastating thing that happened with the onset of the 20th century mechanistic world-picture was that clear understanding of value went out of the world. The picture of the world we have from physics, because it is built only out of mental machines, no longer has any definite feeling of value in it: value has become sidelined as a matter of opinion, not intrinsic to the nature of the world at all.

    And with these two developments, the idea of order fell apart. The mechanistic idea tells us very little about the deep order we feel intuitively to be in the world. Yet it is this deep order which is our main concern.”

    From the book The Phenomenon of Life in the four book series The Nature of Order, by Christopher Alexander, page 16.

  5. To Alvinois
    I love my country! I love every tree, every fjord, every mountain, every lake, every old barn, every stave church! Why should I not like the broad plain with wild rein deer’s and the deep forests with the wolves hauling at the moon, the northern light and the bird mountains in the ocean?

  6. I LIVE IN A TOTALITARIAN DEMOCRACY:

    “In order to work, these living processes – especially when applied to the large urban areas and modern agglomerations of urban regions – require freedom of action, freedom within the process. That means that each process must allow every step of each adaptive sequence sufficient latitude to go wherever it needs to go, IN THE CONTEXT OF THE WHOLE, to make the whole more alive. This requires freedom of action at each step.

    For the most part, the necessary freedom of action cannot be provided within the context we came to know in the 20th century as a totalitarian democracy. By totalitarian democracy I mean the system of thought and action which is prescribed by the rules, procedures, lock-step process of the modern democratic state, which attempts to create buildings by social routines that are military and regimented, not FREE or ORGANIC. In virtually every walk of life, as we have come to know the process of planning and construction from the 20th-century heritage, freedom of the kind necessary to create profound wholeness is hampered by our institutional norms and by the normal process of our society.

    This is strange, and not easy to get used to. In modern democracy we have come to believe in the freedom of our own society, and we look with intellectual detachment (touched with a smug of feeling of superiority) at the great literature of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD, Eugene Zamiatin’s WE, as if these works describe caricatures of something which may have occurred in other societies – in Communism, in Totalitarianism, in Fascism – but never in our own. Rarely have we understood that our own society, too, our own democracy, thought originating in the ideal of freedom, has nevertheless created a system of thought and action, in the sphere of architecture, which makes living structure all but unattainable – at best BARELY attainable.

    The problem creates a new kind of challenge for democracy. To create living structure, we need a kind of freedom which the founding fathers of the American constitution (for example) did not dream of, because the issues involved in the creation of life in the environment simply were not visible to them. To create living structure in the environment of our own age, and in the future age which stretches before us, we must now find ways of turning society beyond its too-regimented path, and toward paths of design and planning and construction which allow the life of every whole and the life of every part to emerge freely from the processes by which we make the world.”

    “The Process of Creating Life” by Christopher Alexander, page 496-497.

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