Nature, Traditions, a Prophet, and a Village in the Jungle

Ulpotha, located in the dry zone of central Sri Lanka, is the site of an holistic environmental and cultural undertaking by the East Pole Foundation, a non-profit organisation with a remarkable vision.

Over the past four years Mudiyanse Tennekoon, Viren Perera and Giles Scott, the founders of the East Pole Foundation, have been helping a small village transform itself from an abandoned coconut plantation into a vital bio-diverse agricultural village.  Their approach has been to draw significantly from tradition, while not abandoning the modern, to recreate an environment where nature and man live in productive harmony.  Trees – over 4,000 of them – have been planted, ancient irrigation systems have been rehabilitated and traditional organic farming practices have been re-employed.

It is Tennekoon, described variously as a ‘philosopher-farmer’ and a ‘prophet of traditional rural life’, who has been the primary architect at Ulpotha.  “As a farmer and ecologist who follows a traditional way of life, I am a student of ancient agricultural patterns and traditional rural lifestyle”, declares Tennekoon.  “I believe you cannot look at the environment and man separately; similarly, I believe you cannot look at man’s work and his rituals separately.  Ours is a country that has a history thousands of years old.  For these thousands of years we have successfully cultivated our land by developing sophisticated systems of irrigation and farming, along with particular social and cultural practices – ones which maintained the delicate balance necessary to ensure the continued fertility of the soil while safeguarding social stability.  But over the past few decades, our traditional farming methods have largely been abandoned in favour of modern methods dependent on machinery and chemical poisons and our social systems have come under pressure.  Our forests are also under siege as they are being cut down to feed the insatiable ovens needed to bake the bread, bricks and tiles which we have been taught to need.  Ulpotha, with its combination of mountain range, forest, dependable rain, tanks [reservoirs], crop land, temples and village, has all the ingredients to realise my life-long dream of living a socially cohesive life within a traditional and productive environment that does not ignore but lives in harmony with the modern world.”

What strikes you when you first arrive in Ulpotha is the physical beauty of the place as well as its extraordinary tranquillity.  Located at the foot of the Galgiriyawa mountains, a forested range that captures precipitation from both the south-west and north-east monsoons, Ulpotha enjoys a temperate climate unusual for the dry zone.

There is an arrangement of tanks, typical of the ancient irrigation systems of the country.  They include a mountain tank for providing water for chena (jungle) cultivation, a forest tank for providing drinking water to wild animals in the jungle, an erosion/silt control tank, and a main storage tank for the irrigation of crops.  These four tanks all store water from the catchment area for the lands throughout the watershed Ulpotha is at the head of.

About twenty five years ago, the government’s Department of Irrigation, in what proved to be an ill-advised attempt to increase the water storage capacity, joined the forest, erosion control and storage tanks by breaching the bunds that separated them, dynamited the natural rock spill and constructed a concrete weir and sluice gate.  This resulted in a significant decrease in the amount of water available for irrigation – to the extent that only one harvest per year was possible – due to silting, a lowering in the level of the local water table, and leaks in the poorly constructed weir.  The rehabilitation of this system of tanks has been one of the main service projects undertaken by the East Pole Foundation.  In the first phase the bund of the erosion control tank was rebuilt and in the second phase the main bund was strengthened, the storage tank was de-silted and the weir modified and repaired.  The third and final stage, which will be carried out in April, 1999, will restore the bund separating the forest and storage tanks.

While the East Pole Foundation funded the repairs, the farmers who use the tanks’ waters contributed their labour in a representation of ‘Rajakariya’, literally meaning service owed to the king or, in this case, the common good.  “What happened here to the tank system is a perfect example of what has happened to a large extent to the extensive village irrigation system of our country”, observes Tennekoon.  “Throughout our history, the tanks were maintained through a system of patronage and service.  Every villager owed forty days of service to maintain or build tanks and canals.  This system of Rajakariya was misunderstood by the British as being an abusive feudal relic, and hence they abolished it.  After the government and its bureaucrats took over tank maintenance, it effectively undermined not only the village irrigation system but also the principle of co-operation so important to our traditional agriculture and way of life.  ‘What was everybody’s business had become nobody’s business’.  When we agreed to repair this tank for the farmers, we made a pact with them that we will all revive Rajakariya and work together to maintain our tanks.”

Because Ulpotha had been abandoned for over thirty years, it has been spared the introduction of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.  “We have no use for these,” maintains Tennekoon.  “It is through such chemicals that we introduce poison into our soil, into our water, into our food and into ourselves.  There are so many biological and traditional ways available to us to control pests and bugs and ensure the balanced fertility of the soil.  I have never believed that you can get the better of nature by artificially extracting more than the land can naturally produce without paying a price for it.  Our traditional farming methods, which we practice here, work with nature to provide us with yields that are acceptable.  Modern farming methods, on the other hand, with their emphasis on ever heavier machinery and ultimately poisonous chemicals, suppress and distort nature.”

One of the longer-term goals of the East Pole Foundation is to promote organic farming throughout the watershed served by the tanks’ waters.  Instead of preaching the evils of dependency on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, their approach will be to address the financial realities faced by the farmers.  For the years until their crops can be certified as being organic, the Foundation will ensure that the farmers make no less than they would usually make in terms of profit by guaranteeing a higher-than-market price for their reduced harvest of rice.  In effect underwriting the cost of the transition to organic farming.  Once certification is possible, the Foundation will purchase all the organic rice harvested – at prices expected to be significantly higher than the local market prices the farmers receive currently – and sell it to wholesalers in western organic produce markets otherwise inaccessible to the local farmers.

Ulpotha itself is already a self-sufficient mixed organic farm.  The aridness of the land caused by years of use as a mono-culture coconut plantation has been effectively reversed by bio-diverse planting and the building of bunds.  Both enhance the soil’s water retention capacity while the latter controls erosion and protects the soil’s fertility.

Mature coconut , mango, jak and breadfruit trees have been complemented by banana, papaya, avocado, woodapple, green orange, lime, rambutan and other fruit trees.  Indigenous, rare red rices – of varieties long since supplanted by fertiliser-dependant  hybrid rices elsewhere in the country – are also grown in Ulpotha’s paddy fields.  A wide variety of vegetables, melons and yams are also cultivated.  Timber trees, such as mahogany and halmilla, along with ereka nut trees, have been planted to produce income in the future.

The crops are protected from pests using traditional biological methods that include various applications of cactus milk, crushed neem seeds, dried makra leaves, branches of the kadura tree, jak fruit sap and crushed coconut refuse.  Equally important are rituals where crop planting is initiated at auspicious times and milk is ritually boiled.

Buffalo are used to plough the fields and thresh the harvested paddy.  “Tractors are too heavy for the fields,” says Tennekoon.  “They break through the crust in the paddy fields that retain water and churn up the soil too deeply, bringing less fertile soil to the top.  So we avoid tractors.  Buffalo are perfectly suited for paddy cultivation and produce their own fertiliser and milk as well.”

The dwellings at Ulpotha, with the exception of the main house, are all constructed using traditional wattle and daub and have cadjan, (woven palm leaf) roofs.  They are comfortable and perfect for the climate.  The central waluwwa, or traditional manor house, is constructed mainly of sun-dried mud brick with the mortar used being a specific tank-bed mud.

“Ulpotha is an exercise in exploring traditional farming and village lifestyle through practice,” maintains Tennekoon.  “In our headlong dash towards development and progress we all too frequently dispose of ways that have thousands of years of practice – as well as an in-grown organic wisdom – behind them.  By no means do I advocate the old over the new; I only question that we live in a world where it is always the new over the old.  In Ulpotha the spiritual world has as much a place as the natural world, and universal and primordial traditions are a part of daily life.  Through rituals and vows we maintain a balance with the spiritual world in the same way, and with the same importance we maintain our balance with nature.  Only when we are in harmony with nature and the spirits can we be in harmony with ourselves.  This is for me an ageless reality.”

“Ulpotha was not a ‘venture’ with a specific goal or plan”, states Perera, another of the founders.  “It grew – and continues to grow – organically and has taken a course driven by our collective ideals.  We are like-minded in important ways yet dissimilar in many ways.  Of us, Tennekoon is that rare individual who lives in the world he believes in and has a depth of knowledge hard to gauge in our world of formal education.”  “Ulpotha is a fortunate co-incidence of means and idealistic visions,” adds Scott.  “Economics and financial viability played no role in its genesis, though they are important factors now if Ulpotha is to have a life of its own.  It would never have happened if a project report or feasibility study were required.  Ulpotha is simply about practising a lifestyle that is in harmony with nature and the environment and giving others the means to follow suit.”  Says Perera: “Ulpotha is our near-Utopian oasis.  One that seems disconnected from the real world but is nevertheless happily a part of it.”