THE ILLUSION OF DEVELOPMENT
In 300 BC, Mahinda Thera, bearer of Buddhism and son of the Great Emperor Ashoka, said to king Devanampiyatissa of Lanka — “Remember that you are only the guardian of this land for all the people and animals that reside here, not the owner of it”
Sitting in my grandfather old walawwe house , I contemplate the days when one could see the sea from the back window. Now the land is worth 15 million rupees a perch. The 90 year old art nouveau house has been split in 2. The 3 story tall frangipani in my garden is one of the last magnificent trees left in this block. The scent of the falling Araliya flowers daily permeates through the air; a sensory symbol that reality is, in fact, Not static like concrete. A paint company just tore down the iconic Cricket Club cafe to build a car park and the epic Gallery Cafe store to build another apartment building. The land value in the neighborhood has now dropped by 25%. I had to make a personal call to the owner of the construction company just to save the last trees next to the apartment building. The contractor told me it was not his responsibility as he piled sand and cement onto the trees roots. Why don’t these corporate businessman hire some gardeners to help them think straight?
It’s 2020 and COVID 19 is rampant in the world; the average Sri Lankan is still struggling to make it through the month; who’s going to live in these high rise towers anyways? I remember the last time I saw the candy floss (bombai-motai) man that’s been walking these streets for 30 years. He was standing under a tree (now gone) taking cover from the rain, and he looked at me from the distance and gently rang his bell. It was a tinkle of sadness. And, just like that, I never saw him again. The city and the people’s wants had changed, and only he and I seemed to notice.
I remember when the Blue Ocean tower came up next to the British Council because the humongous mara tree next to Queens cafe died. The dust from constructing these 1980s inspired monolithic structures clearly poisons the air we collectively breathe from; all in the name of development. How did we get to a place where something so grey and boring became synonymous with something so vast and full of life?
Most people living in Colombo don’t even understand where their food, water and oxygen comes from. For all they know it is grown in plastic bags at the back of their local FOOD CITY. Out of sight = out of mind. Our people are still not conscious that Sri Lanka is one of the last places left on Earth where humans still live with animals. Where organic food has been a thing for 2500 years. Where recycling is part of village culture. Where giant lakes were built by noble kings as a hobby. Where sacred peaks were once worshipped, not 1 year old apartment buildings demarcating the destruction of an entire neighborhood of beautiful gardens.
Let’s just say it’s already Too Late for Colombo, Once one of the greenest cities in the world, now completely ruined by gross governmental mismanagement. Right Now the remaining forest lands in Sinharaja, Knuckles and Haputale are quietly being encroached upon by local villagers aided by local politicians for a few 100 dollars. Corporations continue palm oil cultivation and heavy duty quarrying in secrecy. The lungs of this island are becoming clogged by the tar of toxic human dreams. The damage to our commons and future tourism industry will be in the trillions of dollars. Scenic mountain towns like Ella have been ruined in just 3 years by unregulated construction and disastrous waste management. What is the tourism board doing about this nightmare unfolding while they market a beautiful place that no longer exists? The President of Sri Lanka urgently needs to get the STF and NAVY to start protecting our forest and LRC lands. If we do not act with urgency, cash crop farming and resource mining will quickly destroy the few remaining forests that elephants and leopards still roam in.
In 2010, I remember a Sri Lanka full of promise. There’s even a picture of me then pledging allegiance to a poster of our war hero president. I opened my first hotel in 2014, an art and plant filled bed & breakfast in the city inspired by the great tropical modernist architect Geoffery Bawa. As one of the first eco conscious small hotels in Colombo, business was booming and many of us truly believed Sri Lanka had a chance to become a great Asian nation.
Then, in 2015, Sri Lanka’s first major ecological disaster happened, and it went completely unnoticed. A rock wall was built over the surf break in Unawatuna to stop erosion of the beach. It ended up causing more erosion of the beach. The environmental impact (EI) report had clearly not been read by anybody making decisions up top. The loss of the surf break made many of the local surfers turn to drugs as their escape. The rest fell in love, married foreigners and escaped the island. Unawatuna, a quiet sacred village, continued to grow as the first coastal tourism hub since Hikkaduwa despite the changing scenery. The local beach that was considered one of the Top 10 beaches in the world, would soon turn into one of the Worst 10 beaches in the world, all thanks to the illusion of development.
Now in 2020, the soft white coral sand has since been replaced by truckloads of coarse brown deep sea sand and a giant hotel by Dudley Sirisena’s Araliya Group towers above the temple, blocking the view from sunset point for the entire village. It follows a trend of high rise construction on the coastline that began with the Marriott in Weligama that broke many of the islands ancient environmental laws. This is just one of more than 10 new high rise towers coming up along the Southern coastline from Balapitiya to Mirissa that will turn our pristine southern coastline into overpopulated tourist hot zones like those in Thailand or Brazil or Bali. What happened to our tree high building rule? Have Arhat Mahinda Thera’s words finally been forgotten in exchange for a few Chinese-American dollars? Not one of these towers will benefit any of the local population as they are built by large foreign entities and private individuals from Colombo solely for profit with little consideration of the long term environmental impact.
Meanwhile, mega corporations like Cargills, Keells, Arpico and Softlogic continue expanding supermarkets across the country, slowly crushing local farmers markets and riddling the island with single use plastics. Devanampiyatissa and Parakramabahu would be turning in their graves if they saw what the modern Sri Lankan Man was doing to this Ancient Land.
Once again a failed capitalist model of convenience at all cost repeats itself in Sri Lanka, despite the evolution of technology that should have made us aware of late stage capitalism and its side effects. Why have we not switched to a model of ECO socialism or ECO capitalism already? Why do we continue taking giant foreign loans without ecological clauses? Sri Lanka has so much knowledge that could be shared with the world, from Ayurveda (alternative medicine) and tropical architecture to ecological living (with trees) and enlightenment (eastern philosophy). Yet we have let a few ego driven businessman and politicians choose to freely destroy one of the most sacred islands on earth, ripping apart a multi ethnic culture, ignoring the deep true knowledge vested in its peoples. Another sad story dressed up in instagram filters and social media likes.
As I navigate through this mess, crossing paths with the richest industrialists and political families in this small pond, I wonder which of you social media scrollers actually cares about the preservation the last Fountain of Paradise left on Earth?
Some ecological wisdom from the island:
Conversation with Permaculture Forester — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNPlb9I2SVQ
Conversation with Landscape Artist — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWh9k8sNu0c