By Suryamithra Vishwa/DailyFT-Harmony Page
Colombo, October 3: We wake up to it. We nonchalantly pass it on the streets, strewn like the murky entrails of some dangerous pest. We eat on it. We shop through it. Our food is swathed in it. We carry it home. It has been banned but it still lives and thrives. It binds us and blinds us. It is swathed across our eyes like bandages. It has blinded us to the fact that we have used our so called scientific knowledge to be pundits of destruction, killing this planet bit by bit and in the same breath talk of sustainability and climate change in fancy buildings while guzzling water filled up in plastic bottles and use yet another plastic bag while shopping en route to home.
This writer is qualified to write this article without being a ‘sustainability hypocrite’. I use cloth bags or bags made of nature-based material. I reuse whatever plastic bags in the house and take them with my cloth bag when I go to any boutique. Such bags are stored in every bag I use. All bags I use also have a small container to be used for carrying back food in case I buy something at an eatery. At times when it can be managed I take all the bottles and jars where I store rice and dhal, etc., and get them directly filled with what I want to buy at the store.
Of course, I am looked at as if I appeared from outer space and the last time I carried my jars two months ago I was asked by a shop keeper in Kandy ‘Miss Japane Hitiyada?’ I asked him why he thinks I lived in Japan and his response was to the effect that Sri Lankans do not ‘behave like this.’ The result was a 10-minute lecture to him on who we are in this planet; insignificant creatures who will live for a maximum or 100 years who between the time of birth and death have a dire responsibility to respect this one and only home of ours as we do those concrete structures we spend so much of money to build.
The lecture I give almost all shopkeepers is to stop dishing out plastic like toffees and to get someone to make paper bags from old calendars or newspapers. Or just use a paper ‘kadala gotta’ and tie it up with string the way they do still in some village areas, although this practice is dwindling even in these locations. I am told by irate town based shop owners that if they do give paper bags instead of plastic that their business will crash as the blind Sri Lankans that inhabit this beautiful country demand not just one plastic bag but different plastic bags with each and every item! Even an item as small as few pieces of ginger!
How have we come to this state? And what exactly are we saying when we use words like mindfulness, heritage, tradition, culture, eco-friendly and a word that has by now lost its meaning in its entirety; ‘sustainability’?
Sri Lankans CAN be changed
A common refrain I hear from shopkeepers is that ‘Ape minissunwa wenas karanna behe’ (We cannot change our people). This I hear from every district I travel to in Sri Lanka although the blatant use of plastic in the north – especially in Jaffna/Kilinochchi/Mullaitivu is somewhat less. To say that Sri Lankans cannot be changed is ridiculous. It is ridiculous because we have changed over the past 100 years, beginning with the values, traditions and brainwashing of the colonial occupiers who held this country in iron grip and taught us that clay houses means poverty and that many of our indigenous non-harmful knowledge systems such as our Hela Wedakama was ‘non-scientific’ and that to be ‘developed’ was to adopt a lifestyle alien to that of our forefathers. This occurred not just to Sri Lanka but to all indigenous cultures around the world which are today struggling to survive.
We changed to become people who merely talk of ‘sustainability’ often at seminars and conferences sponsored by the same power driven global entities that destroy the climate in this world. We talk the talk of the deluded but also wax eloquent about our culture and traditional knowledge and the need to protect it while we have not put into effect a single policy to remove the label of ‘poverty’ from all that we had which were truly sustainable; one example clay houses which strangely while been seen as a symbol of poverty also at the other extreme represents the opulence of money making through the income generation facilitated by the tourism industry.
When did we learn that living in a clay house was to be ‘poor’? Who taught us this? Why did we believe this? I know a woman who brought up her children to value living in such a house who was forced to build a brick one by getting into enormous debt, because the man who wanted to marry her daughter and his family saw this home as a symbol of abject poverty. Anyone who knows the affect and healing power of clay on the human body will destroy that brick house that was built after so much stress that causes one to have a plethora of illnesses over a lifetime that will finally result in the purse draining at the entrance of a Western medicine hospital in Sri Lanka.
Before I am accused of being a hypocrite and writing about clay houses while living in a brick one, let me mention that I am building a residence using both clay and ancient Lankan methods of using throw away chips of rocks, etc., without the need for cement foundations. Why I had to suffer in the kind of buildings that we have today is because financial institutions operating in this country do not see eye to eye with people wanting financial assistance for this kind of construction.
The same goes for lack of financial policy that will promote, lobby for and help non-biodegradable or environment non-friendly businesses become the opposite. Sky is not the limit for entrepreneurial and business ideas that will be alternatives to plastic or the whole range of environment destroying products we are creating. Yet, do we have a financial and banking policy that supports these?
Most of these ideas may be generated in the villages of this country, especially the village youth, who have not yet been brainwashed by the obsession for modernity that plagues the cities. But village youth struggle daily to get recognition for their ideas or get the needed funds and many stop even before they start. They also struggle with having their ideas stolen by powerful investors who may be beguilingly inviting until they get the full concept and then before the original inventor knows it someone else would have got the patent for his idea. We need stringent policies to protect better the intellectual property of rural inventers.
Wise use of technology is to merge it with the traditional
The wise use of technology is to merge it with the traditional (for example bags that can be made with diverse varieties of leaves, palms, twigs, fruit skin such as banana, cactus, etc.). There are several Lankan entrepreneurs doing it or struggling to continue with such ventures.
In a recent conversation with Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, a Lankan international activist on heritage conservation who among many prestigious related positions in Sri Lanka and the world has also served as a Principal Regional Scientist of the Department of Conservation of New Zealand and at the International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), our theme of conversation was on the value based concept of heritage and the use of it for sustainable development. Sustainable development could be one of the most hackneyed terms we have in this country while we have done nothing to preserve the values that have been passed on to us from generation to generation.
To speak of everyday use based options we had for genuinely promoting sustainability and value based heritage there can be a long list. Yet we have failed to practically conserve, use and promote many of these aspects. We have failed to protect the sustainability based dignity of the bullock cart, the Oru and Paru and our traditional methods of agriculture which recognise that all creatures of this earth are living beings like us. We have failed to protect our traditional medicine system; Deshiya Chikitsa that pre dates Ayurveda.
Speaking of agriculture and values associated with it; the way we did agriculture traditionally we had a value system where a separate small portion of the crop was dedicated to wee Kurullas (if the crop was paddy) and for other crops which may be assailed by other creatures who invade it for survival, we used natural methods through herbs and plants, etc., to create substance which may repel but not kill insects. But today what we eat are the produce of a cremation ground, with the last victim being us; and we have the invasive global chemical agriculture industry to thank for it.
And while we are spending our dwindling national revenue on importing chemical fertiliser we are throwing thousands of tonnes of food as waste every day without thinking of ways that hotels and homes can prevent such waste and direct it as nutrition for humans and for the soil. Ranjit Seneviratne, an engineer, who helped pioneer the resurgence of organic agriculture in Sri Lanka around four decades ago and maintains a forest garden in the heart of Colombo, writing in this page some months ago gave an entire design for a possible invention that an institution such as the Ceylon Municipal Council (CMC) could adopt to collect, transport and transform food waste into ‘food for the earthworms’ which keep the nutrition of the soil healthy.
There is zero garbage from homes of those such as myself, Ranjit Seneviratne and several other Sri Lankans we know. We make bookmarks from toothpaste covers, soap covers and with remnant plastic (such as small food packets). I find ingenious ways to do the same by stringing cloth or beads or whatever to make bookmarks. The waste food we use for our plant growing; both in pots and in the soil, at large and small scale cultivation.
Thus when we use our bare hands to touch the soil to infuse the seeds and plants we want, we are guilt-free and with a clear conscience we can request the earth to give us some produce to feed ourselves. When we walk under the vast sky we can tell the wind that greets us that we are guilt free of ruining this earth.
However one of the eternal non ending mental tortures for us begin the minute we step into any shop, (including those fancy stores that proclaim sustainability but do little to promote it). Despite being a vegan and never ever needing a doctor, my blood pressure soars to dangerous heights to witness the rampant, non-thinking, careless use of plastic by consumers and shopkeepers. But the use of non-biodegradable products are not limited to plastic. They are everywhere; as toys, as shampoo bottles, as toothpaste covers; as plastic bottles and jars and furniture.
Is not there another way for living?
Is not there another way for living? Can’t the manufacturers of shampoo see to it that it is available in containers that have a tap attached to it (like they have attached to Gurulethuwas or water filters) so that the person purchasing it can bring their own bottle and pay according to the amount of substance bought? Cannot the same be done with toothpaste? (Meanwhile I do know several Sri Lankans and Indians who do not use any toothpaste but use the Neem (Kohomba twig) to clean their teeth and having pearly white teeth although some of them are over 70 years of age).
Cannot old tyres be transformed into floor cushions to sit on? Cannot we help maintain the local mat weaving skill and industry and ditch spending lakhs of rupees on expensive furniture? Cannot we use mats in homes/schools (thus training ourselves to save unnecessary spending at gyms or fancy exercising equipment because we would have had enough exercise per day by just sitting and getting up!). Once again this writer cannot be accused of hypocrisy. I have only four chairs and five stools to sit on (and that too because I maintain a library which has been opened up to the public, especially scholars unused to mat sitting). The rest of the premises has traditional mats which I use for sitting on (for reading/eating and computer work) and sleeping upon. Thus I never have the need to see ‘exercise’ as something separate to my everyday life.
I and a few others I know do not have any of the modern kitchen gadgets but those used traditionally. Instead of a water filter there is a Kalagediya into which we put charcoal to clean the water (charcoal is traditionally put into wells) as a water purifier. There are no plastic mats but coir. There are several of us that live this lifestyle but we are a minority. It is our collective wish that sustainability and value based heritage become an everyday practiced reality in this country and we believe that what makes it a reality are the following; 1. Individual and collective action. 2. Wise policy making and stringent policy implementation.
3. A changed education system where parents/teachers/children are taught to respect, use and infuse their sustainability based traditional knowledge/values into their everyday life.
Photo: Shehan Gunasekara