Lessons from another island

I spent four weeks in Sri Lanka during November 2003. It was a time for learning and I think some of the things I learnt there are important lessons for Taiwan.

There are a number of geographic similarities between Taiwan and Sri Lanka. They are both island nations situated close to larger and more politically powerful neighbours and both have a population of around 20 million people. They are also both quite mountainous and are famous for producing tea. Sri Lanka's area is about twice that of Taiwan though. There are some other significant differences too. While Taiwan is highly urbanised and industrialised, Sri Lanka is still a mostly agrarian society. With the exception of Colombo it has no large cities.

My most distinct memory of Sri Lanka is the extraordinary abundance of wildlife. A stunning variety of mammals, birds and reptiles can be seen almost everywhere, even in the middle of towns. It is quite easy to view many of the animals at surprisingly close distances. The wildlife in Sri Lanka is not really all that wild! Sri Lanka has a strong tradition of nature conservation rooted in its Buddhist culture. Some may be surprised to learn that the world's first wildlife reserves were established in Sri Lanka over two thousand years ago.

While in Sri Lanka I spent 12 days doing a Permaculture Design Certificate course. The course was held on a farm near Tanamalwila in the south of Sri Lanka. The farm borders a national park so the wildlife there was particularly plentiful. Elephants occassionally came onto the farm at night. I never saw one, but I did see some footprints the next morning just 100 metres from where I was sleeping. I also saw a two metre long crocodile in a dam on the farm. I wasn't game to go swimming after that!

The farm was an ideal place to learn about permaculture. It is being developed by Sarvodaya, the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, and the Global Ecovillage Network as an educational centre where people can come to learn about permaculture, ecovillages and sustainable living.

It is easy to think that permaculture is of little relevance to Taiwan but this is not true. Permaculture is about seeing solutions instead of problems; it is about seeing the grass growing through the cracks in the concrete rather than the concrete. It is in many ways even more applicable in urban environments than it is in rural areas.

The most important lesson Taiwan can learn from Sri Lanka is that people and nature can happily co-exist together. They don't need to be partitioned off from each other by vast quantities of concrete.

* I wrote this article after attending a permaculture design course organised by EcoLogical Solutions in Sri Lanka in November 2003.