Between conducting research, attending events, and teaching an online class, my schedule in Sri Lanka has been pretty packed. But I knew that if I wanted to see the country and not just the inside of coffee shops in Colombo I would have to get out and leave my laptop behind. Given that my time here was drawing to a close, I decided to embark on a trip around what is commonly referred to as Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, an interior portion of the country with great historical significance, ancient ruins of political and religious import, and quintessentially Sri Lankan excursions. The plan I hatched would take me in clockwise fashion from Colombo to Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya and Dambulla to Kandy to Ella and back to Colombo.
The first leg of my journey ran from Colombo to Anuradhapura by train (450 Rs for 2nd-class reserved). I arrived in the late afternoon and traveled by tuk tuk to Hotel White House. The next morning I ventured by trishaw to the Sacred City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Ceylon featuring numerous Buddhist monasteries and royal palaces. As I was exploring on the Sunday following the Esala Full Moon Poya Day, the atmosphere was particularly festive, with Sri Lankans dressed in white descending upon the religious sites and small vendors seizing upon the commercial opportunities presented by the large crowds. Tickets for foreigners cost a whopping 3850 Rs (roughly $25 USD). The ruins were quite scattered across a large area, so I would recommend renting a bicycle (600 Rs) in order to cover the extensive grounds.
Later that day I set out for Polonnaruwa via the bus from Anuradhapura to Kaduruwela (160 Rs). As soon as I had arrived at my next accommodations, Thisal Guest House, I was asked by the manager if I wanted to join the party already geared up in the jeep for an afternoon elephant safari at Kaudulla National Park (6500 Rs). I'm glad I did. Our group got to see dozens of elephants grazing, walking in herds, and communicating across the marshy scrub lands. Our guide took us to Kaudulla and not the more popular Minneriya National Park because of the rampant elephant abuse that occurs in the latter, where animals are routinely surrounded by vehicles, occasionally causing them to charge at safari-goers out of fear and frustration.
The next day, having learned from my logistical blunder in Anuradhapura, I opted to rent a bicycle (300 Rs) to canvas the many Buddhist and Hindu temples of Sri Lanka's second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. Again, tickets for foreigners were 3850 Rs. In my opinion, the historical sites here were far better in quality than those I visited in A'pura. The Archaeological Museum, located on the lake side of the road opposite the ruins, offered a comprehensive overview of how religion influenced the architecture of the monuments. Admission was included in the price of the ticket.
The following morning I took a tuk to the bus station, where I hopped aboard a bus headed to Inamaluwa (90 Rs), a city just outside my next destination- Sigiriya. After some convincing I agreed to take a tuk to Hotel Sigiriya, my resting place for the next two days. I awoke the next day at 6am in order to beat the crowd that had come to ascend the famous Lion Rock, an ancient rock fortress notable for its palatial ruins and magnificent views from the top of the formation. The price of a ticket for entry to this cultural site was a stunning 4620 Rs (about $30 USD) for foreigners. I began the climb at 7:30am and reached the top just before 8am. It was more arduous than I was expecting, even at that time of day, but the views made it all worth while. For those planning on making the trek to the top of Lion Rock, start out as early as possible and bring plenty of water.
After walking back to the hotel and resting for a bit, I arranged for a tuk driver to pick me up and bring me to nearby Dambulla to explore the Rock Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. After paying the admission price of 1500 Rs and storing my shoes at a small depository (25 Rs for the service), I entered the series of conjoined sanctuaries carved into the side of a large sloping hill. The temples were remarkable for the sheer quantity and size of religious statues, of which there are over 150. This temple-cave complex is unlike anything else in Sri Lanka, so it's a must-see for anyone who has already visited other Buddhist sites throughout the country.
The next stage of my journey involved an early morning tuk ride to the bus station in Dambulla, where I caught bus 45 to Kandy (100 Rs), the last of the great Sinhalese kingdoms and a UNESCO World Heritage City. Shortly upon checking into Hotel Suisse, a colonial-style property with a history dating back to the 17th century, I embarked to Helga's Folly, the most eclectic, artsy hotel-restaurant-gallery this side of the Indian Ocean. There I had lunch with Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka Robert Hilton, several Sri Lankan and U.S. Fulbright alum, and Embassy staff. We talked about our experiences in Sri Lanka, the various illnesses we've contracted, and, of course, politics. If you happen to make it to Helga's Folly, come for the food, but stay for the schizophrenic interior.
Later after resting back at the hotel I secured a tuk and followed the contour of Kandy Lake to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (known in Sinhala as Sri Dalada Maligawa). Fortunately, I arrived about 30 minutes before one of the three daily services was scheduled to take place (5:30am, 9:30am, and 6:30pm). I passed effortlessly through security, left my shoes with the depository (30 Rs upon pickup), and purchased a ticket to the temple and the adjacent World Buddhist Museum (1500 Rs). The interior of the temple featured a grand display of spectacularly ornate ancient architecture and golden decorations, religious iconography, and historical information. According to Sri Lankan lore, after the Buddha was cremated a lone tooth of his was saved. The tooth was brought from India to Sri Lanka, where it now resides. Once a year the tooth is paraded in its casket around the city during the festival of Esala Perahera, which occurs in July/August.
On my second day in Kandy as a tourist I ordered a tuk using PickMe (Sri Lanka's version of Uber or Lyft) and made my way to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. I bought a ticket at the front entrance (1500 Rs) and proceeded to traverse the grounds, which span 147 acres. My favorite attractions were the Orchid House, palm avenues, and Great Lawn, home to a massive Java Fig Tree. I spent about 1.5 hours at the gardens, a total that includes time devoted to helping Sri Lankan students on a field trip practice their English language skills. Following this floral jaunt I took the bus (17 Rs) to the Central Market, where I surveyed the fruits and fish of local merchants on the ground floor of the building and purchased wooden and cloth souvenirs from vendors on the second floor. Everything from spices to leather goods to batiks to carved elephant figurines can be found here at reasonable prices.
Early the next morning I grabbed breakfast at the hotel, settled my bill, and arranged a PickMe tuk for transport to the Kandy Railway Station. For this portion of my trip, the journey was the attraction. The train ride between Kandy and Ella is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The ride normally takes about 7 hours, but due to some railroad maintenance we had to alight at Hatton, take a bus to Kotagala, and continue on a different train to our final destination. Despite the detour, the train ride was every bit as scenic and majestic as I had imagined. Cool air whipped in our faces as we sped through lush tea plantations, miles of symmetrically grown manicured rows delineating the rolling landscape. Photographs and videos were shot. Breath was taken.
I arrived in Ella after dark. This was not ideal, as my phone was dying and I didn't know exactly where my hotel was located. Nevertheless, my stroll down Wellawaya-Ella-Kumbalwela Highway was illuminating in its own right. Ella is a unique place. It feels like a Bohemian jungle ski bum town with gregarious restaurant hosts, tattoo parlors, tea shops, and outdoor adventure companies. It's tidier than Kathmandu, Nepal but rougher around the edges than Queenstown, New Zealand. The town exudes a funky spirit unlike any place else I have encountered in Sri Lanka. Luckily I obtained the assistance of an employee at a nearby hotel who called Leisure Dream Inn, where I was staying for the night, and arranged for the hotel manager to meet me on the highway. Once I walked up the hidden hill to the hotel, I dropped my things off and got a tuk into town, where I ate a high brow take on fish and chips at the woodsy and raucous Cafe Chill.
The last morning of my trip around the cultural triangle began with fresh coffee and a glorious sunrise emerging from behind Little Adam's Peak. The hotel manager also packed me a take-away breakfast consisting of rolled up yellow pancakes and scrambled egg sandwiches made by his mother. One free hotel-provided tuk ride later, I was back at Ella Railway Station in advance of my 6:49am train back to Colombo. The railroad issue still unresolved, I had to get off at Kotagala, take a tuk to Hatton, and board another train to continue on my way. However, the 12-hour return trip was supremely enjoyable, as I got to retrace my path from the previous day, at an earlier time. Eventually I got off when our train arrived at the Maradana station (the one right before Colombo Fort), and used PickMe to catch a tuk back to my Airbnb in Colombo 5. Thus concluded my 9-day whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka's cultural triangle.
Probably the most important advice that any of the staff at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission gave our group of Fulbrighters during the pre-departure orientation in Washington, D.C. was "be flexible." It may sound obvious, but it applies to many aspects of conducting research abroad. In this post, I'll address two areas where adopting a flexible approach proved useful- the aim of the research project and the site where the researcher is stationed. By being flexible, I was able to change my project from one that was going to be difficult to one that was actually possible, and I relocated from Kandy, where I had an affiliation with the University of Peradeniya, to Colombo, where the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) is located.
The nature of my research project completely changed before I had even left D.C. My initial idea was to study public participation in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process by analyzing 3 case studies involving major development projects. N.C. Weerakkody had already written a terrific overview of public participation in EIAs in Sri Lanka, but I intended to do an updated and more fine-grained analysis.
To expand my network and seek the advice of experts in preparation for my project, I arranged meetings with people working for organizations that dealt with Sri Lanka- Bower Group Asia (BGA), National Democratic Institute (NDI), and World Resources Institute (WRI). During the course of those meetings, the general consensus emerged that I would not be in Sri Lanka long enough to gain the trust of villagers affected by large development projects and interview them with the expectation of getting honest and thorough responses. The term of my Fulbright contract was 3.5 months. I would need to be there longer in order to complete my intended project. Thankfully, the creative folks at NDI came up with a slightly different, but achievable endeavor- to assess whether the quality of an EIA varies depending on who funds a given project. Just like that, I altered my plan from case studies and interviews to archival research and quantitative analysis.
With my new project in mind, I planned on being based in Kandy, which was close to the University of Peradeniya. The previous head of the Geography Department, Prof. P. Wickramagamage, had big plans for me- teach 2 undergraduate courses and provide guest lectures in a couple seminars. However, between the time that I had applied for the Fulbright in 2015 and my eventual arrival in 2017, the Department changed hands to Prof. M.A.S. Jayakumara, who was key in writing a letter on my behalf to officials at CEA so that I could make use of their library, but who also didn't have the same kind of teaching commitments in mind (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing since I decided to teach an online course while abroad).
After spending 2 weeks in Kandy, I decided to travel to Colombo for a week so I could try and obtain the EIA reports I needed at CEA, which is located in the Battaramulla area. In only a few days time I realized that this was the place I needed to be. Colombo had the CEA, numerous think tanks, and educational institutions like the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Centre for Environmental Justice, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, and University of Colombo. So, after returning to Kandy I decided I would permanently change venues to Colombo, where I will continue to reside until the end of my Fulbright grant in mid-August. Right now I live in an Airbnb in the neighborhood of Ethul Kotte, directly east of Colombo, in my sixth different residence since I arrived in Sri Lanka on May 3rd.
In both of these instances, the capacity for flexibility paid major dividends. I am now pursuing a project along with a Sri Lankan scholar, Dr. Herath Vidyaratne, that I am confident about, and I am based in an area that has numerous opportunities for research, intellectual stimulation, and, importantly, diverse food options. When conducting research abroad, it is crucial to realize that your plans may change for reasons outside your control and you should be prepared for such eventualities. Staying flexible is a way to still get your research done while not winding up jaded or disappointed that your best scholarly intentions did not materialize into the outcomes you had hoped for.
My Fulbright research project was inspired by an article I read in the New York Times back in July 24, 2015: "China's Global Ambitions, Cash and Strings Attached." I had recently returned to the US from my first visit to mainland China, specifically Xi'an, where I taught international relations at Shaanxi Normal University. My research up to that point had focused on countries in South Asia, namely Nepal and Sri Lanka. But my trip exposed me to the sheer immensity and impressive speed of China's domestic development. Forget "everything is bigger in Texas." China made Texas look like Rhode Island. But it wasn't until I read this NYT article that I began to ponder China's role in the development of other countries.
There are basically two schools of thought regarding the intentions and impacts that so-called emerging donors like China, India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have on other developing states. One camp argues that emerging donors have nefarious designs on exploiting their fellow industrializing nations. These skeptics contend that emerging donors use some of their newfound wealth to fund development projects abroad that are primarily intended to benefit the lending country through the cultivation of new markets for exporting goods, acquisition of natural resources for manufacturing and energy, and extension of political spheres of influence. Unlike traditional donors such as the US, World Bank, Japan, France, Germany, and the UK, these new actors on the scene do not impose strict human rights, labor, rule of law, or environmental standards on recipient states, thus enabling anti-democratic governments and retarding progress toward Western conceptions of development (Naím 2009).
The other camp argues that claims of ill intentions and attempts to subvert democratization on the behalf of these emerging donors are overblown. China, for example, does not have a readily identifiable development assistance reform package like the Washington Consensus model that prescribed specific institutional and economic changes that countries would need to undertake in order to obtain funding from traditional donors. Some have even declared the idea that a separate "Beijing Consensus" (Ramo 2004) exists a "myth" (Kennedy 2010). Furthermore, empirical scholarship on the relationship between political factors and aid distribution has demonstrated that China is no more likely than Western donors to steer money toward countries based on their politics, and the Asian giant does not deliberately invest in countries based on their availability of natural resources (Dreher and Fuchs 2015; Gellers 2017).
Among emerging donors, China has grown to become a force on the world stage. In 2011, China overtook the World Bank to become the largest lender to developing countries in the world. Interestingly, however, China has a long history of working with or lending to other less-industrialized states. For instance, China has provided development assistance to other countries since 1950, and its approach to foreign aid (i.e. mutual benefit, respect for sovereignty, and self-reliance), was articulated by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1964.
The Sino-Sri Lankan relationship dates back to 1952, when China signed its first trade agreement with a non-communist state, Ceylon (the previous name for Sri Lanka). This Sino-Lanka Rubber Rice Pact signaled the beginning of an important economic partnership in Asia. Today, China is the largest lender to Sri Lanka. In 2016, China loaned Sri Lanka over $440 million, $100 million more than the World Bank and almost $300 million more than the next largest lender, Japan (see below).
Returning to the island in 2017 after a 4 year absence, I have observed signs of growing Chinese influence. As shown in the photos above, China is deeply involved in the development of large infrastructure projects and increasing business opportunities for Chinese living in Sri Lanka. My own research on environmental impact assessments has revealed Chinese funding for road construction, hydropower, and real estate development, most notably the controversial Colombo Port City project. It remains an open question as to what kinds of social, environmental, and economic consequences China's financial stake in Sri Lanka might have. While some believe Chinese investment is "crucial" to the country's development, others ponder whether reliance on Chinese loans will lead to unsustainable debt and land grabs. Only through further research and careful monitoring of impacts will Sri Lankans be able to determine whether and to what extent the 65-year-old Sino-Lankan relationship bears the fruits of improved living and economic conditions that can be enjoyed by all.
One of my first days in Sri Lanka, I walked outside the house where I was staying in the Heerassagala neighborhood of Kandy. Instantly my nostrils were hit with an unusual and noxious odor. A musty smell filled the air and I felt a slight stinging in my lungs. Then I beheld the source of this odious aroma- a white plume of smoke emanating from my neighbor's home. Like many other Sri Lankans, my neighbor was resorting to burning his trash in a cement pit an effort to get rid of it. This was my baptism by fire, my rude introduction to Sri Lanka's waste management problem.
According to the Waste Management Authority of the Western Province, this region of Sri Lanka occupies less than 6% of the island, but is responsible for 60% of the waste generated. Perhaps more importantly, 35% of waste is not collected at all, and in a survey conducted for an environmental impact assessment report in 2012, 96% of the respondents admitted to burning their waste. Such practices have deleterious impacts on humans and the environment, as burning trash produces harmful gases that are released into the atmosphere. These gases can negatively impact human health and contribute to climate change.
Sri Lanka's inability to adequately collect, process, and reduce waste made national headlines recently when a waste dump in Colombo collapsed, killing at least 28 people. This catastrophe was aggravated by several related issues- unsafe housing conditions, unjust exposure to environmental harms, the slow crawl or deliberate malfeasance of bureaucracy. It gave a black eye to the island nation and, more tragically, the loss of life was completely avoidable.
What are the causes of this environmental dilemma? According to G. Kumanayake (2013), the culprits are many and varied: inefficient local governments, poor strategizing at the national level, insufficient funding, the spread of low-income settlements in urban areas, market forces that introduce cheap and unsustainable products, lack of environmental health and safety practices among waste collectors, old technology, and limited land for waste disposal.
It's not as if Sri Lanka doesn't have laws and policies dealing with waste management on the books. Relevant regulations have been stipulated in the Local Government Act (delegating waste management responsibilities to local authorities), National Strategy for Solid Waste Management (providing a roadmap for solid waste management at the national level), and Technical Guidelines on Solid Waste Management in Sri Lanka (offering technical guidance for managing solid waste in municipalities), among others. But laws and policies are only as effective as the resources and effort directed toward their implementation. As Bandara (2011) argues, the evidence thus far suggests that Sri Lanka has a long way to go in terms of properly enforcing its "chaotic" regulatory framework.
How can Sri Lanka address its waste management crisis? Here are a few recommendations. First, the duties and obligations of the local and national authorities should be clearly specified in relevant legislation so that there is no overlap in responsibilities or buck-passing (van Zon & Siriwardena 2000). Second, the recycling industry should be formalized and informal collectors should receive training in order to help them earn higher wages and improve coordination at local and national levels (Hikkaduwa et al. 2015). Third, the national government should commit enhanced financial resources toward the purchase of new waste collection vehicles and subsidize solid waste management at the local level (JICA 2016) by supplying bins and trash bags at no cost to Sri Lankans (Bandara 2011). Fourth, civil society and government actors should work together to promote composting organic material, which could be used for energy (via biogas digesters) or fertilizer (Kumanayake 2013).
Through strengthening cooperation among varying levels of government, committing financial and logistical resources to the implementation of environmentally-friendly waste management practices, and raising awareness about the importance of proper waste disposal techniques, Sri Lanka can make serious strides toward alleviating its waste management problem, creating a more hospitable environment for the attainment of development that is truly "sustainable."
The above Facebook post, written as a reflection upon a recent experience involving my negotiating the price for a service, drew both approbation and admonishment from my friends. Given the controversial nature of the discussion, I felt it was worthy of further explication. My point here is to elucidate the context under which this exchange occurred and describe how foreigners can respectfully navigate monetary transactions in the developing world, especially Sri Lanka.
This is Salon Sriyani. It's located just south of where I am staying this month, along a busy commercial stretch called Kotte Road in the Ethul Kotte neighborhood. Last week on a lark I came to this establishment for a haircut. It was around 7pm. There was one barber working on the only client in the place. The interior, as seen in the photo above, is spare, with concrete floors and plastic chairs. This is a local mom-and-pop hair salon. I waited a few minutes for the barber to finish his current job, and then it was my turn in the seat. The barber gave great attention to cutting my hair, confirmed with me the kind of clipper attachment I wanted used on the back of my head, and asked whether I wanted my beard trimmed as well (I hadn't shaved in months). After sculpting the edges of my hairline with a fresh razor blade (though unaccompanied by the use of hot shaving lather or any other lubricant), the barber finished his work and it came time to pay. I asked him how much I owed him. Without hesitation, he replied 150 Rs (roughly $1 USD). I did not argue. I told him I would be back and I did return, several days later.
The second time I came to Salon Sriyani, it was just after 5pm. The door was open, but the lights were off. As I entered the shop, I noticed the barber, fast asleep in a plank-like position in one of the plastic chairs. I worried about startling him, so I gently lifted one of the plastic chairs and tapped it lightly against the concrete floor. The barber awoke from his slumber. I asked him if he would be willing to trim my beard, which, aside from bestowing upon me a kind of caveman-like appearance, had become unmanageable. He agreed. Just like before he asked what kind of clippers I would like used. We concurred that a number 2 clipper attachment would be suitable for the occasion. Five minutes later, the task was done. I looked less like a vagrant and more like a rugged scholar. Then I asked the barber how much I needed to pay for the service. At this point an old man with wiry gray hair who had been lingering outside appeared in the salon. The barber conversed with the old man briefly in Sinhalese, and then reported the price- 150 Rs.
In that moment, I thought strictly in terms of how much I had paid for a full haircut and how much effort went into my beard trim. Without concerning myself with the exchange rate, I explained to both men how several days before I had paid 150 Rs for a haircut at that very salon. They deliberated again in Sinhalese and settled on 100 Rs. I gladly paid the charge and told the barber that I would definitely be back in the future. I showed the barber that his salon was listed on Swarm, a geo-mapping mobile app used to record the places you visit, and went on my way.
Given the level of criticism generated from my recounting this affair on Facebook, I thought about other experiences I have had in Sri Lanka and asked my Airbnb host, Channa, about what had transpired and whether, from the perspective of a native Sri Lankan, what I had done was improper. To begin, it is not at all uncommon throughout the developing world to have foreigners and locals pay different prices for the exact same goods or services. As a personal example, early on in my trip I went hiking with a friend to Mini World's End near Hunnasgiriya. In order to hike this trail, my friend and I had to purchase tickets at the Knuckles Conservation Centre. Tickets for foreigners are 662 Rs. Tickets for Sri Lankan school children are 5 Rs. I remember paying "foreigner" rates to visit cultural attractions elsewhere in Asia, such as the Swayambhunath Monkey Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, and the Jing'an Temple in Shanghai. However, this situation was a little different. I was paying a private individual for a service.
I asked Channa what he thought about the issue. My gracious host explained to me how for services in Sri Lanka, there is often a price for locals and a different price for foreigners. These prices should ideally be fixed, so all parties know how much they are expected to pay. When you go to a major grocery store in Sri Lanka, for example, all items have the price clearly marked on the product. Channa remarked that the very fact that there was a discussion about how much I should be charged for the service suggests that the price was not fixed, and the fact that the barber immediately agreed to charge me the slightly lower price of 100 Rs indicates that I was initially given an inflated price.
The point of this post was to give more context to this recent event and offer some cultural insight as well. In a marketplace in which prices are fluid, travelers should be prepared to counter initial price quotes, as they may very well be inflated for foreigners. A larger point is that as an obvious foreigner living in the developing world, you have to become your own advocate. I have personally found myself having to advocate for myself more often out here in Sri Lanka than back home in the US. I have had to challenge doctors' assessments of my medical issues and their proposed treatment plans; I have had to yell from the back of a bus that we were approaching my stop so that I could make my way toward the front of the bus in time to exit at my desired location; and I have had to negotiate fares with trishaw drivers in Kandy who do not have meters and charge foreigners significantly inflated prices. This doesn't mean that the people in Sri Lanka are bad or only looking to swindle hapless Americans. It means you have to be a little more on guard than usual, and know when it is appropriate to negotiate the price of goods and services.
As Rabbi Hillel once asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?" Perhaps by asking these questions and contemplating the context surrounding the actions of all parties involved, we can arrive at a greater mutual understanding in places with vastly different cultures and practices.
One of the things that amazes me on a daily basis here in Sri Lanka is the sheer diversity of (and proximity to) wildlife. In order to demonstrate what I mean, I thought I would share two of my favorite animals that I have encountered along Kandy Lake. First, there are numerous toque macaques (left) traveling in troops and hanging out in nearby trees. These monkeys are quite familiar with humans, and are unafraid to greet you as you approach. They have reddish-brown hair and are noted for their oddly coiffed hair. Next, you can find water monitors (right) gliding up against the edge of the lake, emerging to crawl on the muddy banks. To be honest, the first time I saw one of these large lizards I thought it might be a baby crocodile. But upon further inspection I noticed the patterned skin, small, angular head, and wide body, and knew this had to be something else. The water monitor is the second largest lizard in the world, smaller only than the behemoth Komodo dragon. I usually observed these lizards in the late morning as I traversed the edge of the lake. Adults often swam around alone while the young stayed close to their protective mothers. These are but two examples of the kinds of animals you may find yourself shockingly close by when you visit Kandy Lake.
The beginning of my trip coincided with a religious holiday known as Vesak, which falls on the night of a full moon during the month of May. Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, and this year the country was the global epicenter of a UN-sanctioned celebration commemorating the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha. The holiday kicked off in Colombo and the ceremony came to a close in Kandy. At night, the streets of Kandy were aglow with fantastically ornate lanterns called Vesak koodu. Their lighting represents an offering to Buddha. Some came in colors while others rotated on contraptions made of bicycle wheels. Of particular note was the gigantic electric neon display from which Buddhist chants echoed into the damp night. In addition, people lined the side of the roads to give away free food and drink to those passing through in accordance with the practice of alms giving. However, alcohol is not permitted during this occasion. The artisanship and generosity observed during Vesak were truly something to behold.
Welcome! I am reviving my blog to bring a refreshed look at one of the most interesting and understudied countries in the world- Sri Lanka. I previously came to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, back in 2013 in order to conduct the second leg of field work for my doctoral dissertation on constitutional environmental rights. This time I have returned to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was formally known until 1972) on a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar grant to study the environmental impacts assessments (EIAs) of development projects. In particular, I will be evaluating whether, and to what extent, the quality of these reports varies depending on who funds a given project (i.e. emerging donors like China, India, and Iran, or traditional donors like the U.S., Japan, and World Bank).
I am stationed primarily in Kandy, which is located in the Central Province, because I have an affiliation with the Department of Geography at the University of Peradeniya. I will also be making occasional trips to Colombo, located in the Western Province, so that I can conduct archival research at the library of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), which is Sri Lanka's equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reading my previous posts, I'm shocked by how long and detailed they were! This time around, however, my posts will focus briefly on one aspect of life in Sri Lanka. For this first post, I want to highlight transportation. The images below depict my primary means of getting around in Kandy- public buses.
The national and local bus systems are surprisingly extensive and, compared to Western standards, very inexpensive. I regularly take the Bowalawatta bus from my temporary housing in the Heerassagala neighborhood to the downtown area of Kandy. This ride takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes depending on the time of day and traffic, and costs 24 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) each way, about $0.16 in U.S. Dollars (USD). The current exchange rate is approximately 152 LKR for $1 USD (for a helpful currency exchange tool, check out XE Currency Converter). As you can see from the photo on the right side, the buses are lavishly decorated with cultural and religious (mainly Buddhist) items. Some buses have televisions at the front that display movies, advertisements, or music videos. Others play Sri Lankan music over separated speaker systems affixed to luggage racks near the ceiling. The doors to the bus usually remain open throughout the drive, allowing people to jump on or off haphazardly. It is not uncommon to see people boarding the bus while it is in motion (this has happened to me a couple times so far!).
What I find most interesting, however, is the system by which bus fare is collected. Every bus has a driver (who sits on the right side and drives on the left side of the road, a relic of British colonial influence) and at least one fare taker. If you get on the bus at the beginning of the route, you might be surprised to find that no one immediately asks for your bus fare. It isn't until a certain location or critical mass is reached that the fare taker inquires as to your final destination and informs you what your fare will be. This is not a strict process with consistent fares. For instance, I have paid 20, 24, and 25 LKR to travel the exact same distance on the Bowalawatta bus. When I pay 25 LKR, I do not get change back, even if the fare is 24 LKR. This is just how the fare takers seem to operate (at least with respect to foreigners). The fare takers keep mental record of every single person who gets on and off the bus, and they regularly squeeze up and down the aisle to collect fares from new passengers. Sometimes the fare taker writes down the transaction in a journal of sorts and tears off a receipt for the passenger. Other times the fare taker is equipped with a wrist-bound digital receipt machine, which prints out the receipt. I would be interested to know about the efficiency of this system. More specifically, I am curious as to whether rendering the fare taker obsolete by installing an automated bus fare machine like those in U.S. buses is more or less economical than maintaining a staff of manual fare takers. Are the wages of the fare takers detracting from the wages of the drivers? What would be the social cost of installing automated bus fare machines, thus resulting in significant job losses? Is the bus fare taker a likely casualty along the road to sustainable development? What are your thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments section below!
In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued a report, Our Common Future, which has become iconic for defining sustainable development, a component of the broader concept of “sustainability.” It announced to the world that to develop in a “sustainable” fashion meant that countries had to “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since that time, principles of sustainability have been integrated into virtually every aspect of life around every corner of the globe. In fact, “’sustainability’ has emerged as a universal methodology for evaluating whether human options will yield social and environmental vitality.” While many concerns persist regarding how sustainability should inform our current practices, its imprint on modern society is unmistakable. In this article, I briefly trace the history of sustainability in international law, explain how sustainability has affected business, and discuss how sustainability can help Sri Lanka adapt to this dynamic context in which the human impact on the environment can no longer be ignored.
Although the legal foundations for sustainability can be traced at least as far back as the 1300s, it is most often associated with five watershed moments in contemporary international environmental law. In 1972, the Stockholm Declaration, a major output of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, “represented a first taking stock of the global human impact on the environment, an attempt at forging a basic common outlook on how to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment.” Less than a decade later, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) published its World Conservation Strategy (WCS), which signaled “a fundamental policy change for the international conservation movement” and served as the first official document at the international level to mention sustainable development. The WCS argued that development which is sustainable “must take account of social and ecological factors, as well as economic ones; of the living and non-living resource base; and of the long term as well as the short term advantages and disadvantages of alternative actions.”
In 1983, the UN adopted the World Charter for Nature, which emphasized the need to use natural resources in a way that preserves “species and ecosystems for the benefit of future generations.” While the Charter is unenforceable as a matter of international law, an analysis of the document’s history finds that “most developing nations accept the underlying premise of the Charter: the global environment needs substantive and procedural protection from the adverse impacts of social and economic development.” As mentioned earlier, Our Common Future, the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, delivered a definition of the phrase “sustainable development” that is now widely accepted around the world. Finally, twenty years after the Stockholm Declaration, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the ‘Earth Summit’) produced the Rio Declaration, an international proclamation consisting of twenty-seven principles urging countries to “protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system.” While not binding on its signatories, the Rio Declaration recognized the inextricable link between environmental protection and development. Together, these instruments comprise the basis for sustainability in international environmental law.
In the two decades since the adoption of the Rio Declaration, sustainability has grown increasingly important within the world of business. In particular, the sustainability movement has prompted the private sector to shift away from the traditional profit-oriented bottom line approach to cost accounting to a more holistic “triple bottom line” perspective which encompasses economic, environmental, and social dimensions of business activity. The emphasis placed on measuring corporate performance in terms of people, planet, and profit has been manifested in various ways: the publication of corporate social responsibility reports, the founding of organizations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the establishment of international standards for environmental management like the ISO 14000 series, the development of green building guidelines under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the expansion of educational programs in sustainable business (i.e. “Green MBAs”).
To be sure, sustainability cannot be achieved unless businesses take action to address their environmental and social impacts. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project Global 500 Climate Change Report 2013, “ of the world’s 500 largest companies are responsible for nearly three quarters of the group’s 3.6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” However, the 50 largest emitters have actually increased their emissions since 2009. At the same time, Deloitte’s 2010 multi-industry survey of 48 executives “highlights a clear recognition…of the importance of sustainability to the future of their businesses.” Although these findings suggest a gap between practice and awareness among business leaders, “sustainability is increasingly being seen as a source of innovation and growth rather than simply cost reduction and risk management.” While the private sector is faced with the challenge of operating in a world affected by complex drivers such as climate change, deforestation, and population growth, the transition to a sustainable economy can be smoothed by sharing and adopting best practices, establishing partnerships with government and civil society, and improving the monitoring and measurement of business activities through the use of new metrics. Ultimately, economic, environmental, and social goals in business are not mutually exclusive. As Harvard Business School professor Forest L. Reinhardt argues regarding the relationship between corporate environmental policy and business strategy, “[t]he key to success may depend on how the challenges are approached.”
What kinds of challenges lie ahead for Sri Lanka in its pursuit of sustainable development? Waste management presents a serious issue. Of the 6,400 tons of waste produced each day in Sri Lanka, over half of the refuse winds up being “dumped in roadsides, water bodies, and low lands, causing serious health and environmental threats.” Heavy rains and extended droughts due to climate change may threaten the tea industry, “Sri Lanka’s main net foreign exchange earner and source of income for the majority of laborers.” Deforestation, one of Sri Lanka’s “major environmental problems,” has resulted in a 56% reduction in the country’s forest cover from the beginning of the 20th century up until 1994. Diminished forest cover can hold negative consequences for biodiversity, ecotourism, indigenous communities, and pollution mitigation. These are only a few of the concerns which Sri Lankans must confront.
Implementing a sustainability approach to Sri Lanka’s development can help address these pressing issues. The Greening Sri Lanka Hotels programme offers a case in point. The hotel industry in Sri Lanka consumes 4-5% of the country’s electricity, 50% of which is used to provide air conditioning. Examining hotel operations through the lens of sustainability, it was determined that the industry could reduce its energy consumption, waste production, and water use by 20%. By establishing guidelines for best practices, engaging in transparent data collection, and maintaining project monitoring, the programme is demonstrating that, in addition to reducing the sector’s negative impacts on the environment, “adopting good ‘green practices’ is not only vital for operational cost management and profitability enhancement, but also…a good marketing tool.”
Businesses throughout the developing world, especially in places like India, are embracing sustainability with the same enthusiasm and sophistication seen in the West. While this trend may surprise some, countries of all income levels face similar issues—depleting natural resources, rising energy costs, and an increasingly complex regulatory environment, to name a few. But a clean environment is not reserved for the rich only. The path to development does not need to be dirty; sustainability can be applied in any country or business, regardless of size or wealth. Sri Lanka stands at an important moment in its history. It has an uncommon opportunity to realize its potential by developing in a way that treats the environment not as a resource to be exploited, but as an ecosystem worth preserving for future generations. Sustainability can deliver Sri Lankans this promising future.
 Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Published as Annex to General Assembly document A/42/427, Development and International Co-operation: Environment August 2, 1987. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at <http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm>.
 Andrew D. Basiago, 1995, “Methods of Defining ‘Sustainability,’” Sustainable Development, 3, p. 109.
 Klaus Bosselmann, 2008, The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming Law and Governance, (Aldershot: Ashgate), p. 13.
 Günther Handl, “Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Declaration), 1972 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992,” United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at <http://untreaty.un.org/cod/avl/ha/dunche/dunche.html>.
 John McCormick, 1986, “The Origins of the World Conservation Strategy,” Environmental Review: ER, 10(3), p. 177.
 World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), 1980. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/WCS-004.pdf>.
 UN General Assembly, World Charter for Nature, 28 October 1982, A/RES/37/7. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f22a10.html>.
 Harold W. Wood, Jr., 1985, “United Nations World Charter for Nature: The Developing Nations’ Initiative to Establish Protections for the Environment,” Ecology Law Quarterly, 12, p. 977.
 Ileana M. Porras, 1992, “The Rio Declaration: A New Basis for International Co-operation,” Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, 1(3), p. 245.
 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992, Rio Declaration an Environment and Development, UN Document A/CONF.151/26 (Vol. 1). Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=78&ArtideID=1163>.
 John Elkington, 2004, “Enter the Triple Bottom Line,” in Adrian Henriques and Julie Richardson (Eds.), The Triple Bottom Line: Does it All Add Up?, (London: Earthscan).
 Mike Hower, “10% of World’s Largest Companies Produce 73% of GHG,” Sustainable Brands, 13 Sep. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/communications/10-worlds-largest-companies-produce-73-ghg>.
 Deloitte, Sustainability in Business Today: A Cross-Industry View, 2010. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/IMOs/Corporate%20Responsibility%20and%20Sustainability/us_es_sustainability_exec_survey_060110.pdf>.
 KPMG International, Expect the Unexpected: Building Business Value in a Changing World, 2012. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.kpmg.com/Global/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/building-business-value.pdf>.
 See, for example, Dimitar Vlahov, “13 New Types of Data Analysis Every Business Should Consider,” Sustainable Brands, 10 Sep. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/new_metrics/13-new-types-data-analysis-every-business-should-consider>.
 Martha Lagace, “Going Green Makes Good Business Sense,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 15 Jul. 2002. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3015.html>.
 Shabiya Ali Ahlam, “Towards a Waste-Free Sri Lanka,” Daily FT, 5 Apr. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.ft.lk/2013/04/05/towards-a-waste-free-sri-lanka/>.
 M. A. Wijeratne, 1996, “Vulnerability of Sri Lanka Tea Production to Global Climate Change,” in Lin Erda et al. (Eds.), Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in Asia and the Pacific: Manila, Philippines, 15-19 January 1996, (Netherlands: Springer), pp. 87.
 National Forest Programmes Update 34, Food and Agriculture Organization, Dec. 2000. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x6900e/x6900e.pdf>.
 Ministry of Forestry, Sri Lanka, “Country Report- Sri Lanka,” Asia-Pacific Forestry Sector Outlook Study, Food and Agriculture Organization, Working Paper No. APFSOS/WP/16, Aug. 1997. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/003/W7708E/W7708E00.pdf>.
 “Project Brief,” Greening Sri Lanka Hotels, EU-Switch Asia. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.greeningsrilankahotels.org/index.php?page_cat=project-brief>.
 Green Practices of Sri Lankan Hotels, EU-Switch Asia Program – Greening Sri Lanka Hotels Project, Research Report No. 001, Jan. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.greeningsrilankahotels.org/userfiles/Research_Report_Final_2_.pdf>.
 George Wyeth, “Emerging Markets Much Quicker to Embrace, Integrate Sustainability into Business,” Sustainable Brands, 9 Sep. 2013. Accessed 16 Sep. 2013, Available at: <http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/leadership/emerging-markets-much-quicker-embrace-integrate-sustainability-business?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=businessweekly&utm_campaign=sep9&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRonvqXBZKXonjHpfsX56eouXqaylMI%2F0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4AS8VjI%2BSLDwEYGJlv6SgFTrTBMbVxyLgOXxk%3D>.
On my last day in Sri Lanka, I visited the US Agency for International Development before going to Bandaranaike International Airport. All I wanted was to obtain a couple pamphlets and let my presence, albeit belated at this point, be known by a local arm of my government. Although I was granted entrance after clearing security and handing over my cellphone, I was only able to visit the library. If I wanted pamphlets, apparently I would have to schedule a meeting with someone and gain official approval. The costs simply exceeded the benefits of such a course of action, so I decided to cut my losses and return to my hotel to write before leaving in the early afternoon.
My journey back to the United States took a total of 35 hours in transit from the time I jumped in a hotel cab to reach the airport until the moment I stepped onto US soil. As penance for choosing an inexpensive flight, I traveled from Sri Lanka to Chennai, India (where I had a 6 hour layover and was herded with several others into the immigration area, as if the airport had never before dealt with passengers who needed to go in different directions upon landing in India. At least they gave me a free Indian vegetarian meal for my troubles), then to Singapore (where I spent my hour-long layover shuttling back and forth between terminals in an attempt to obtain my boarding pass which I had not been given when I checked into Air India back in Sri Lanka), then South Korea (where I had to alight, pass through security again, and return to the same plane), and finally San Francisco, California (where reintegration was quick, and my bag arrived as intact as I did). I made several new acquaintances along the way, including an American-Argentinian ex-pat couple living in Chennai and a Mexican pianist who wanted to study the intersection of music and literature. Although it was an intense one-and-a-half days of travel, I made it safely back to the United States, my wallet now full of useless currency and my stomach full of several different types of Asian cuisine.
It has been quite a trip, and yet I have more traveling ahead in the immediate future- conferences in San Francisco and Chicago in back-to-back weeks, and a workshop on environmental rights at Yale two weeks later. During this time I will transcribe my interviews and follow up with my respondents to ensure the accuracy of their statements and afford them the opportunity to make any clarifications.
Thanks for following my adventures in Sri Lanka and feel free to email me with any comments or questions you may have at email@example.com. You can also follow me on Twitter: @JoshGellers. Take care everyone, and remember to be safe and enjoy your life no matter where your journeys may take you!