Check out the The Eppawala Documentary, a short film by Jonathan Walters and David Sprunger.

Check out Premier Sri Lankan Photographer Nihal Fernando's images of Eppawala at its Crossroads.

Check out Report to Tomen on the Eppawala Situation, December 1999.

Culture and Environment of Eppawala

Pospet Kanda - Phosphate Hill - looms over the northeast corner of Eppawala, Sri Lanka. Until 1971, it was just one among many such large rock-outcroppings which dot the otherwise flat junglescapes of one of the Island's ancient agricultural and civilizational heartlands, the North Central Province (N.C.P.). Even after the 1971 discovery that it contains a large lode of phosphate, and the subsequent (1977-present) development of a government phosphate industry, the hill garnered recognition primarily as a result of its proximity to Eppawala, a city of central importance in this district. Sri Lankans from scores of villages surrounding it rely upon Eppawala for medicine, upper-level education, banking, groceries and other basic necessities, agricultural supplies, luxury goods, post and communications, gasoline and other fuels, and public transportation.

But today, Phosphate Hill looms larger, and darker, than it ever has before. Today everyone knows that an American conglomerate wants to take that phosphate by strip-mining the 56 square kilometers of which it constitutes the center. Little wonder that in June 1997, February 1998 and August 1998 tens of thousands of local residents demonstrated against the plans of this company by marching to the Sacred Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, twelve miles north and visible from the top of Pospet Kanda.

The destruction that would result from the proposed mining operation goes beyond the dislocation which will be suffered by these people if they are driven from their homes, fields, schools, and temples by American bulldozers. Even if individuals can survive relocation, the destruction of this region's ancient and complex civilization, and of its fragile traditional ecosystem, would be permanent. Eppawala's centrality is centuries old, and the dry thorny jungles of the surrounding countryside preserve flora (including rare medicinal plants and ingredients) and fauna (including wild elephants) either threatened or non-existent elsewhere. The proposal even calls for the destruction of the Jaya Ganga. Six miles of it would disappear into the massive 56 square kilometers, hundreds of feet deep crater of dead land that the company wants to create in the North Central Province; if anything remains of Jaya Ganga once this has been done, it will be water poisoned by run-off from the mountains of radioactive waste products which extracting the phosphate will simultaneously produce. And this is to say nothing of the damage which will be done to the East and the ocean, when the company's proposed processing plant in Trincomalee dumps hundreds of tons of mill-tailings into the harbor.

Eppawala and the villages which surround it are ancient settlements, as is clear in the numerous stone inscriptions, Buddhist monuments and irrigation works - dating back to Sri Lanka's ancient Anuradhapura Period (3rd c., B.C. to 11th c., A.D.) - which are found here. Every square foot is an archaeological site; one cannot dig a well nor clear a new field without turning up hundreds of shards of ancient pottery, carved stone lintels and pillars, and other remains of ancient inhabitants; the parcels of land each village sets aside for cremation and burial are literally filled with the remains of countless generations of Sri Lankans who worked these same paddy fields off these same ancient irrigation tanks and canals.

Many of the estimated 54 villages which will be destroyed if the proposed mining agreement is reached are classified as Sinhala "ancient villages" (purana gam). The tanks, temples, roads and fields in these villages are all relics of the Anuradhapura Period, and as far as anyone can tell the current residents are in fact descendants of the ancient men and women who built them. Indeed, especially in the immediate vicinity of Pospet Kanda and to the east of it, until about twenty years ago most villagers still lived according to a very ancient pattern: homes were clustered so closely together in each village's residential center (gam maedda) that it was literally possible to visit any village home by hopping from stoop to stoop. These tight-knit residential centers, located beside ancient irrigation tanks, were surrounded by lush coconut groves and vegetable gardens. The gardens were in turn encompassed by collectively-maintained and more-or-less equally divided stretches of paddy land, followed by strips of slash-and-burn fields carved out of the edge of the open jungle. Traveling outward from any village in any direction along an ancient system of roads - which still connects tank bunds all the way from Dambulla to Vavuniya - one crosses three or four miles of open jungle before reaching another slash-and-burn area, followed by a stretch of paddy fields, village gardens, residential center and another irrigation tank.

The villages thus connected by the ancient roads were and are also connected to each other within an elaborate social structure. Varying numbers of villages were associated with discrete social units called warigas, which maintained a caste-like status for particular extended clans in relationship to other warigas in the region. In the vicinity of Pospet Kanda the largest of these clans were centered in Eppawala itself, though they in turn were ranked in relationship to others throughout the North Central Province. The centrality of Eppawala was affirmed in the myths of origin preserved in the smaller warigas dependent on it, which invariably involve a local ancestor and/or deity who came first to Eppawala, and later moved out to the village in question; an elaborate cycle of ritual festivals of deities and sub-deities, all framed rather uniquely within a Buddhist context, maintained this social stratification until recent times. Indeed, even in the face of the enormous social change wrought in Eppawala over the last century, some old villages within the mining zone still observe the original gam maedda pattern today. Strong remnants of traditional liturgical practices, marriage patterns, caste obligations and other mainstays of precolonial social reality are still evident in all the old villages and even in Eppawala itself.

But this is no frozen specimen of antiquity; it is a region which has successfully (if not altogether painlessly) adjusted to steady socio-economic and political change, especially during the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries. The ancient road just west of Phosphate Hill is a major thoroughfare today, which until a decade ago was the only motorable road between the highlands and Anuradhapura. Eppawala's city center is a thriving crossroads of shops, restaurants, schools, small industries, hospitals, Ayurvedic dispensaries, temples and government offices; it is the conduit through which the surrounding region participates in the cosmopolitan culture of Colombo and Kandy. As Eppawala has been transformed into a modern city, the farmers in the "ancient villages" have adopted technological innovations (e.g., the tractors, fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seed introduced during Sri Lanka's version of the Green Revolution), new housing patterns (traditional wattle-and-daub is quickly disappearing as brick structures with tile roofs have become the norm; most of the ancient residential centers have dissipated into lines of houses along more-or-less motorable roads) and other cultural trends (e.g., T.V.), as far as their own rice-based economies have allowed.

Simultaneously, new populations within the city itself, and in some villages, have dramatically changed the region's demography over the last several decades. Eppawala now boasts significant populations of Christians, Muslims and Hindus, drawn to the city primarily for trade, who peacefully co-exist with the still predominant Buddhists of the region. Thousands of people dislocated by hydro-electric schemes in southern Sri Lanka and by the war in northern Sri Lanka have been relocated here, especially in new villages constructed to the west and south of Pospet Kanda, which are laid out along large-scale irrigation works and named by tract number. They have enriched the region not only with diverse religions, but also with the dialects, cultural practices and beliefs peculiar to the regions from which they came.

The residents of these new villages, and those residents of the older villages which happened to lay along the path of the new irrigation canals, are comparatively comfortable farmers. With water, the land here is almost unbelievably fertile, containing as it does high levels of natural phosphate fertilizer. Despite the shock of their own dislocation from the south - or of the sudden flood of water into ancient reservoir tanks - they have, over the years, established homes, schools, shops, sports clubs, farmers' associations and other markers of their prosperity and social stability.

But the settlement and irrigation schemes also produced some unintended negative consequences which represent matters of great concern to all the villagers of the region. On one hand, agricultural output has not been sufficient to keep up with the simultaneous inflation and influx of luxury goods which has attended the rise of Eppawala. Even farmers with irrigation water feel the crunch of poverty, and recognize their comparative lack of access to the material culture enjoyed in the larger cities. And those villagers who did not receive irrigation water have felt this crunch acutely; in some instances the residents of one-time wariga centers have become wage-laborers for their wetter, wealthier cousins.

On the other hand, the settlement schemes involved the clear-cutting of an estimated one million acres of old growth jungle, while the cash crisis has provoked considerable illegal timbering in the surviving stretches of jungle between the ancient villages. Deforestation has adversely affected watersheds throughout the entire North Central Province, producing drought and crop failure. Ayurvedic physicians fear that valuable medicinal plants will be lost forever if any more of the jungle is destroyed. And the greatly diminished habitat has angered the hundreds of wild elephants still maintaining a fragile grasp on existence in these remaining stretches of old growth jungle; elephants have increasingly devastated local crops and even resorted to killing villagers.

The discontent experienced by farmers faced with such circumstances was witnessed in the widespread support which the people of this region gave to the anti-government J.V.P. movement of the late 1980's; the Mahaweli Project offices in Eppawala, symbols of the "development" of this region, were burned to the ground by angry peasants. Yet like any strong society, the farmers and city-dwellers have struggled to combat the difficulties they face in more positive and productive ways as well. The poorer villages have filed petitions and begged politicians for access to irrigation waters; though as yet unrealized, it remains a living hope. Small-scale reforestation projects have been initiated. Efforts have been made to protect elephant habitat so that the elephants do not need to raid village fields. Farmers are experimenting with crops more profitable than rice. Education is increasingly sought; Advanced-level (London) tutorial classes and an English language institute have been established at Eppawala, and increasing numbers of local children are successfully passing the A-level and even gaining university admission. Businesses and small industries, including the current small-scale mining operation at Phosphate Hill, provide additional avenues for employment that have helped families to weather "development".

But of all the difficulties they currently face, and stand committed to combat, the threat posed by this mining project is clearly the greatest. Locally, who could support the proposed mining agreement?. Residents of the ancient villages cannot conceive leaving the fields and homes and temples and cemeteries of their ancestors, which ground their very lives; residents of the new villages are now, after several decades, well-enough established to dread from their own experiences another relocation. The residents of Eppawala proper have fully invested themselves in the businesses and schools and hospitals which serve the thriving society that these international entrepreneurs want to reduce to an expanse of destruction, slag and scars. More than five hundred Buddhist monks have petitioned the Government of Sri Lanka to oppose these plans. The Gandhi-inspired Committee to Protect Eppawala Phosphate, led by the charismatic chief monk of an ancient Buddhist temple in the shadow of Phosphate Hill, has attracted enormous local support. The demonstrations and hunger fasts which attended the June 1997, February 1998, August 1998, December 1998, March 1999, August 1999 and October 1999 protests clearly indicate the strong sentiment that despite poverty and even wild elephants this, and no place else, is home.

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