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A Great Son of Lanka

It is called Right Livelihood Award. But the press, as usual, makes it up for their readers under a name like the Alternate Nobel Prize Award. The two, however, are quite different. The Nobel Award focuses attention on scientific achievements and industrial successes, two areas which have surprisingly contributed to our present dilemma of how to control pollution.

On the other hand the man who set up the Right Livelihood Award, Jacob von Uexkull (61), a Swedish-German, had a different aim. He suggested to the Nobel Award Committee to reward those taking measures to protect the environment and those who help the world’s poor and that he was willing to underwrite the award.

The Nobel committee turned it down saying it would be a departure from what Alfred Nobel, the founder, had in mind.

To know the kind of work that is honoured and rewarded under this Right Livelihood scheme let us see how the winners of this prize performed in 1980 when the prizes were awarded for the first time.

The first winner was an architect from Egypt. He discovered that sun-baked bricks are good but cheaper than fired bricks for the use of dwellings by the poor. The environmental advantage of the sun-baked brick is that forests are saved from being felled for firewood needed to fire the bricks.

This sun-baked technique was in use in our country, too, when our huge dagobas were being built, but they are not too visible today, may be because it has probably lost its status being addressed as moda gal not ‘foolish stones’ but for being rough and ready stones.

The Egyptian, however, was crowned ‘The architect of the poor’ and awarded the first of the Right Livelihood prize. The other winner in that same year was an American organisation, Plenty International ‘...for sharing, caring and acting on behalf of those in need at home and abroad’. Plenty International, by the way, was here in this country in the Eighties to promote the use of the soya bean as a protein source for rich and poor alike.

The funds for the Right Livelihood Award were secured by von Uexkull selling his prized collection of stamps for about a million dollars. The name Right Livelihood would strike a familiar note to those acquainted with Buddhist philosophy.

Von Uexkull being a philosophy graduate from Oxford has been struck by this name Right Livelihood appearing in Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

To know what Right Livelihood is let us see what wrong livelihood is according to the Buddha. It is wrong, the Buddha said, to engage in selling arms or manufacturing deadly weapons; to sell intoxicating drinks and drugs; to earn wealth in dishonest ways; to trade in prostitution and slavery and all such similar anti-social activities. Sadly, these are the very practices prevailing today in our sophisticated modern civilisation.

Among this year’s award winners was a Sri Lankan, Christopher Weeramantry, an Internationally well known judge though not so well known perhaps among his own countrymen, was also the former vice chairman of the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

His judgments in two cases at the Hague court touched on questions of what Right Livelihood is and one in particular where he took up the position against the court ruling that nuclear arms can be used in self defence.

The dissenting judgment he made on that occasion won for him the Right Livelihood Award for this year and these excerpts from his citation ‘...for his lifetime of ground breaking work to strengthen and expand the rule of international law...’

More interesting, however, is the judgment he gave in a dispute between Hungary and Slovakia in which he threw much valuable light from the experience of the historical past of Sri Lanka on a question that is very much in the news today - sustainable development.

What was before the Court, however, was a dispute over development and environmental control - the development of one country, in this case being environmentally disastrous to the other.

How was the Court going to resolve this problem? Weeramantry tells us that his mind took him at once towards his childhood memories when he accompanied his parents on their visits to the historic cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and the sight of those huge reservoirs remained in his memory ever since.

That experience soon became relevant to the understanding of the problem now before the International Court.

Faced with similar problems, Judge Weeramantry asks, how did our kings set about damming the rivers and the waterways without damaging the environment too much and also improving the welfare of the land and its people?

After studying the question at some depth he gathered a lot of useful information on how traditional wisdom helped the conservation of the environment, which he has now included in a little booklet published by the Sarvodaya Vishva Kala publishers.

This will soon become a useful little compendium of traditional wisdom to jurists interested in what is now becoming a subject of great international importance - sustainable development.

“One of the legal issues before the court,” writes Weeramantry, “was the concept of sustainable development which is so much in the forefront of modern international environment law.

I realised that our ancient irrigation heritage was an example par excellence of the practical application of this concept. In fact it offered one of the best examples in world history of the implementation of this concept. Its relevance to the legal question before the Court struck me as inescapable.”

Another reason for his effort to draw wider attention to this subject was when he circulated some statistics among his colleagues in the panel of judges “concerning the scale and duration of the Sri Lankan operation... (which) neither the bench nor the bar, as far as I could detect, had the slightest awareness of this phenomenal Sri Lankan contribution to universal culture.”

Since this is a rare feature in the equipment of the Sri Lankan academic, who often is aware only of the negative side of the Sri Lankan landscape, he deserves a special word of thanks for displaying to the world the genius of the people of this country.

You gather from the information he provides that the Sri Lankan civilization was not an isolated case, but one which had diplomatic relations with Rome in the first century A.D., with Byzantium in the 4th century A.D. and that the presence of Sri Lankan ambassadors in Rome was recorded by Pliny (lib. vi, c 24) and the detailed knowledge Rome had of this country was noted by Grotius in his Mare Liberum and how Lanka was known to the Greeks as Taprobane, to the Arabs as Serendib, to the Portuguese as Ceilao and to the Dutch as Zeylan. Gibbon, too, noted that Lanka had trade relations with the Far East and the Roman Empire.

Arnold Toynbee also refers to our tank civilisation as an ‘amazing system of water works’ and goes on to describe how the hill streams were trapped and the water guided into giant storage tanks ‘some of them four thousand acres in extent.’ Weeramantry also quotes extensively from a modern day campaigner for the environment, Edward Goldsmith, as in the following quote:

“Sri Lanka is covered with a network of thousands of man-made lakes and ponds known as tanks (after tanque, the Portuguese word for reservoir). Some are truly massive, many are thousands of years old, and almost all show a high degree of sophistication in their construction and design.

Sir James Emerson Tennent, the nineteenth century historian, marvelled in particular at numerous channels that were dug underneath each bed of the lake in order to ensure that the flow of water was constant and equal as long as any water that remained in the tank.”

The quotations cited by Weeramantry range from Pliny to Arthur C Clarke and may be sufficient to impress a reader from the West, but the one he quotes from the Mahawamsa may strike this same reader as being ‘quaint’ but, nonetheless, startling.

In the modern West the role of Man is conceived as that of a conqueror of Nature.

But here in the East he plays only a secondary role as pointed out by Arahat Mahinda, when he surprised King Devanampiyatissa in the middle of his hunt with the following words: “O great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou.

The land belongs to the people and all living beings; thou art only the guardian of it.”

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