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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.”