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The perfect knowledge for survival

By Elizabeth Stevens
Before implementing aid agency plans here, we would rather they listen and understand the rural villagers' traditional knowledge and methods." L.W. Sunil Edward (left), a community member from Diviyagala, Sri Lanka.

Standing on Leopard Rock at the mountain temple of Aranya Senasanaya, it is hard to think about mayhem. The great slab slopes gently down toward the village of Diviyagala below, where the houses are barely visible under a canopy of coconut palms, and the valley stretches out toward the jagged Wadinagala mountain range. Flowering trees scent the air, and the low whistle of the koha bird accentuates the quiet.

But from time to time, the villagers hear a whistle of a different sort, and this one warns of terrible danger. "It's like whistling on electric wires," says one. "It's a strange noise, like shouting from a long distance," says another. And when they hear it, they run for cover.

The Sri Lankan village of Diviyagala lies in the path of cyclones. The violent storms, which originate in the Bay of Bengal, make landfall 50 kilometers to the northeast. Their course runs south along the range, but suddenly, at the mountain that marks the boundary of the village, the storms veer west and churn their way through Diviyagala and beyond. They don't come often—the big ones only every 30 years—but the worst of them destroy every house and paddy field in their path.

Sri Lankans face a wide range of risks, from landslides and floods to armed conflict to tsunamis and marauding elephants. Some hazards have been created or exacerbated by humans and could eventually be solved; others are the result of unstoppable natural forces. Regardless of the source of trouble, Oxfam's Nanditha Hettitantri points out, "communities can reduce the impact of any hazard if they have the knowledge and resources to do it."

When it comes to knowledge, though, aid providers tend to waltz in with the latest thinking on risk reduction and ignore what the communities already know. Oxfam's research partners use another model: encourage each hazard-affected community to draw on its own knowledge and thinking to develop a plan of action, adding in expertise from the outside only as it's required and requested along the way.

In one of the early meetings in this community, researcher Prabath Patabendi of IHDT asked the villagers what they do to protect themselves from an approaching cyclone. They answered that they head for the mountain.

"My first thought was that going to the mountain was a stupid idea, because a grade-three cyclone proceeds 50 meters above ground level," says Patabendi, who is a hazards expert. "I thought that moving to the mountain would diminish their survival rate." But as a researcher with an eye to the value of traditional knowledge, he had to consider that they knew something he didn't. He found the answer under a rock. A very big rock by the name of Guhawa.

Hidden in the forest on the mountain is a gigantic boulder, 100 meters long, at least. If you were a child, you would find this the biggest, best playground ever. You would hide in its caves, swing from the branches of the fabulous climbing trees that press in around it, and scale the great rock to command a view for miles around. If you were a Buddhist monk, you would meditate in the shadow of its awe-inspiring mass—which, as an ancient inscription suggests, is what monks have done here for more than 2,000 years.

But if you were a villager with a cyclone at your back, you would find this a refuge from wind and rain: as many as 150 people can take shelter in the caves and shadows of this rock.

"I thought to myself, 'They have the perfect knowledge for survival,'" says Patabendi.

So, instead of suggesting more conventional approaches to reducing cyclone risks, the researchers helped the community build on its own experience.

"The main problem we've identified is water," said the head monk at a recent community meeting.

While there's space for everyone to take shelter, there's no source of drinking water nearby; the community now aims to restore an ancient cistern for collecting rainwater.

"We have not had any experience like this in our lives," says R. M. Rathnayaka Jayaweera, a village resident. "Before, other researchers came and used their own information and methods. They didn't consult the communities for our ideas and experiences. So, the ownership of the research was theirs."

"In this study, the information and ideas are those of the community," says U. Wijayantha Ukwatta, a researcher for SLFI. "We respect their knowledge and their attitudes. They identified how to prevent loss of life and property by using traditional knowledge. And they have made the research their own."