Sri Lanka Notes 2014

27 September 2014

On my way to Colombo in Sri Lanka. I will lose 4.5 hours but gain about 10 degrees Celsius. Looking forward to a week of new (in)sights.

28 September 2014

Watched “Transcendence” on the plane. It didn’t get great reviews but I enjoyed the human vs machine, imminent apocalypse sci-fi action. Was surprised with floral greetings at the airport in Colombo – a garland of fresh orchids that made me feel very welcome to Sri Lanka. Loving the fresh tropical fruit – not only the availability but also many varieties of each fruit.

30 September 2014

Yesterday, I did a study tour with two colleagues from MVO Nederland. Our first stop was the Dutch fort in Galle, uninteresting except for the fact that its ramparts likely saved lives during the 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans. Next, we visited a care home for the mentally and physically disabled, which relies on the Buddhist practice of dana (giving) among the local community, as well as donations from a Dutch multinational, to sustain itself. The residents seemed well looked after, albeit without much in the way of stimulating activities at the home.

Our final destination, 2.5 hours further along the highway and up a winding road into the mountains, was Talawakelle Tea Estates near the small town of Deniyaya. It was fascinating to be shown how this Rainforest Alliance certified farm has changed and adapted to reduce the use of chemicals, increase biodiversity corridors, improve worker’s health (including tackling alcoholism) and stimulate children’s education. They are even piloting an employee ownership scheme called Growing Together, where families are given a plot of land to grow their own tea, which the estate guarantees to buy.

It is not hard to see why foreigners described Sri Lanka as a paradise. The landscape is lush and tropical, with coconut, papaya, banana and mango trees, bright hibiscus and sweet smelling frangipani flowers, rice paddies carpeting the valleys and green tea plantations clinging to the hill slopes. The humid climate is mildly oppressive, but is regularly cooled by torrential downpours. The population remains poor, with per capita GDP of $3,280, but unemployment is less than 10%, GDP growth is around 7%, urban slums are few and far between and the infrastructure is already well established and maintained (especially the roads).

2 October 2014

Last night I attended a dinner at the residence of the Netherlands Ambassador in Sri Lanka & was treated to delicious food and fabulous company. Guests were mostly Sri Lankan and Dutch business leaders. I usually have mixed feelings about the role of privileged diplomats in developing countries, but in this case their relationship brokering and facilitation of knowledge and technology exchange seems to add genuine value.

Today, I took a walk from the hotel down to the National Museum & Gallery. The museum was fairly old fashioned in its displays, but included some beautiful stone carved statues and ancient paintings (some 5th century) – mostly of Buddha and other religious figures. I’m loving the Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka – it resonates very nicely with my Taoist philosophy.

The city bustles, as most do, but gives the distinct feeling of being midway through a massive upgrade – which is precisely what you would expect in an emerging economy. The steamy tropical air is pungent with the whiff of sewage and petrol fumes, interlaced with the scent of spices and fruits. Everywhere you look, construction is going on – with pavements being dug up and new hotels and office blocks rising from the dust.

The traffic is chaotic – with three wheelers, cars and buses weaving every which way – but there is more patience and discipline and less honking than in other emerging cities like those in India or Malaysia.

The emergent nature of things here may explain the generally positive attitudes and cultural pride I have encountered. Having lived with deprivation and conflict in the past, the present wave of income growth and peace (not unrelated) brings a certain contentment and hope for the future, despite many still being poor.

The high levels of education, good English among the professional classes and relatively well protected labour rights all give Sri Lanka a competitive advantage in the region, besides their cultural geniality and natural assets.

3 October 2014

Looking forward to giving the keynote on sustainability leadership at the CSR Sri Lanka inaugural conference. We’re holding the fort for CSR around the world, as CSR International joins with CSR Netherlands and CSR Sri Lanka this week.

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