Sri Lanka’s New Government Prioritizes Environmental Protection and a Return to Traditional Practices through Indigenous Medicine
Sri Lanka is a lower middle-income country with a total population of 20.8 million people and a per capita income of USD 3,912 in 2015. Following a 30-year civil war that ended in 2009, Sri Lanka’s economy has grown at an average of 6.4 percent between 2010-2015, reflecting a peace dividend and a determined policy thrust towards reconstruction and growth. Sri Lanka’s economy transitioned from a previously predominantly rural-based agriculture economy towards a more urbanized, service-driven economy. Sri Lanka’s strong economic growth in the last decade has led to an increase in real per capita consumption of the bottom 40 percent of 2.2 percent annually between 2006/07 and 2012/13.1
Sri Lanka’s recent economic growth has brought with it an increase in consumption of ready-to-use goods which produce large quantities of waste. Consequently, the country faces increasing environmental degradation caused by improper waste management in part due to the country’s lack of a national recycling system. As Sri Lanka aspires to become a higher middle-income country, it will need to adjust its development model to face these new realities. 2
In 2015, the New Democratic Front party of Sri Lanka won Presidential elections. The newly elected President, the Honourable Maithripala Sirisena, who jointly occupies the post of Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment as well as Minister of Defense in the State Cabinet, has identified environmental protection and the development of rural economies as key policy priorities3. One of the key changes he implemented was a reform of the Cabinet in which he merged the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Nutrition and Ministry of Indigenous Medicine into one powerful entity. In doing so, the new government elevated indigenous medicine to the same level of importance as health and nutrition. Prof. K.K.D.S. Ranaweera, Professor at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and former Director of the Bandaranayaka Memorial Ayurveda Research Institute, a national centre of excellence in Medical Research related to Ayurvedha, Siddha, Unnani and other Medicine systems affiliated to the department of Ayurvedha, Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, stated: “I am very optimistic for this combination because the previous Ministry of Indigenous Medicine alone could not do a substantial amount of work, but now, with this new structure, it will become compatible with other sectors which are very strong”.
One of the keystone projects supported by the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine and led by Prof. K.K.D.S. Ranaweera is the creation of a new Ayurveda Wellness Eco-Village and Research Centre in Kalutara distict. This new facility would combine eco-tourism, health-tourism and agro-tourism and be enriched with the combination of Ayurvedha practices from North India, Siddha practices from South India, Unnani practices from Persia and Traditional Medicine from Sri Lanka. It will adopt a holistic perspective to health and will include yoga, meditation, Panchaka as well as other well-being practices. This new facility would fuel the economy by engaging local farmers to cultivate traditional rice varieties and medicines using organic production methods.
This facility would also serve to improve indigenous medicine through research and development to make it more accessible to Sri Lankans and foreigners alike by making it more user friendly. For instance, a typical decoction could be produced in easy-to-consume tea bags, powders, tablets, capsules or beverages. By promoting a return to Sri Lankan roots and traditions, but also adapting this heritage to the modern era, the Ayurveda Wellness Eco-Village and Research Centre is creating a model for sustainable development practices and cultural preservation.
Furthermore, the Ayurveda Wellness Eco-Village and Research Centre will be looking into solving some of the countries more pressing health issues including dengue, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and chronic kidney diseases by using traditional medicine composed of all-natural products sourced from plants, animals and minerals. The subsequent production and distribution of the resulting medicinal products to national and international consumer markets will be ensured by private partners through public-private partnerships.
Finally, the Ayurveda Wellness Eco-Village and Research Centre aims to engage the youth in traditional practices and involve them in the protection of their cultural heritage. The institute is therefore building collaborations with Universities such as Sri Jayewardenepura and Colombo University to promote the learning of indigenous medicine practices. At present, there is no institution dedicated to train Sri Lankans in the practices of traditional medicine which is typically passed down from one healer to a successor who is within the inheritance or to another in some cases, but Prof. Ranaweera is confident that with the increasing interest in tradition medicine, such programs and institutions will soon come to be. Considering the fact that 39.6% of Sri Lanka’s current population is under the age of 244, the creation of a centre that can maintain and preserve traditional knowledge, such as the Ayurveda Wellness Eco-Village and Research Centre, is crucial for the long-term survival of indigenous medicine and associated practices.
“Now that the younger generation has realized the importance of sustainable consumption, they are going towards indigenous practices modified through the modern knowledge to suit the new world.” – Eng. V. R. Sena Peiris, Founder and Former Chief Executive Officer of the National Cleaner Production Centre Sri Lanka (NCPCSL)
To ensure the survival of traditional practices in Sri Lanka and to achieve this bold vision of an Ayurveda Wellness Eco-Village and Research Centre, Prof. Ranaweera believes that more awareness-raising activities will have to be done to target children at a young age. The government will further have to engage the media in the promotion of organic agricultural practices and scientific awareness programs to the wider population.