Accepted paper:

History and nation in Sri Lankan environmental politics

Author:

Tom Widger (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Environmental pollution cases have been making headline news in Sri Lanka. I argue that environmental awareness has rapidly increased at a time shaped by a new post-war politics, which roots itself in the ancient and recent pasts and in a future defined by territorial reunification and purification.

Paper long abstract:

In recent years environmental and water pollution cases have been making headline news in Sri Lanka. In this paper I account for the emergence of environmental politics at national and local levels in the country. I will do so by arguing that environmental awareness has rapidly increased at a time shaped by a new post-war politics, which roots itself both in the ancient and recent pasts and in a future defined by territorial (re)unification. At the heart of this temporal and spatial conjunction is a concern with purification at physical and social levels, as a precondition for the (re)making of a post-colonial Sri Lankan state. Using agrochemical and industrial environmental pollution and a growing epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu) as case studies, I will argue that they can each be understood as examples of this attempt at national purification in action. From this starting point I will argue that the end of war in Sri Lanka not only made space for environmental issues to gain increased public attention and thus for a new environmental politics to emerge, but that environmental politics provides a key space within which the future of the nation can be imagined. The coalescing of environmental and national politics in the Sri Lankan context has implications for how we understand the travel of environmentalist and Anthropocene movements around the world.

panel P36
Anthropology and the post-war present in Sri Lanka: ethnographic reflections