Land Use and Settlement Patterns in Sri Lanka

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Apr 6, 2005, 5:23:04 AM4/6/05
Land Use and Settlement Patterns in Sri Lanka

Compiled by Rohan Wickremasinghe
Dip Mgmt., MBA (SGU), Dip B. (BPUSL), AIB (SL)


The dominant pattern of human settlement during the last 2,500 years
has consisted of village farming communities. Even in the 1980s, the
majority of people lived in small villages and worked at agricultural
pursuits. Traditional farming techniques and life-styles revolve around
two types of farming--"wet" and "dry"--depending upon the availability
of water.

The typical settlement pattern in the rice-growing areas is a compact
group of houses or neighborhood surrounding one or several religious
centers that serve as the focus for communal activities. Sometimes the
houses may be situated along a major road and include a few shops, or
the village may include several outlying hamlets. The life-sustaining
rice fields begin where the houses end and stretch into the distance.
Some irrigated fields may include other cash crops, such as sugarcane,
or groves of coconut trees. Palmyra trees grow on the borders of fields
or along roads and paths. Individual houses also may have vegetable
gardens in their compounds. During the rainy seasons and thereafter,
when the fields are covered by growing crops, the village environment
is intensely verdant.

The nature of agricultural pursuits in Sri Lanka has changed over the
centuries and has usually depended upon the availability of arable land
and water resources. In earlier times, when villagers had access to
plentiful forests that separated settlements from each other,
slash-and-burn agriculture was a standard technique. As expanding
population and commercial pressures reduced the amount of available
forestland, however, slash-and-burn cultivation steadily declined in
favor of permanent cultivation by private owners. Until the thirteenth
century, the village farming communities were mainly on the northern
plains around Anuradhapura and then Polonnaruwa, but they later shifted
to the southwest. In the 1980s, wide expanses of the northern and
eastern plains were sparsely populated, with scattered villages each
huddled around an artificial lake. The Jaffna Peninsula, although a dry
area, is densely populated and intensively cultivated. The southwest
contains most of the people, and villages are densely clustered with
little unused land. In the Central Highlands around Kandy, villagers
faced with limited flat land have developed intricately terraced
hillsides where they grow rice. In the 1970s and 1980s, the wet
cultivation area was expanding rapidly, as the government implemented
large-scale irrigation projects to restore the dry zone to agricultural
productivity. In the 1980s, the area drained by the Mahaweli Ganga
changed from a sparsely inhabited region to a wet rice area similar to
the southwest. Through such projects, the government of Sri Lanka has
planned to recreate in the dry zone the lush, irrigated landscape
associated with the ancient Sinhalese civilization.

Beginning in the sixteenth century and culminating during the British
rule of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the plantation economy
came to dominate large sections of the highlands. Plantation farming
resulted in a drastic reduction in the natural forest cover and the
substitution of domesticated crops, such as rubber, tea, or cinnamon.
It also brought about a changed life-style, as the last
hunting-and-gathering societies retreated into smaller areas and
laborers moved into the highlands to work on plantations. Through the
late twentieth century, workers on large plantations lived in villages
of small houses or in "line rooms" containing ten to twelve units. The
numerous plantations of small landholders frequently included attached
hamlets of workers in addition to the independent houses of the
plantation owners.

The coastal belt surrounding the island contains a different settlement
pattern that has evolved from older fishing villages. Separate fishing
settlements expanded laterally along the coast, linked by a coastal
highway and a railway. The mobility of the coastal population during
colonial times and after independence led to an increase in the size
and number of villages, as well as to the development of growing urban
centers with outside contacts. In the 1980s, it was possible to drive
for many kilometers along the southwest coast without finding a break
in the string of villages and bazaar centers merging into each other
and into towns.

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