Survival strategies of people in a Sri Lankan wetland : livelihood, health and nature conservation in Muthurajawela

A. Hoogvorst

Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


Key words: Anthropology, emic, environment, etic, gender, health, livelihoods, Muthurajawela, nature-conservation, survival strategies, Sri Lanka, wetland.

The objective of this study was to contribute to a better understanding of how poor people living in a sensitive wetland ecosystem maintain their livelihood and experience their situation in relation to health and diseases. Over the past nine years a wetland management project contributed to public awareness on environmental protection and implementation of conservation plans. Matching conservation with sustainable use of the wetland resources and human development is the most difficult and least tested aspect of environmental management. Anthropology and aspects of health and environment meet in this dissertation, in which some attention is also given to gender issues.

Muthurajawela wetland

The ecosystem of the wetland is under severe stress because of population pressure, pollution and destructive fishing methods. Human encroachment in the marsh and the lagoon area takes place because of poverty. The number of families that live in different settlements in the marsh and on the channel islands of the lagoon has increased considerably over the years.


There are differences in the ways inhabitants perceive their life in a wetland (emic view), and the way scholars, scientists or outsiders look at people living in a hazardous marsh (etic factors). To obtain the information on the different perspectives, a literature study was carried out, and quantitative and qualitative information was collected through interviews with the marsh dwellers and key-informants. Additional information was gathered through life histories, case studies and (participant) observation. Open interviews were also held with different types of traditional healers.


The main problems for the inhabitants are: low income, alcohol addiction, floods, marsh-related health hazards, land availability and illegal land occupation. Many people in the wetland bring their gold and jewelry to pawn shops to improve their dwelling or just to buy daily needs. Locally brewed kasipu brings the livelihood of many households in a critical situation and many addicted men suffer from alcohol related liver disease of which they often die. The wetland inhabitants who suffer from floods a few times per year, cope reasonably well during the period of inundation. The inhabitants of the marshy area in the wetland feel that they are less prone to infectious diseases than the people who live on the densely populated islands in the channel of the lagoon. People protect themselves against mosquito-bites by using coils and the better-off people also use bed-nets. Waste, scrap and other material is used by people to create land where their children can build a house. Being illegal residents make people feel unhappy and has an inhibiting effect on taking initiatives to improve their condition. There is no one set of strategies for matching nature conservation with human development that works everywhere. Strategies should be tailored to the setting in which they are employed.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Niehof, Anke, Promotor
Award date23 Sept 2003
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789058088598
Publication statusPublished - 23 Sept 2003


  • social anthropology
  • nature conservation
  • health
  • households
  • resource management
  • rural communities
  • community development
  • wetlands
  • sri lanka
  • well-being


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