Building an earthbag house + farming for agricultural resiliency in Sri Lanka

Hey, folks. I hope this is the right place in EarthOS to post my adventure log.

In 2019, I embarked on a project to build myself a cottage in the mountains. The location is Kandy, Sri Lanka. The dream was retirement by the age of 30; sans rent, expensive electricity utilities, etc, living simply and focusing on creative work. I found some very fertile land for very cheap (about $5000). I would of course have to build roads and infrastructure, but water was plentiful and the soil and climate were excellent, able to easily survive (+/- 2 degrees Celcius in potential climate-change induced weather systems).



A map here:

In subsequent years, the economic collapse of Sri Lanka pushed me to do research into all sorts of interesting methods, as prices for food, concrete and steel spiraled out of control (see our weekly food price tracker at Watchdog Inflation Visualisation / Ishan Marikar | Observable).

In short, the Sri Lankan state failed almost completely in 2022. A sudden overnight ban on chemical fertilizers nuked the nation’s agricultural output, national bankruptcy took out our ability to import fuel (which in turn took out cooking, transport, and electricity for long periods). The Sri Lankan rupee went from 190 to a dollar to 364 to a dollar, sending prices for everything imported - which is almost everything - further through the roof.

So this is what I’m working on right now: a house built almost entirely with earthbags, using as little concrete as possible. Entirely solar-powered, with energy storage being either entirely Li-ion or lead-acid, depending on cost and repairability.

Alongside the house, a farm, relying on hot and cold organic composts to power permaculture guilds of a broad mix of vegetables, fruits and greens.

Some of you might know I run a small team of oddball journalists, data scientists and software developers called Watchdog . . .because of the interest in this project, and the lack of data around such farming in Sri Lanka, we have set up a unit within the organization that will transition to being farmers.

We have a wiki of seedstock, growable plants, harvest conditions, beneficial interactions with other plants, and invested in other farms around the country with a variety of terrain (from beachside to urban rooftops) to carefully document inputs, outputs and the road to what we think of as “food resilience” - where you can survive supply chain disruptions, and barter tools and knowledge while minimizing use of currency. For example, here is a log of the farm in Arugam Bay, where conditions are very different.

We are now expanding into arming the farms with equipment - lots of DIY stuff, shared makerspaces between farms (starting with carpentry workshops and going up the tech tree from there), even some projects to help with farm monitoring. Some of this is inspired by the Witness project and various self-reliant communities within it that work together to build infrastructure. We call this the Apocalypse Gardens. The full project is not yet public, but will be.

My personal log for my project is here - https://yudhanjaya.com/The-Earthbag-Homestead-eb49ac4995fd4c1f893d91a567941454 - it is “The (Mostly) Benevolent Dictatorship of Wijeratne”, a sort of parody micronation that prides itself on being an extremely petty oligarchy with an inefficient bureaucracy, modelled, of course, on Sri Lanka.

The parody element is just me having fun; the serious part is documenting everything. If anyone’s interested in the project, or has interesting ideas to throw at me, please let me know!

Tagging @alberto (since documentation has now begun) and @hugi (for the spark that took it from ‘writer’s cottage’ to ‘Avantgrid / Assembly lite’)

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Wow, amazing!

In my opinion, what you are doing is solar punk research. If you ever find yourself thinking that a part of what you are doing might fit into a non-profit research vehicle that could benefit from being incorporated on more stable ground, please don’t hesitate to get in touch, as we could make that happen through Open Collective Europe - the main thing I am working on these days. For example, if you ever run into foundations or philanthropists that would like to throw some money your way but who can only fund a certified NGO, come knock on my door.

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Wow. Amazing. @matthias is going to love this.

I would not presume to give you advice on something like this, I would be way out of my depth, but I am eager to learn more. Many questions!

Is this where you now live? How do you fund the transition period until you are producing your own food? How do you imagine your economy after the transition (I imagine you are not making a completely closed economy…)? How many are you?

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@hugi sounds great! Thanks!
@alberto good question! I’m moving there in March, by which point we’ll have the foundations and hopefully at least 1 room ready. We will rent a place nearby and I will spend most of my time on-site setting up the nursery and basic farm plot + compost while the contractors work on the house . . .

Transition period: I have some extra income from projects related to my work on misinformation + royalties from books. I’ve already got most of the tools I need to repair, maintain, do woodwork, and do extensive garden agriculture.

Economy post-transition: interesting. 2-3 people in my household, plus animals; Navin and wife next door.

Plan is to write full-time and focus on my fiction. Writing is an inherently extremistan affair (see Mediocristan and Extremistan: The Two Categories of Random Events), so my current goals are as follows:

  1. Bank 3 million LKR in a fixed deposit (8197.70 $) at ~15% interest, setting up a compound interest hedge that will allow me to take care of dependents (family) in case of emergency.

  2. Reduce cost of living to $300 a month by year 2 (farm accounting for ~70% of diet, exempting rice and meat; can do without meat in a pinch, as hens will be providing eggs). We have basic furniture and I can DIY and/or salvage the rest. Electricity is free (solar) and so is water (tube wells) and so is healthcare. I have electric bikes for transport, but the serious hits will come from maintaining a vehicle to get supplies to and fro. I’m going to avoid buying a fuel-guzzler for as long as possible, but we will eventually need something like a secondhand Mahindra Bolero. I’ll save up for it.
    Surplus vegetable and fruit produce from the farm will be traded for labor where needed (and donated anyway when labor is not needed).

  3. Write full-time. Even at the low end of advances, a book a year will keep me going; at my current rate, things should be fine. Relying on the whims of publishers, however, is not a very antifragile operation . . . advances plus the standard 7-10% royalties tend to come in large dollops far in between, and are often quite unpredictable. I’ll be investing some more time into building up a series that I publish via KDP/Amazon - 70% royalties, no upfront advance, but a long tail that keeps on giving if done right.

  4. Keep bees for honey (saleable, also great, near-permanent store of calories) and brew kombucha (also saleable), both hobbies that require space and time to experiment and setup but relatively little maintenance costs (bees and bacteria like to multiply). Use my space to create a seed bank down the line to supply well-documented seedstock (no idea what the math on this is, but I’ll be building a seed bank for my own purposes anyway).

  5. Other plans - varying, from growing bamboo to a few other stuff I have no experience in, but must learn by trying. I also expect I’ll be building up a Youtube channel and, over time, will begin making my own indie games again. These are in the “let’s first get through the first two years and see how we do” range of plans.

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Makes complete sense. I’m jealous, even. If this were 20 years ago I’d ask to join.

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I’ll document the whole thing, so if you have ideas down the line you want me to test out, I can!

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omg @matthias check this out!

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…and the scifiecon thing we discussed! :))

Indeed I love this project and how you are putting together all the loose ends to make something like this work. It’s always a delicate balance to fund and build an alternative system that indeed provides for ones needs; or in other words, it’s hard to find one of the exits from the system (me, still looking for one …). So I wish you all the best success with the transition period!!

I don’t have very specific ideas for your off-grid lifestyle and experimenting … you seem to know how to find all the knowledge you need, anyway. (Still a good spot to plug my Autarky Library of 500 open-access e-books. Quite some about permaculture and homesteading included.)

But still, two things come to mind … maybe one or the other point will be new to you and inspire one or the other experiment:

If you are ready to experiment here as well, check out bottle-to-bottle beekeeping. Controversial, largely unexplored, but promising as it is much simpler than the traditional ways.

This is probably a highly location-specific database for Sri Lanka? Anyway, if you have not seen it already, have a look at the open source Plants for a Future Database. The types of plant data they collect is very extensive (best I’ve seen) and may offer an inspiration for your purposes. Could not find yet if the actual software behind this is open source, though. They have 7000 plants in the database already, I think most from temperate regions … so eventually you and your team probably have a lot to contribute about tropical plants.

Haha I’d love Edgeryders would decide to follow that route :smiley:

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s a minor boom of novice homesteaders from across Europe setting up camp in Portugal (and sometimes Spain), buying and reactivating off-grid farms there. Many of them document their adventure on YouTube channels (my fav two examples). Pretty sure you can find some success in that space as well.

Always here if you want to bounce some crazy ideas for off-grid living around (esp. energy and food related). Have not done as much experimenting in practice as I would have liked, but maybe I’ll get a moderate amount of that soon (will try buying a little derelict forest nearby in an auction on Wednesday, to make a food forest out of it).

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This is incredible! Thanks for this massive dump of resources - going through your library now!

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Nice to see other aficionados for homestead makers!! Me and @winnieponcelet enjoy watching those too… for a perhaps not so distant future :wink: For now they have a dreamy quality to it for those of us never having built anything with their hands.

Congrats @yudhanjaya, reading you from a distance, and thanks for documenting!

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