Sunday, July 24, 2011

I never thought I would have anything in common with the Ven Athureliya Rathana Thera

In today's Sunday Times, there was a very forceful statement by the above MP who represents the Gampaha District for the UPFA under the JHU, which was that "Agrochemical Terrorism was worse than LTTE terrorism".

If one looks at the history of some of the International Agro Chemical Behemoths, such as Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Cargill they have engaged in skillful chemical based agriculture, which includes GM (genetically modified) strains of Soya and Wheat which have made leaps in the productivity and output of some crops, enough to save the world from starvation.

In Sri Lanka's case the local Companies representing these and other multinational companies sell billions of rupees of toxic weedicides, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides collectively referred to as "BIOCIDES"to our poor farmers, who barely eke out an existence.

I have as a farmer used my share of these due to various factors, a major reason being the complete ruination of the soil over years of overuse, which necessitates further use in addition to chemical fertilizers to get a half way decent crop.

This proves that in order to get the farmers out of this catch 22 mere banning the use is not the answer. It has to be a gradual reduction in use coupled more importantly with the improvement of the soil, to historic levels, by considerable intelligent use of knowledge. We have to identify all the soils, break them up into areas, and make concerted efforts at improving the soil with the correct additives. If the Rs50B currently being wasted on importing and subsidizing chemical fertilizer, is used first in improving the fields for the use of mechanical means, as labor is now almost extinct in agriculture, then the soil needs to be improved, further the seeds used should be more adaptable to local conditions, and not the imported seeds one sees for sale.

By a careful long term plan, we can improve the resistance of local varieties to the common pests and by mixed farming practices both enrich the soil, and grow complementary crops, conserving the waste of water that currently takes place. It requires a huge investment in education of the farming community, that is those willing to farm, not the girls who go to Agricultural Faculty who do not want to dirty their painted nails.

There was one interesting thing he mentioned in his Q&A session which was that if Khomba or Neem ( also known as Margosa) seeds are crushed and sprinkled, the pests would avoid the area. I have tried so hard to get the local boys to collect all the Khomba seeds that fall of the trees in August and September in my area with a handsome payout, but they have singularly failed to do so. Is it that they are too lazy or that they have enough money? I don't have the answer, but it goes to show that even if we have the will the way has to be shown to the people to appreciate the importance of that.

We have to educate everyone including the youth on the value of such things like the Neem seed. This process cannot be done in a short time. There are insurmountable obstacles as the money in Chemicals is huge, and the pressure groups enormous to prevent politicians taking action, but it has to be done in a way that is practical and equitable, and we can then wean the companies to produce natural means of control, and better techniques more suitable to our soil, climate and conditions. We need a blue print on how to achieve this over a period of time, coupled with a conscious emphasis on training people in sustainable agriculture.

It is the people in the end that have to be persuaded, and there I find the majority not interested in the alternatives, which also reflect the government level of inaction. Until our society becomes more energetic, energized and not dependent on others for their employment we can go forward. It is an electorally unpopular move and the politicians who want sycophants around them do not want to miss a beat and do something unpopular, and so the nation dies.

Like the enlightened priest said, 20.000 have died due to poisoning and a further 20,000 are dying a slow death and we do nothing about it. Lets prevent the next 20,000 contracting these illnesses all this at a huge cost to the nation.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Sustainable non-toxic Agriculture"

There was an extremely useful commentary today on page 8 of the Island Newspaper (July 22nd) by the biodiversity and "analog forestry" expert Dr Ranil Senanayake a grandson of Mr FR Senanayake with the above caption. It is very unfortunate that the very logical and practical suggestions made by him does not get sufficient prominence in especially the Sinhala media for the benefit of our rural farmers.

Unlike those who advocate a complete ban of biocides (pesticides, herbicides and fungicides) he recommends a gradual weaning off of our farmers of the definite overuse of the said biocides in order to improve the quality of our soils in order to return to a more productive and sustainable future in our Agriculture. In the same vein as I have been horrified by the increase in the subsidy on chemical fertilizer to a cost of Rs50Billion, we must try and reduce this dependence which has a very high carbon footprint in a country that is pretending to enhance its reputation as an environmentally sensitive and "GREEN" country.

The acts of the state for purely short term political gains is raping our future, by increasing the use and not reducing its use(fossil carbon). We must educate the people on this folly. It is not easy, but must be done to save our agricultural future before our land becomes completely infertile.

The article goes on to explain the food chain process, where right at the top we humans are consuming a lethal toxin to the extent that "WE SUFFER THE HIGHEST PESTICIDE RELATED DEATH TOLL ON THE PLANET" That is something for us to think about, as it is encouraged and not discouraged by the state!

So please lets start now before it is too late, understand the dependence, NOT REFER TO PESTICIDES AS BEHETH AND INSTEAD CALL IT WASA VISA, and give our farmers real help in presenting an alternative method at achieving the same or better net incomes for our farmers.

Thanks Ranil keep up the good work and try and get your points to the powers in subtle or direct ways, you owe it as a duty to create the vision of the country of your and our forefathers. Try and offer your services at no cost as a public service, as no one in SL agriculture can afford your NGO reflective remuneration.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

CKDUE - An opinion down on the range

Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology, (CKDUE) is a huge problem in the North Central Province but also to a lesser degree in the North Western Province and Uva Province as well. There are various studies being carried out by both state and non state sectors to find the cause of this as it is a debilitating disease that leads to kidney failure and death, and the a long list of people requiring dialysis and kidney transplants, which the state cannot currently cope with due to the lack of resources in the health sector to meet the needs of the suffering patients. It is a pathetic situation which innocent civilians are confronted with and to which they see no solution in sight.

Into this issue the University of Kelaniya team pounced on the Arsenic story, with prominence scaring the unsuspecting public. They were very clear that this is a result of the pesticides and weedicides being used by the farmers over a prolonged period of time. Arsenic in Pesticides is illegal and is banned, but they maintain that this along with traces of Mercury as well as other poisonous elements are present in these products. It is not up to us the casual observer to comment on but the government to issue a definitive statement on the facts. I understand that a resolution as to the real cause of the problem is still to be made, even though the Kelaniya team are absolutely certain that this is a case of Arsenic poisoning, as they have backed up their evidence by supporting evidence of patients in areas such as Padaviya, with Arsenic poisoning signs.

One must also look into the other aspects such as fluoride that naturally occurs in the area, and over ingestion of fluoride can also be harmful to the health as it is with the other elements such as Zinc and Cadmium that are are blamed in combination with Arsenic and Mercury. All this must sound gobbledygook to the local villager who does not even have access to science teaching in those schools to know what it is that is causing this. So whatever the newspaper reports as the likely cause is the one used by them in the conversations we have in this regard.

It is important that studies that have commenced over 5 years ago come to some sort of conclusion as without it we do not know what corrective action is to be taken immediately to prevent the problem getting out of control.

At present the football is being kicked around between, the ITI, Kelaniya experts, the government labs and the Customs, and the Department of Agriculture with occasional help from the debates in Parliament in this regard. It does not bode well for a proper unbiased inspection of the facts as all these factions seem to have agendas, and it is possible that no one wishes to confront the truth that may be unpalatable.

So let me add my two cents too. I have lived a while in this troublesome area. I take the water I drink from my farm in Godagama, where I cannot prove but believe the spring water is safe from all this as the area contains many bottling plants that produce SLS standard bottled water for sale all over the island. I also think that overuse of Pesticides and Weedicides, as well as Chemical Fertilizer, has fouled up the local groundwater supply and all the drinking water sources that when compared with naturally occurring chemicals such as Fluoride, and the use of Aluminium cooking utensils, that lie unwashed or are used as water containers allow a certain unhealthy proportion of Aluminium to leach into the drinking water supply.

A combination of a cocktail mix of all these seem to lead in some cases to these diseases. It is time that all diseases are investigated for causes relating to the water supply, as this appears to be the most likely source of contamination. It is also noteworthy that there are many other places that use as much or more fertilizer and pesticides per acre in the Island that does not have this kidney disease leading one to automatically assume that there are other factors as well that are the root causes.

I am no expert, and there are numerous experts and projects currently being undertaken to find the true cause of this disease, and I can only hope without further delay, that some rational solution can be found, and hitherto the Kelaniya University seem to get undue publicity leading to alarmist rumors that are very harmful to agriculture, consumption of our local produce and also to the medical profession. While they may be forceful and convinced in the correctness of their argument, they have not been able to do a good job to convince the majority of doubters of this fact.. We must therefore be careful in the evaluation process, to come up with the likely cause along with the probability of this disease occurring.

Lets not just on the case of the Multinationals just yet until we have an alternative practical solution to addressing this issue and not make it a knee jerk one on order to satisfy short term agendas.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Minneriya Tank –“the latest project as per the local Farmers and Fisherman”

I just had a chat on the phone with my fellow neighboring farmers in the Hingurakgoda area and they tell me a new tale out of Alice in Wonderland. So I just repeat what I heard and the reader should determine its likelihood, but the farmers firmly believe this story, which when it passes from one mouth to the next adds another dimension.

For centuries the waters of the Minneriya has been used for agriculture and primarily, for paddy cultivation, especially after it was rehabilitated in the early 20th century. Then latterly due to the size and ease there is a large fresh water fishing industry that provides the livelihood for a couple of hundred families. There is enough water generally to cultivate two seasons. Usually once the water has been given for agriculture the water level in the tank drops sufficiently in August and September when the need for water stops, and the tank then becomes a huge plain of green where the famous Minneriya Elephant Gathering takes place. This has the added benefit of making it a tourist destination, especially in the off season of August and September to fill the local hotels and provide employment to the trackers and jeep drivers and owners and related services.

Recently, I am told a tender had been given to a private party to clear the tank for the take-off and landing of sea planes. This same party I was told was also given the go ahead to begin a pleasure boat service on the Minneriya tank, which hitherto only had hollowed out wooden fishing craft. Added to that I was told trees are being cut in the Minneriya National Park to facilitate the safe landing of the aircraft, and that too is a prohibited activity in a National Park, for which permission is not usually granted.

For such aircraft landings the water level has to be a minimum, and in many seasons, once the water is used for irrigation, the level will drop below this minimum. This then implies that water will not be released for needed irrigation due to the need to maintain a minimum level and farmers will suffer substantial crop loss. I was also told that the sound of planes landing will affect the egg laying characteristics of the local lake fish and that will reduce the potential catch. Local people are up in arms but this has not reached the press yet, either because the facts I have stated may be incorrect or no one has bothered to investigate.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The young ladies who flood the Departments of Agriculture

If you go into any agricultural faculty in Sri Lanka, both the teaching staff and students have a female majority. This is good if you see women in all sorts of farming in Sri Lanka, but I have yet to see that fact reflected in the actual workforce.

What does that mean? Are we educating these people at enormous expense for them to try and get government jobs as village agricultural coordinators of advisers? I have a woman attached to my place in Polonnaruwa, who I do not know if she has got an Agricultural Degree, but is unable to communicate with the farmers of the area on an equal or knowledgeable basis where we can accept what she has to say, based on both theoretical and technical knowledge.

Is it that we have to blame the men in this area and say they have an equal chance of getting into the University so don't complain that it is the women who do so. One needs to have a certain Z score for university entry, and by and large there is a much greater proportion of females who do so and with this system of informing them what fields of study they have got marks for, if Agriculture is on the menu, then why not take it as the women want a degree, without much thought as to what subject or what field they wish to pursue in the future.

The young boys fall by the wayside and do not get into university and look for some easy way out of life, by joining the forces or the police or whatever they can get after a vocational course. I also often wander if those who go to the agricultural faculty have no intention of farming as they believe that profession is beneath them, but that they believe advisers are a cut above that and so aspire for the limited openings in this field. The additional tragedy is that these agricultural graduates use their degree to gain a marriage and then use the system for personal goals, rather than enter into agriculture proper as a lifelong vocation, which should be the aim of the courses.

It is time that all the Universities do a survey of the alumni and come up with some answers as to how useful these faculties are of producing knowledge based farmers to increase the productive output of the country rather than swell the ranks of the unemployed or unemployable.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Arsenic Issue - Academics attached to Kelaniya University challenge their own Dean of that Faculty

It is timely that the Academics attached to the Faculty of Science disassociated themselves from their Dean, Professor Nalin de Silva, effectively relegating him to the role of a charlatan.

It is disgraceful for one to reach up to the skies in making a scientific explanation and therefore I hope this mess is put to bed once and for all. I know so many people who are worried about arsenic levels as a result of this scare, and the newspapers as usual, in order to sell their publications and attract readership have resorted to fear mongering, instead of explaining to our relatively unthinking readership who soak up truth or fiction in the same order, that this issue needs to be properly evaluated.

We have yet to fully understand and explain the problems of kidney disease in the NCP, as that has something to do with the unique conditions of the NCP as much as it also has the fluoride issue in water to contend with which other parts of the country that use the same level of pesticides do not. So that and the cooking on cheap aluminum vessels to store water etc. may also be a contributory factor. It is imperative that this issue is immediately addressed as I also farm in the NCP and at the moment transport all my drinking water from the my farm in the Western Province.

There are many issues here, with regard to the overuse of Chemical Fertilizer, as well as the overuse of Pesticides and the deterioration of the soils arising therefrom and seepage into the groundwater as well as to other drinking water sources of these chemicals and how they impact human health. There is a lot of suffering in the NCP and people are clinging on to anything they can to explain away their plight, and the powers in play are playing with this concern, without seriously addressing the issue with the respect and diligence it requires.

Prof De Silva did a great disservice to the country in drawing attention to himself, and I believe the least that can be done is to have him removed from his position forthwith in the interests of Education and the future of his University, as both those are for more important than the man himself.

Then let us get back into firstly addressing the Kidney disease problem and find a realistic and scientific explanation. We should then separately address the over use of fertilizer and pesticides in some scientific manner and encourage and teach our farmers to minimize their use and assist them in overcoming the degradation of soils that have forced farmers to overuse these as compensation for past sins.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Let us call a truce and end the battle and move forward

Today's (3rd July 2011) Lankadeepa, page 4 of the 'Thaksalava' section has two related but quite different issues relating agriculture and the current debate. The first article on the top half is showing the benefit of a paddy field cultivated completely on the traditional principles, without any use of pesticides and weedicides, with an old variety of rice called 'kalu heenati'.

The second is of farmers burning their now seedforming paddy fields due to the lack of water being sent by the bureaucrats to their fields due to these government servants paying homage to local politicians. I will not discuss this at length as it is an elementary intervention required to divert water without prejudice to the needy farmers to cultivate their 1500 acres of paddy, as there is plenty of water in the area to cultivate, and the basics of clearing and upgrading the anicuts being the issue.

The former is the battle with totally opposing camps, which don't appear to see the middle ground. I read daily about" rabid organists" for want of a better word, who play upon people's sensitivities to spread their word, much like the born again preachers. It is in this "Arsenic" context that this topic has come to the fore. The greedy multinational pesticide and chemical suppliers are blamed for the arsenic in the soil, and as the proponent in this article, Susatha M Paranagama, is associated with the Kelaniya University, Dr Nalin de Silva camp of fear mongers, sets the stage for a reversion back to the traditional age.

I do not dispute his logic as it is infinitely more healthy to grow food in the organic way. As a practitioner who has attempted these ideas, I feel his approach is eminently impractical. His words, and I quote "Ape govikamata manush shramaya one" which when translated means we need Manual Labor for our Agriculture. "Pray Paranagama, where do I find men and boys?" I am the only one available to work my paddy fields and I cannot do that today thanks to Mahinda Chinthana weda pilivela, which begat speeding ministerial convoys that kill and maim innocent people including farmers who are willing to give of their Manush Shramaya. Can he find one person in his university willing to pick up a mammoty?

This is the problem with experts, and dons. They are only of a theoretical mindset who think that just because he is an adviser to an experimental, one acre or less plot in the Kirimatiyagara Paddy Fields, that gives him the authority to expound this as a national policy to be adopted.

I have no love for multinationals who squeeze the living daylights out of us, but I want to be practical in coming up with a solution to the Nationwide food production Issue as well as provide guidelines in its implementation with minimal harm to the soil, environment and our citizens, but which will enable our country to be self sufficient in most of the basics of the food we eat.

Whilst I agree wholeheartedly that I can eat once cup of "Kalu Heenati Rice" instead of three cups of the less healthy currently available rices to fill my stomach, we have first to have a system of doing this side by side so that eventually this goal could be achieved for those who are willing to pay the higher cost of this production, which still denies the masses of the quality. If he tells me he can produce this at much less or equal cost he is dreaming in technicolor as there are no humans available to work the land and want to work the land unless they are given a four wheel tractor to drive, as the two wheel one is also too labor intensive and too exhausting for our youth of today.

So please let us discuss this issue like adults and not kids in class rooms and come up with a national policy. My suggestion is to have a province or at least a District dedicated to organic farming methods as part of a large experiment and see how we can improve the quality of life of those who live there along with producing output that can be marketed at prices that those who produce can live off of, and succeed in their own personal goals. If this is so successful the whole nation will adopt it, if it is not, we have not forced a whole nation to starve due to the actions of the few well intentioned fools!!

Friday, July 1, 2011

The constant attack on progress seen as a threat

There are many cases I can refer to in my practical experience and the latest was the threat a harmless homeless person had to undergo when he was given a job.

My sister and I share adjoining properties in Hingurakgoda, and she recently found a person from the South who just wanted a job, with a place to stay, and was known to one of her in-laws as an honest person who does not drink or smoke. So she put him in charge of her property.

From the first day, there were people making frightening noises in the area and throwing stones on to the roof, and generally trying to pretend that the place was haunted so they could chase him out of fear. I knew the trick as I had personally suffered similar harassment, and told him to sit it out and they will eventually give up. Thankfully for my sister he did and the need for a roof over his head overcame the fear of the night, and it paid off. I am pleased for him further as after less than 6 months in the area, he even managed on his own to find a wife from a place not more than 3km from the property, so that now he is not alone and is more committed to getting the place into a state, I was never able to make due to not having a permanent occupant in the home.

The coconut thieves and those who stole almost everything from the land there now no longer have that chance and are now looking in envy how this man is slowly transforming the place into a veritable garden of produce and plenty. I was there yesterday and seeing the transformation made me so happy both for him and my sister who for the first time was able to come away with 400 coconuts in the back of her vehicle, which will at least cover the cost of the diesel for the trip. I can see her new found joy at owning agricultural land and getting produce from it. The lime tree was so lush with limes, and I told her that twice a year she can harvest about 60kg of lime from that tree and even at today's retail price in Colombo of Rs100 a kg she can make a lot of friends happy even if she does not sell it but distributes it. Previously it was all picked and plucked by those who believe it their birthright to steal and not plant, as a lime tree can be planted anywhere in that area, as it requires very little maintenance.

The current state of law and order and the example of grand theft and larceny shown by this government is used as the excuse for the small man to steal. It is important to be able to show that our leaders can be incorruptible and therefore an example to all, and I wish I live long enough to see the day that will return to our resplendent land.