Learning from a Sri Lankan Peasant

The following is an interview of Mudiyanse Tenakoon, a Sri Lankan peasant, by Edward Goldsmith, Editor "of The Ecologist, extracted from 'The Ecologist' (Journal of the Post Industrial Age) 12. 209-216 (1982). Goldsmith was assisted by Upalli Senanayake and Gunasekara who also appear to share with Goldsmith, the broad view: 'Traditional agriculture in the Third World is frequently dismissed as primitive and unproductive. In fact, it offers the best hope for the future'. The interview brings to the fore several important features around which is centered the clash between the modern' and traditional ways in agriculture: the role of fertilizers, the methods of irrigation and pest control, the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, concern for ecology where the focus is not merely on preservation but also on promotion of what is human, the conception of agriculture as a way of life and not merely as an activity dictated by market conditions, etc.,. Are only some of the issues where we can see the depth and the clarity of Teknion are thought? Moreover the information that Tenakoon provides is remarkable and noteworthy. Surely such information can and ought to be collected in our country.

Q: What is the size of the average farm in this Area?

A: The average family has less than two acres of land. The richest farmers have no more than five acres. I personally have an acre of paddy plus a garden.

Q: Are you self sufficient?

A: lam afraid not. In my father's day we were very much more so. Today I must buy kerosene for our lamps as well as salt and also clothes.

Q: Did you never produce these things yourself?

A: My grandmother used to make her own clothes and those of her family too. We grew cotton, in the Chena the wooded area behind the village used for slash and burn cultivation. We still do. Moreover, in the past there was no need for kerosene as we produced our own Mee oil, extracted from the nuts of the Mee tree (Kaly).

Q.: Did you use Mee oil for cooking as well?

A: Yes and also for medicinal purposes. We also used coconut oil.

Q: Did you have traditional bartering arrangements with focal artisans as they do in India?

A: Yes, ten years ago there was both a potter and a blacksmith in the village. We provided them with food in exchange for pots and tools; now we must buy these things from a store in the town. But we do not get the clay pots any more and they were very useful.

Q: What use did you put them to in particular?

A: Among other things they were; used for storing water. We used to fill them with the chaff from the paddy, burn it, leave the cinders there for a few hours and then wash them out and fill the pot with water. This kept the water cool.

Q: That is remarkable; was this sort of knowledge handed down to you from father to son?

A: Of course. Every farmer is a researcher and a teacher otherwise he could not be a farmer.

Q: How many varieties of rice did you use to grow here?

A: I can remember 123 varieties of red rice now only three or four remain.

Q: In what way did these varieties differ from each other?

A: First of all, we needed different varieties for the two growing seasons the Maha season associated with the NorthEast monsoon and the Yala season associated with the Southwest monsoon. During the Maha season we planted what we call the "four month" varieties. As their name indicates, they take four months to grow. During the Yala season we planted "three month" varieties. Among the Maha varieties, I can remember Murungakayam, which was brown and white, Wella illangaliya, Hondarawala, Gangala and Beruwee. Among the 'three month' varieties I can remember, Heenati, Dahanala, Kokkali, Kanni Murunga, Pachha Perumal, Kuruwee and Suvandal. We also grew Mawee, a sixtoeight month variety.

Q: What was this for?

A: It was for the priests. Buddhist priests don't eat after noon so they need very nutritious food to sustain them until the next morning. Mawee is very nutritious; it has high protein content and that is why we grew it.

Q: How about the other varieties?

A ; We grew Heenati for lactating mothers as it makes them produce more milk and also better milk with a high fat and sugar content. We tried to grow it during both seasons. Kanni Murunga we grew for the men going out to work

In the paddy fields. It gave them energy as it contained a lot of carbohydrates. It was also used for making milk rice for traditional ceremonies. Suvandel, we grew because of its extraordinary fragrance. Some of these varieties were specially used when there was a lot of water in the paddy fields; others when there was little water. The former we refer to as Goodel (or Goda) the latter as Madawee (or Alwee). Some varieties were grown when the fields were particularly muddy; some were more suitable to grow on high ground where there was less mud. Some of the varieties required' very rich soil; others would do well in the poorest of soils. Some were more resistant than others to the paddy bug and we planted them, rather than other more desirable varieties, when traditional means of controlling the bugs failed.

Q: What were the traditional methods of controlling the paddy bug and other pests?

A: Pests were very much less of a problem than they are today. For one thing, the traditional varieties of paddy had long stems so they blew in the wind which made it very difficult for the insects to land on them. The Hybrid varieties of today are short stemmed and much more rigid which makes it much easier for bugs in general. Also the traditional as opposed to the new, varieties of rice had big droopy leaves which shaded the soil underneath and prevented weeds from growing through. The paddy particularly needs protection from insects during one short critical period in its growth, about two weeks. During this period, the whole family would be on the alert and ready to step in and deal with any emergency; this was essential for protecting our crops. One thing that we always did during this critical period was to pour cactus milk (default) into the inlet to the paddy field. This was very effective in' keeping away certain insects.

If the paddy plants turned yellow, we would bury bamboo leaves in the inlets until the grain began to form at this stage the grain would be fairly liquid. To protect it from insects we would obtain the discarded robes of the Buddhist priests, and make wicks out of them! By soaking them in coconut oil. They would then be lit and placed in different parts of the paddy fields; because of the bright yellow vegetable dye that the robes 'contain they burn with a bright light and at the same time emit a very strong smell which repels any insect pests. Another device that we used was to crush up leaves of a certain creeper that grows here into a juice which we then poured in the water at the inlet to the paddy field. The juice would float and settle around the plants. It had the effect of killing the God ewe/la worms that eat the paddy during the two critical weeks.

We also used to put dried Makra leaves and stack them in the four corners of the field. We would plant the branches of the Kadura tree at the four corners of the field; they were used as supports for coconut lamps which would attract the bugs away from the paddy field. We would be very careful’ to plant the seeds at the most auspicious time from the astrological point of view. I am sure that this also helped to reduce pest infestations.

Another thing we did was to collect sand from the river beds and sprinkle it over the paddy fields and irrigation channels; this I am sure was also effective. We would also make long ropes which we impregnated with a very sticky substance derived from the Jackfruit; the children would drag the ropes across the' fields and the bugs in the paddy would get stuck to them. Alternatively, we would tie a lot of rags onto a long bit of string and impregnate the rags with a resin called Dummata. Once more these would be dragged through the paddy fields. The children would also sweep the paddy field with a special tool (the pin via) removing any bugs that might be on the surface of the water.

Q: Do you use biological controls as we refer to them in the West?

A: Yes, indeed. One of the most effective ways of controlling the paddy bug was to crush coconut refuse and spread it in each corner of the paddy field. This would attract a grey brown bird called the demalichch or seven sisters. This bird would come to feed on the crushed coconut and at the same time would eat any. paddy bugs that happened to be around. It would also eat the Godwella worms that feed on the paddy plant especially during the two week period.

Q: Were there any traditional rituals for controlling pests?

A: There was a ritual that involved boiling milk and allowing it to overflow. It was called kiriuturunewa which literally means 'the milk flows over the pot'. It was considered very effective against the brown hopper an important pest of the paddy plant. Another ritual consisted of planting a specially decorated stick in the middle of the paddy field which was considered very effective in repelling insect pests.

Q: How about rodents? Were they a problem in the old days?

A: To control rats we would bury four pieces of root taken from the eastern side of the mee tree and burn them in the four corners of the paddy field. The rats as a result rarely entered the field.

Q: How about birds?

A: These were very much under .control for, we would grow rice specially for them in small sections at' the end of each paddy field which were called kurulu paluwa.

Q: But how did the birds know that this rice was theirs rather than the rice grown in the rest of the paddy fields,

A: We have been doing this for thousands of years. The birds have had ample time to learn which was their paddy and which was ours; they rarely trespassed on to our part of the’ paddy fields unless of course they were invited to do so to eat the paddy bug of the godewella worm and besides, if they did so, they would be chased away by the children.

Q: How did you assure the fertility of the paddy fields?

A: Again we used a lot of different methods. One was to plant the Mee tree in the paddy fields. The' Mee is a leguminous tree, which means that the bacteria on its roots fixes nitrogen, and we used to grow about eight of them to the acre. Its leaves also contain a lot of nitrogen, as must the litter that accumulates under it. Also, and this you will find particularly interesting, the fruit of the Mee trees much appreciated by fruit bats which used to congregate on the trees in vast numbers when the fruits were ripe; the bats' droppings (which are particularly rich in nitrogen) were thus 'an important source of fertilizer. We also obtained nitrogen by sowing the paddy before the first rains (Akwassa). As you know, these rains contain lot of nitrogen!

We would also encourage the growth of many leguminous weeds on the paddy fields between harvests in particular those we refer to as Thora, Andana, Hiriya, Nidikumba and Pila. They would grow wild on the pillewas the small areas of wilderness that lie above and on either side of the paddy field. We did not cultivate these areas because it was from there that the seeds of the legu-minous weeds were derived, it was also there that the buffalos used for ploughing the paddy fields would rest, and the dung that they produced would be washed off by the rains into the paddy fields beneath. This too added to their fertility. It was also behind the bushes that grew on the p/f/ewes that we would defecate and urinate. This provided yet another contribution to the fertility of the soil. Today, of course, with modern development the pillows have been ploughed up so as to increase the area under paddy the result is' bound to be a reduction in soil fertility. Also, as I have already mentioned, traditional varieties of paddy had long stems, so there is very much more straw to return to the fields than there is today with the short term varieties, Equally important, behind each village there used to be considerable expanses of jungle. It is from there that was derived the water that flowed into the tanks and which was used for flooding the fields. It was not only water that the jungle provided but also jungle soil that was highly fertile and that flowed into our fields whenever they were flooded. It was by using all these methods that we retained the fertility of our land. They must have worked or we would no longer be cultivating this land.

Q: Have you tried to use artificial fertilizer?

A: Yes, I have’ to because for the last few years I have been growing the hybrid rice that requires fertilizer.

Q: What effect does it have on the rice?

A: It weakens the paddy plants and the insects build up so we must use more and more pesticides.

Q: In general did you produce more paddy than you do today?

A: I have one acre of paddy. 'In a very good year it produces one hundred bushels which is a lot. My family needs seventy five bushels a year so in a good year 1 have a surplus. The trouble is one needs a bigger and bigger surplus to live on because we are becoming ever less self sufficient. Perhaps my father produced fewer paddies than 1 did but he needed less. Also he could be sure of producing enough for his needs each year because he planted so many varieties; some always grew well whatever the problems we encountered in a particular year. Each one of these varieties was less vulnerable to severe conditions than is the hybrid variety we use today. This simply dies when there is a drought and we are getting worse droughts every year, as everybody knows, because they have cut down the jungle. Nicholas Hildyard notes that the forest cover of Sri Lanka, 'according to a recent Dutch study, and has shrunk from 44 percent in 1965 to a mere 5 percent today' another problem is that the hybrid paddy does not keep. If you try to store it it gets mould in a couple of months.

Q: How long did the traditional varieties keep?

Gunasekara remarks: 'I think that the method of storage was also important. The rice was
Stored in large earthenware pots which were put, on a stand so that the rats could not get? into them. The earthenware is porous so that the rice remained aerated and cool. Also, the pot was lined with layers of lime leaves and also kara leaves which would serve to repel possible insect pests.'

Q: I am sure the reason why modern hybrids do not store well is that their water content is much 'higher, if you use artificial fertilizer, the weight of your produce increases but this is_ largely due to its water content. If you dry the produce you find that the weight is very much the same as it was without the use of fertilizer. In Europe, two studies have shown that storage problems in the third world are largely due to this increased water content. One of these studies was done at Sussex University by the Institute of Development, the other by UNEP.

A: In any case the hybrid rice has no taste, the flour we make from it tastes like wheat flour. For all these reasons and many others lam giving up hybrid rice and intend to cultivate the old, varieties again, the trouble is finding the seed but I am getting all the local farmers together so that we can help each other return to the traditional agricultural system.

There is another, advantage of the old system; it is that we used to produce all sorts of foods that we cannot produce any more.

Q: Which ones?

A: To begin with we used to go into the jungle to get many foods such as the Bauiut Weera, Jakfruit, Himbutu, Wood Apple, Wild Pear and Avocado. Now the jungle has been cut down; we no longer have access to these foods.' We must try' to recreate the jungle.

We also used to obtain a vast variety of fish from the streams.'the tanks and the" Paddy fields when they were flooded. Some of these fish such as Lula, Kawaiyai the Hadaya and Ara could live in dried up ponds. In this area at least, they have Hearty all disappeared, some of them eaten by the Tillapia that have been brought here from Africa and foisted upon us by the Government. The Government insists that Tillapia only eats vegetable matter but this is not true. Others especially those that live in the paddy fields have been poisoned by pesticides. Since there are no longer any fish the larvae of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria can now survive the dry period. As a result malaria has become a lot more serious problem than it was.

The Lula that used to thrive in the tanks was also of great value to us because it favored the formation of blood. That is why we always fed it to pregnant mothers. There were other fish that we obtained from the tank, the Lorale, the Petiya, the Hirikanaya, the Wafaya, the Anda and the Ankutta. The Korale in particular was a very sweet fish. Now we only have the Tillapia; it is not bad but it does not replace all the traditional species, all of which had special uses. Also the Tillapia does not go into the paddy fields, it stays in the tanks. The change has unquestionably impoverished our diet and our lives.

Q; what other food did you obtain.

A: We derived a lot of vegetable food from the tanks, for instance, Olu rice the seeds of the Olu plant, a sort of lotus. We also ate the green stems of the Oil. In addition, we grew lotus yarns in the tanks and we also made flour from the Kaketi roots that we obtained from’ the tanks. Nor must we forget the gardens or the Gevate that we cultivated there. We grew pawpaw, mangoes, bananas, coconut, jack fruit, pepper vines and some vegetables such as bean grams and bean sprouts. These we still cultivate up to a point but they are not what they, used to be.

Nor must we forget the Chena or. Slash and burn cultivation as it is referred, to in the West. It was carried out in the (hi 1,1s behind the village which were not suitable for paddy cultivation. After we had cultivated, them for a few years we would abandon them and only return 1014 years later, by which time the jungle, had re grown. Each family would cultivate about half to one acre which was not private property cultivation there was in common with other villagers. The main crops we would grow there were millet, Kuruken and other dry grains. In recent years population growth reduced the cycle to 45 years which did not fully allow the jungle to recover. In any case today Chena cultivation is discouraged, by the government and much of the land once used for this purpose has gone into permanent, cultivation for which it is not suited.

Q: seems. That practically all the traditional food stuffs also had medicinal uses. Did you have any effective traditional cures for malaria'?

A : A very effective one. We use Bana or Ganamarijuana as it is. Usually known. This was one of our most important medicines; it used, to be called 'the leaf that can win the entire world' so great were its medicinal uses. We used to. Reduce it, to powder and boil it like tea and add jiggery (Sugar from the Kittufpaim) to it. It was riot only effective against malaria but also against worms. We often took it with other foods for it reduced the time it took for them to be absorbed by the blood. Honey has the same effect.

Q: Do you still use Banja for medicinal purposes?

A: No, today it is banned by the government.

Q: It is said that you can increase yields by transplanting, the paddy plants when they have just sprouted, have you tried to do this?

A: The government tries to force us to. They learnt this technique from the Japanese. In many areas of Japan’ where they" grow paddy there is an annual frost which often lasts as long as three weeks. The plants get damaged if left, in the paddy fields. They get round this by broadcasting the seed inside greenhouses where" they are protected 'from the frost. They are then Trans planted into the paddy fields. But here we find that the plant after being transplanted is sick; it takes as much as two weeks for it to recover. The only way to get round this is to use; artificial fertilizers to give them a" fillip and pesticides to protect them in their weakened state against pests. Also the transplantation takes up a lot of time and this interferes with other activities such as Chena cultivation and tank fishing. The government is also very keen that we should have three harvests instead of two which they claim is possible with modern agricultural methods but this takes up 'a lot of time and interferes with most of other activities including our social life besides which it will provide a permanent niche for the brown hopper.

Q: Have you tried to use a tractor?

A: I 'have not but many farmers have done so. It is not as good as the buffalo. A pair of buffalos weighs about 2,000 pounds. Their feet are just the right shape for pressing down’ the soil in the paddy field, which as a result forms a gluey or crust which holds the water in. They also stir up the soil above the gluey and loosen it. The buffalo also produces about 1,500 pounds of dung every year and a vast amount of urine both of which contribute very significantly to the fertility of the soil. The tractor on the other hand is much too heavy for the paddy field. Wherever it passes it breaks through the gley and water penetrates into the subsoil. So if one uses a tractor one requires very much more water and this especially today is unlikely to be available.' Also it stirs up the soil. The: light organic matter comes to the surface and is lost to the flood water. So its use leads to reduced fertility. Needless to say of course the tractor neither defecates nor urinates, hence makes no contribution to soil fertility. Nor does it produce milk and hence ghee nor curd, both of which* play a very important part in our diet. Nor, for that matter, does it reproduce itself, when it dies one simply has to buy another tractor. Of course it saves labor and that is what we are always told, but my profession is agriculture which means that I must be in the fields, that is my life. I do not want to sleep all day or to spend my time gossiping with my neighbors. In any case what is the point of saving labor in a country which has such high unemployment? In the old days, labor saving devices made still less sense, the family and the community were intact and there were always enough people for the ploughing, the sowing, the harvest and the maintenance of the tanks.

Q: is not the government trying to restore the old irrigation system?

Comment by( Senanayaka : They have restored a number of tanks with World Bank aid but only the. big tanks and that is not enough. The big tanks are only of use if the small village tanks are also in use and these have largely silted up. It is the job of the Department of! Irrigation to maintain them but they cannot be maintained by a bureaucracy. Once the social structure of the village has collapsed they must inevitably silt up and remain that way. In fact if we wish to restore our traditional agriculture we must first restore the social life and the culture that gave rise to it and without which it cannot be conducted.

A: J fully agrees. It is not the tanks that must be restored but the whole system of tank cultivation and this cannot be done by bureaucrats. We used to have five different types of tanks. First of all there was the forest tank which was dug in the jungle above the village; it was not for irrigation but to provide drinking water for the wild animals that live in the jungle. They knew it was for them, they had thousands of years to learn this, so they do not come to the village in search of water and interfere with our agricultural activities.

The second sort of tank was the mountain tank. There were no canals running from it, its purpose was to provide water for Chena cultivation. The third sort of tank was the erosion control tank known as the Potta Wetiye. We used to have several of those and the silt would accumulate in them before it could build up in the storage tank. They were so designed as to be easily desalted. The fourth was the storage tank. There were usually two of them. They were known as the twin tanks. They were: used in turn. One was in use while the other was being maintained. These were connec-ted to a large number of village tanks which they fed and which fed them too with their overflow.

Comment by Senanayake: These tanks played an essential part in the traditional rural life. One could not imagine a village in the dry zone without a tank any more than one could imagine it without a temple or rice paddy. In fact these basic constituents of the village were the temple (dagoba), the rice paddy (cumbura) and the tank (wewa). Of course there were other important constituents as Tenakoon has told you. The jungle above the garden and the scrub where the Chena cultivation took place.

Q: What did the old traditional village took tike?

A: The houses were built very close together. In this way they occupied the minimum amount of precious land. This arrangement favored the essential cooperation among the villagers. For instance, one woman could look after the children of a number of neighbors at the same time which is important when the maximum number of people is required in the fields to harvest the crops or maintain the tank.

Q: How was the maintenance of the tanks organized?

A: It was part of the Rajakari service that was owed to the king. Everybody had to provide this service forty days of in a year. It was not for the purpose of serving his personal whims caprices. It was work that had to be done in the interests of the whole community.

Q: take it from all you have told me that you reject outright the whole package of western technological agriculture?

A: I do

Q: You would prefer, to be. a traditional farmer of the old school?

A: I would, but everything is done to make this as difficult as possible. In the eyes of officialdom I am a pauper because 1 am a 'subsistence agriculturalist'. I am uneducated because I have not been subjected to western education. All my knowledge, in particular the traditions and culture of my people counts for naught. I am even considered unemployed because I am not part of the formal economy. I make little contribution to the workings of the market. I have even been told that I am a beggar.

Comment by Senanayake: All this will change soon, you will be the model and. our youth will flock here to' learn our traditions from you. This must, be so, because current trends cannot be. Sustained. The problem has got out of hand. The jungle has been everywhere cut down to make way for plantations. As a result there has been vastly increased erosion and the tanks have*silted up at an. unprecedented rate. There is no longer anybody to maintain the ant erosion tanks, the twin tanks or the village tanks. In some villages the tanks are completely silted up. Elsewhere they are half silted up. In the meantime everybody is moving to the towns and the cities. Colombo now, has vast slums which did not exist, a decade ago. If current trends continue Colombo will soon look like Calcutta. People are. Coming to depend more and more on the formal economy for their food and its. Price is going up by. Leaps and bounds. The government is not interested in feeding the people,, if it I were it would not use half our land in the wet zone to produce cash crops for (export. ; Nor would it be .building .the vast complex of dams that make up the Matiaweli scheme. It would restore instead the agricultural system of the past. This of course it cannot do without abandoning its present priorities development in particular. The attempt to transform this country into a tropical version of a western industrial nation is suicidal it can only lead to ever greater malnutrition and indeed famine. And all this in Sri Lanka which should be, as it has been in the past, a "land of milk and honey'.

- Extracted from 'The Ecologist’

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