Dr. Prasanna Cooray
Health complications of foods contaminated with agrochemicals are now well known. The long list of such complications include the conditions as immediate as allergies and gastro-intestinal disorders and long term consequences like asthma, cancers, Parkinson’s disease and kidney disease. At a time when the entire country is grappling with the need to produce food without chemical inputs, a farm named “Mihimandala” in Welikandagama, in the Badulla district, has come out with the practical solutions.
Managing Director V. M. B. Athula Priyantha, BSc Agriculture (Special), MSc Natural Resource Management is an agriculturist cum environmentalist. He believes that agriculture and the environment are one and the same thing. Having been in the agribusiness for over 25 years, he practises what he believes in. According to Priyantha, farming is an intrinsic component of the environment and should be done in an eco-friendly manner. His farm at Welikandagama, Welimada, is a living example of that.Nestling in the upper catchment of the Uma Oya, Welikandagama, began losing its lustre when a project got underway around the late 1960s to plant pines and eucalyptus on hillocks overlooking the village. The adverse impact of the venture soon became evident. The streams that flowed from the hills meeting the villagers’ water needs, in addition to maintaining the water table dried up. So did the wells in the area.
Pines and eucalyptus grew fast, but the luxuriant undergrowth with several layers of vegetation soon disappeared, causing erosion and loss of soil fertility. Owls and jungle fowls that frequented villages and preyed on pests such as rats and insects were also gone. Some animals invaded the village in search of food.
Revival of village
Villagers staged protests against the destruction of the environment, but their voice went unheeded. They did not give up and rallied round Priyantha and formed the Welikandagama Hill Conservation Society. The campaign to protect Welikandagama became more vocal, and at last, the authorities had to succumb to the pressure in 2004, when A. H. M. Fowzie, the then Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, ordered the Forest Department to stop planting pines and eucalyptus in Welikandagama. Their campaign was backed by the Upper Watershed Management Project of the Environment Ministry.
It is heartening to note that the Forest Department policy underwent a sea change In November 2008; the villagers of Welikandagama, together with the Departments of Forest and Agrarian Services, with the help of funding made available by the UNDP, implemented a Micro Watershed Rehabilitation Project with great success. This project paved the way for the revitalization process of Welikandagama.
“The streams that had been dried up for long re-emerged within a year or two after re-forestation. Now there is enough water for farming throughout the year,” commented Priyantha.
Kitul (Caryotaurens), damba (Syzygiumassimile) and kudu-daula (Neolitsea cassia), were among the indigenous species replanted and the natural forest was encouraged to re-emerge. The Welikadagama villagers’ efforts received a fitting accolade when they received two awards for the Best Land Improvement and Soil Conservation and Water Resource Development projects, at the 2011 Green Awards presented by the Central Environment Authority.
Revival of agriculture
The reforestation having been completed, Priyantha embarked on an organic farming project. Initially, he was faced with the uphill task of having farmers on his side. He said: “First, it was not easy, as most of the farmers had come to be dependent on agrochemicals. Multinationals had brain-washed them. They were so hooked on chemicals for every stage of cultivation, and also for harvesting and storing.”
Priyantha set an example by setting his organic farm ‘Mihimandala’ in Mirahawatte, Welikandagama in 2010 on a small land. The farm now encompasses four acres. He employs a manager and ten labourers, all on a full-time basis. In addition, his farm has been recognized as a training centre by the Organic Farming Unit of the Agriculture Department, and provides in-house training to three persons at any given time. ‘Mihimandala’ has also obtained certification as an organic farm from the ‘Sricert’ certification institute.
Speaking of sales, Priyantha observed: “At first, it was very difficult. People didn’t care two hoots whether it was organic or not. In fact, selling organic was more difficult than the other.
“But with public awareness of links between agrochemicals and illnesses such as cancer and kidney diseases spreading, the demand for organic food has increased.
“Now, it is quite a struggle for me to meet the demand. We produce about 500 kilos of veggies a week. But that is not at all enough to meet the growing demand.”
Flawed land use as the reason for Nutritional problems
Priyantha believes that much of the nutritional problems in Sri Lanka are due to flawed land use practices in the country. He believes that organic agriculture and sustainable land use go hand in hand.
“Improper land use has led to a number of problems in the country. They include water shortage, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, high use of agrochemicals and even nutritional problems. Lack of encouragement for home gardening and over reliance on mono-culture agriculture have been more so responsible for the high prevalence of nutritional problems in the country.
“Unlike in the past when various food items were naturally available around as, now people are compelled to feed their children with food from outside. Natural forests and home gardens were the types of land use in the past. Even paddy was grown organically. Many perennial crops in home gardens produced enough food for the people and farm animals. Mixed cropping supplemented the perennial crops. This is the culture that we lost over the years with the introduction of chemical intensive modern agriculture.”Labour issues
Priyantha says that, in organic farming, labour accounts for 90% of the cost of production. Lack of workers conversant with organic farming technology is the main obstacle faced by the organic farmers in Sri Lanka. According to Priyantha, organic farming involves application of a ‘technology package’.
Priyantha identifies labour management as a crucial aspect of organic farming. He believes that “day-to-day monitoring is crucial for good management of an organic farm.”
Consumer – producer linkage
Priyantha believes that the success of organic agriculture could only be achieved by linking the consumer with the farmer. “For the sustenance of organic agriculture, the farmer’s survival is crucial. The consumer should protect the farmer and vice versa. That’s how it happens in the developed world. The consumer should know the producer personally and he should be able to order from the producer direct”.
Direct and Network marketing
“Direct marketing and network marketing are essential for organic business. You can have one more link—an intermediary. But the consumer and the producer should know each other”.
Monitoring – the biggest stumbling block
Priyantha identifies lack of monitoring as the biggest impediment to the growth of organic culture in the country. Lack of supervision and monitoring has encouraged the entry of unscrupulous elements into the business and in turn has eroded the trust of many genuine customers. Priyantha believes that monitoring of organic supplies has to be necessarily a governmental responsibility.
“The countries that have progressed in organic agriculture have done so”.
Priyantha is dependent on the railway for the transportation of his produce as his regular customers are scattered throughout the country.
“Railway is a convenient and economical mode of transport. But there are many unforeseen issues you face often with the rail transportation. These include sudden cancellation of trains, train delays, strikes etc. These can result in perishing of your produce and severe financial losses to you. If the Railway Department rectify these flaws, the public will benefit immensely. He also stresses the need for an insurance scheme for farmers.The money saver
“As there is no application of chemical fertiliser, both the country and the farmer save a lot of money. Roughly, one acre of vegetable cultivation requires 30 bags of fertiliser a year. Nowadays, although a 50 kg bag is given at Rs. 1,500 to the farmer, the government pays about Rs. 3,000 on a bag, according to Priyantha.
Priyantha uses cow dung, cow urine, chicken manure and compost on his farm. Three cows provide one half of the quantity of fertilizer the farm needs. In addition, all the waste produced on the farms is used as manure. This amounts to 10,000 – 15,000 kilos of organic matter, estimates Priyantha.
Kalawel (Derris scandens), leaves of the tuna tree, together with a mixture of green chillies, garlic and ginger are the common pesticides used at the ‘Mihimandala’ farm. “When mixed cropping is practised and with plenty of birds around, there is no need for pesticides,” says Priyantha. Agro-chemicals not only make people sick they also damage the environment. So, I am trying to show the country that we can save at least our next generation by reverting to organic farming.”