BY FRANCES BULATHSINGHALA
Sri Lanka made a decision recently to revert to its organic heritage tradition of farming – which is non-chemical and non-poisonous.
Farming is synonymous with the culture and history of this country. Instead of maiming and killing, farming in this nation traditionally operated within the Buddhist tenets of loving kindness to all beings and worked within the endowments of mother earth.
However, colonised, globalised and neo liberalised as we have been for so long at different time frames, it seems that most of us are Sri Lankan only by name, having forgotten our farming heritage which was entwined closely with our traditional medical science.
We now have the strange phenomena of some social groups of our country clamouring for the continuation of poisonous agriculture.
They are raising the boogey of national agriculture failing if chemical fertiliser is stopped. In the past few weeks we have seen diverse traditional agriculture specialists taking to social media and other outlets to dispel the fear psychosis seemingly purposely propagated.
To educate the public on aspects of Lankan traditional agriculture and the history of chemical agriculture, we feature an interview with Alex Thanthriarachchi who has for the past five decades waged a battle against poisonous agriculture by training youth on organic farming and the importance of conserving indigenous seed varieties of Lankan paddy, fruits and vegetables.
The destruction of our indigenous seed varieties was carefully planned and orchestrated by the chemical agrarian industry, says Thanthriarachchi who as part of his bio diversity activism also promotes public understanding on the importance of protecting bees for the safeguarding of the eco system. Preferring to work silently on his decades long campaign out of media limelight, one of his rare appearances in public was last Wednesday when he was a speaker at an awareness raising event on the theme of organic food and agriculture held at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Training Institute.
This is the first segment of the interview with Thanthriarachchi, founder of the Lankan Indigenous Seed Protection Movement in Palugaswewa, Eppawala.
Q: How long have you been involved in the mission of protecting indigenous plant seed varieties, bio diversity and traditional organic farming?
A: Since I was about 17 years of age.
Q: Alongside organic farming techniques, biodiversity and related scientific details, you are highly knowledgeable on the global phenomena of chemical farming and related disasters. Do you hold a professorship of any university?
A. No, because I was not educated at any university. Recently I was selected to be part of some Lankan university research on traditional rice varieties – as I have for over fifty years conserved and planted around 600 varieties. However I was not selected and the reason given was because I do not have a doctorate.
I did get selected to enter university. Yet, I opted not to. I am extremely glad of the decision I made then. If not, maybe I would have never persisted in the path I chose.
Q: So instead of entering university, you continued to strengthen your understanding of traditional farming?
A. Yes. My parents, particularly my father educated me very well on the values and heritage of this country and it helped me to do what I have done. I read widely and researched the themes I worked on. This soil and all of nature became my lifelong university.
Q: Can you tell us the story of your early journey in this mission?
A. The 1960s were formative years of my life. As we know that was a time when self-sufficiency within the nation was encouraged as a national policy. It was very common then for youth around the country to start ‘farming units’ known in Sinhala as ‘govipolawal’ which focused on strengthening the village economy and the health of the people.
They were not called organic because at that time there was no need to affix this label as everything we grew then was following the biodiversity centered traditional ‘organic’ method.
Although the curse of chemical agriculture had started in the world, it had not yet fully spread to Sri Lanka. So in 1969 myself and a few other teenagers started cultivating.
I first got together young people who were dropping out of school and hence the name given to our group was ‘Rajarata Pasel Hera Yannange Govipola.’
We cultivated and learnt about plants and insects. We learnt from elders who then were not brainwashed by the chemical agriculture mafia and therefore retained knowledge of traditional cultivation. We connected the dots between agriculture and national economy.
Q: Where did you start this?
A. In Kahatagasdigiliya. There were vast areas of State land and we started cultivation in an area there. At that time land was freely available and anyone wishing to cultivate could do so without much fuss.
Q: What is the town or village you grew up in?
A. It was in a village in the Matale district called Galewela which is close to Dambulla.
Q: Where is your current cultivation and training centre?
A. It is in Palugaswewa, Eppawela. The Kahatagasdigiliya cultivation is still being carried out and some of the surviving persons who were part of that initiative with me in the 70s are still handling it.
They are old now of course but they are continuing with what they started as teenagers. All of us consume only what we cultivate and being in our seventies and eighties we have no serious illnesses.
We who work with the soil of this nation learn very deeply about nature and the bio diversity of this land.
Bee conservation is one such connected key area that requires stringent attention. If there are no bees the impact on humanity will be lethal.
In the Eppawela training centre we draw attention to all these aspects. We also publish books and documents. One of our recent publications is the Sinhala translation of a book by British Botanist, Plant Physiologist and the early organic movement pioneer, Albert Horward.
We translated and published his seminal work, ‘An Agricultural Testament’ which countered the chemical agriculture attempts of the green revolution by advocating natural soil fertilisation.
Q: How do you collect indigenous plants or seeds?
A. Whatever remote place in this county I go to, if I see such plant species, I get some seeds or a small sapling. It is then grown and cared for so that other such plants will soon follow. The poisons we have sprayed on the land have destroyed beyond salvaging much of our indigenous seed varieties and our rare medicinal plants.
Q: With regard to paddy about how many traditional varieties are you working with?
A. With around 600 varieties. Following Sri Lanka’s decision to do away with chemical agriculture, we are now trying to work with more Lankan stakeholders to disseminate information concerning these varieties and how to cultivate them.
Q: Do you think there is any reason to fear the recent national level decision on banning poisonous chemical agriculture?
A. What is there to fear? The only thing to fear is reverting to the chemical agriculture that created thousands of kidney and cancer patients while killing off the soil, the precious traditional seed varieties of this land and thousands of living beings that make up the eco system.
For over five decades myself and hundreds of others in this country have been cultivating on mass scale without ever resorting to the scientific- chemical agriculture that was sold to the world in 1960s. How can we do it and others cannot?
There are major attempts by many people financially impacted by this decision to showcase an artificial fear. Sri Lanka is at a crucial juncture where every citizen needs to be educated on both our ancient history in agriculture, the role of nature and bio diversity in feeding humans and the lies that were told to us in the 1960s that if this chemical agriculture was not adopted throughout the globe that humanity will starve.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A. This is a vast topic. I will begin with the lie that we believed in the 60s when the green revolution was designed for the purported reason of saving the world.
Nations, even those such as us who could have taught traditional agrarian science to the world believed what we were told – that without resorting to poisoning the earth to get it to feed humans, that humanity will starve.
We believed that the earth and ourselves needed to be ‘slow poisoned’ to ‘survive.’ There is no more preposterous lie than this and the worst is that we of this nation succumbed to it.
The truth is that by the 1950s the human impact of the 2nd world war was being seen in the Western world. They had lost much of their young men in the battle field. Large numbers of these were young men engaged in agricultural fields in different parts of the world.
The Western economies in general had crashed. Thus to create and benefit from a new global agrarian ‘industry,’ and to create a new economic structure, business tycoons invested in this fabrication.
Intellectuals, philanthropists and scientists became part of this lie for varying reasons and thus was born the murderous chemical agriculture industry that siphoned off billions from countries like us which sacrificed our revenue, our health, our lives, our bio diversity and our heritage in the biggest ever ‘mankolle’ (robbery) known to man.
Q: For the average person to understand could you explain how cultivation can be done without chemical fertiliser or weedicide or pesticide?
A. The answer to this question was the daily life principle of our ancestors in this nation. They worked with nature, not against nature. The sun, the rain and the soil were all part of the nature based cycle that we belong to which our farming was based upon.
The tree begins its journey of creation as a seed and then it becomes a tender plant and proceeds to become a youthful tree and then a full fledged adult tree. It lives and it dies. Its dead leaves and twigs return to earth, fertilising it so that a fresh plant life can spring out. When we die we too return to the earth and nourish it. The cycle of life continues. What has happened is this basic nature based reality we have totally disregarded, discarding it for a totally alien materialistic farce. In our history there was no song and a dance about ‘fertiliser.’ We knew and our ancestors knew that the whole of un-tampered nature was ‘fertiliser.’ We have been brainwashed by so called modern ‘knowledge’ cunning crafted for the sake of profit alone.
Our mistake has bestowed on this nation kidney patients and cancer patients and the plague of diverse other non-communicable diseases.
Q: Do you fully blame the modern agriculture industry for the above mentioned diseases?
A. Of course. It is self evident. It is everyday knowledge. When I was a child there were no kidney patients. Today thousands are dying of it. Children are dying. How many funerals I have attended of children belonging to my friends! Did this ever happen before we started poisoning our earth? Where are the protests for this? Where is the academic research about this crime?
Q. Back again to the current topic in Sri Lanka on reverting to nature based or organic agriculture, could you cite more reasons to convince our people that it is possible?
A. I will give one classic example. This is an example from the North of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka had a thirty-year-old battle against terrorism and chemicals connected to agriculture were not sent to the North. This was because of the fear that those engaging in terrorism will use these to make bombs. Did the Northern farmer stop farming? What happened then? Check out the colour of the soil in the North – it is red and there is life in it. It is not dead like in the South. Jaffna is well known for its agricultural history and the Jaffna farmer continued to cultivate for the three decades of unrest in that area and there was no drop in the yields.
This is one solid example I can give, apart from my own cultivation experience and others like me who reap abundance in crops every year. Organic farming is not some fancy new fangled discipline, it is about understanding the life cycle of this earth and working accordingly. The entire eco system is designed to work within the rhythm of nature and every creature of the earth can be an assistant in this process – or – they can be made into enemies as we have done since the 1960s.
Q: In your speech at today’s event you said that the advent of chemical agriculture was a major global conspiracy and that it sought to destroy nations such as ours which was known historically for its agrarian heritage. Could you elaborate?
A. Yes. What I said was exactly what it was. There are hundreds of examples I could cite how this was systematically done the world over. I will stick to Sri Lanka in my examples. There were several Western food scientists/agriculturists and researchers who travelled to countries such as Sri Lanka decades ago when steps were taken to establish the chemical agriculture industry.
They wanted to de-stablise the agrarian economy in countries such as Sri Lanka which had no agricultural problems. They cunningly created the issues for us. If one carefully research this, going back in time, we will find that our problems with mass scale ‘pest attacks’ began after Western ‘researchers’ came here and did ‘agrarian experiments’ and thereby introduced hybrid crops.
Of course with the crops they also introduced the pests. This is how they began creating a dependency on chemical fertiliser; by killing off the soil and nutrients, by killing off through weedicide and pesticide our thousands of years old resilient traditional crops, replacing it with fertiliser dependent artificially developed seed varieties and ensuring we had no option but to revert to it again and again spending billions of rupees of our money and fattening the coffers of Western companies.
At the same time we build more and more hospitals for cancer and kidney patients. We have never stopped to think through the global politics behind this.
One of the very successful earliest attempts of the Western chemical agrarian movement was to befriend the then Agriculture Department heads we had in Sri Lanka.
One notable example is of an official whose name was H. V. Richards. He was wooed by a Western university which offered him a PhD in agriculture. Sri Lanka was offered some orange seeds by that particular country to cultivate. By that time in a global research on the most nutritious and tastiest oranges of the world, the Lankan oranges that grew in the village of Bibile had been cited. In this backdrop foreign species of oranges were encouraged to be grown in Bibile. The result was a plant based ‘virus’ that impacted domestic orange plants and wiped out much of the local orange varieties.
There are hundreds of examples like this. There was another instance where a foreign food scientist came here for an ostensible ‘agrarian research’ and the locale he did his ‘research’ soon after saw a sudden ‘pest problem’ which of course meant that liberal amounts of pesticide was used. The same story goes for weedicide. With colonisation and other factors making us Lankans forget our traditional knowledge on how we historically tackled pests and weeds has made it easy to fool us. We became people who became addicts of the very thing that destroyed this nation and its people. It is now a chance for us to at least in this year wake up to our past folly. We have to understand the truths that those such as Vandana Shiva has been talking of.
Q. What is needed in changing our society to understanding that chemical agriculture is a created want and not a genuine need?
A. We need a media genuinely interested and properly educated on aspects such as heritage agriculture of this land. We need publications on this subject getting to the hands of the people. There is a need to train more and more farmers for them to understand that they had been tricked in the past and that this is being changed now.
There is an urgent need for a consistent effort by the whole of Sri Lanka to revert to organic farming in deed and in mental attitude. We need an education system that will hold the philosophy enshrined in the long ago popular song for children ‘Mea Gase Boho.’ This song shows that the fruits of the earth is not to be selfishly consumed by humans alone but all creatures of the earth.