Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Future of Agriculture and Food Security in light of Policy Changes and Climate Change

– A jointly organized, by the Marga Institute and the Gamani Corea Foundation, held at the BMICH on 30th January 2017

The keynote speaker was Professor Buddhi Marambe - Professor of Crop Science of the University of Peradeniya along with three other speakers.

A synopsis of each of the talks will be available shortly at the Marga Institute Blog

I will not go into any detail on each talk but merely comment on what I managed to glean from the various talks to form my personal opinion on the matter and would invite comments on interested readers on my conclusions.

The overriding theme was the fact that in light of the unpredictability of the climate, with a yearlong drought that we are experiencing as a backdrop, we have to take certain steps on the assumption that this is the norm, to ensure food security for the people who live in Sri Lanka.

Against this need, the current unscientific policy making by those in power, effectively relegating the whole of the Agricultural Community, academics and the private sector to the dustbin, the infatuation with CKDU and the fundamental misunderstanding about its cause and effects as well as the hell for leather theme of “WASAVISAN THORA RATAK” whilst appealing to the public, is a flawed concept if we are to ensure FOOD SECURITY in the short term.

It is the simple fact that if one takes rice for example, where the yields of traditional varieties are at best 25% of the present, it is courting disaster if we are to adopt this as a national policy! The proponent of the policy, being the Venerable Rathana Thero, who has influenced the President to adopt this approach without ANY consultation with the scientific or farming community, is a very dangerous route, nullifying the enormous gains on productivity achieved in Sri Lanka between 1946 and 2015 to go from food deficit to food surplus, putting this achievement in jeopardy.

It is therefore important to understand the basics of FOOD SECURITY and need thereof, before making irrational short term policy directions in areas like banning glyphosate, where Sri Lanka is the ONLY country on the face of the Earth so to do

Whilst the word organic is bandied about without any real practical means of how to achieve anywhere near required yields, this food can at present ONLY be indulged in by the haves. It is the(BAP) BEST AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES that need to be adopted without delay to lend credibility to the food we consume.

In consideration of climate changes, it was pointed out that our dry zone rainfall can be referred to as wet zone rainfall in some African Countries, and we have to be more aware of means to produce yields with minimal water requirements, and to that extent low water use crops must be encouraged, and if necessary the whole aspect of nutrition revisited, where we consume less rice, and more vegetables, by these alternative practices, to improve nutrition, and change consumption habits to ensure a healthy populace.

In that context a holistic approach that ties in Land Use, Land Consolidation, Soil Conservation and Regeneration, Awareness of the acute shortage of agricultural workforce, more mechanization, Crops that reduce the need for water, Change consumption patterns to improve health and nutrition, Plants that have higher profitability to ensure a minimum income exceeding Rs50K a month, adding a third crop in certain instances, and using fallow land in the Colombo District for high value products for export, are but a few of the areas that require more input.

The benefits of commercial farming techniques, with use of new technology to meet export needs in niche markets was also elaborated upon by Mr Rizvhi Zaheed of Hayleys Agriculture with examples from their current practices.

It is clear that the scientists and the incredible expertise already existing within the Agricultural Department, along with emphasis of new and Best Agricultural Practices to encourage the numerous Agriculture Graduates to go into the field, rather than into non-related fields, and ensuring their influence in the Policy making framework is an essential ingredient to ensure a successful future for Agriculture to ensure Food Security in Sri Lanka.

A point NOT discussed was the need to strengthen land ownership and titles, so that more land can be released for cultivation, with the assurance that land will not be lost if rented to professional farmers, who can consolidate land into contiguous areas for efficient farming. Another area that had little discussion was the value or harnessing and storing water, to be used sparingly, to ensure minimal wastage, as well as the required use of fertilizer and pesticides to minimize leaching using drone technology to pin point specific areas of use, instead of the whole field.

Finally a gentlemen who had retired from the FAO, who was now over 80 gave a clear demonstration that our food intake was at fault, with ideas for improved nutrition and use of much less starch like rice in one’s diet, that over time could change the habits of the whole Country, to a healthier lifestyle, and use of much less inputs to achieve much more in terms of a wholesome nutritious diet in future!

Friday, January 27, 2017

National Trust Lecture (in Sinhala) – “Herbal Medicinal Plants”

by Dr MH Nimal Karunasiri @ HNB Towers 6.30pm on Thursday, 27th January 2017

In essence, what I got out of this lecture was the process of Sri Lankan (as opposed to Indian Ayurvedic Practice) native medicine, has a basis of 30,000+ concoctions, known as “BEHETH WATTORU” to treat a myriad of illnesses.

It the way they are prepared, using sourced items, that maybe dried, fresh, cut, sliced, pressed, heated, outer shell removed, all of which have a specific reason, in how they are then mixed to obtain the required consistency to be effective in curing the particular illness for which this was prepared!

So he said PLEASE don’t ask him the scientific reason for why it actually works the way it is supposed to. He will only commit to saying that it works with certainty. He cannot scientifically in the sense of 21st century Western Science, extract the active elements of that concoction, and state why their chemical makeup is effective in the treatment of that particular ailment.

Another MOST important point to come out of this is that the same medicine, will NOT work in the same way for each person. That is because we humans have our own chemical makeup and so what is good for your body, may not be good for mine. The skill of the native physician is to identify the body type and even the mental type of the patient to determine what is the likeliest mix of medicines that would work for that particular patient after questioning his lifestyle, and eating habits, and work and recreation and dietary habits, to come to their best estimate of what concoction will work in that particular case, and the patient’s ability to follow

This when contrasted with Western Medicine which will treat each ailment with a prescribed type of drug, and if it does not work prescribe another set, without specific reference to the patient’s own proclivities! So when one drug does not work another may be tried but none of them may work, as they have identified the symptoms and disease incorrectly, as relating to close proximity!

He quoted an example that a nasal drip may have nothing to do with sinuses, or virus, and reasons they are NOT cured, is because it maybe related to some deficiency of something in the stomach or liver! This is not anywhere near the nose that is dripping, but Western medicine will try and find a localized solution, and not go half way down the body to (in fact) find the specific reason, in this case treat a diseased liver. This is a real problem I am having, but without an effective cure, or even identifying the cause, I am more likely to believe his supposition.

When he said the World Bank had a project to spend US$40M in documenting and identifying, and recording and preserving planting material of these medicinal herbal plants, we did not have sufficient people interested in that goal, not conservation, creating a HERB BANK and knowledge gathering minded. Instead, all that happened was that the planting material was collected by interested parties and exported out of Sri Lanka for others to modify and propagate and most likely profit from their actions, to the detriment of Sri Lanka.

We in Sri Lanka are to blame for our total lack of vision, and concern of the real value of our own, and some endemic types of Herbal and Medicinal Plants, on which much has been written by experts, but little has been done to create public awareness on their uses, value, need for preservation and propagation, and most importantly in creating small business ideas, where these plants can be grown in home gardens using the pure planting material of the best varieties which can be sold to hopefully an increasingly interested public, who wish to grow their own herbal plants as food additives, for good health among others. We can continue to provide the source material for the 30,000 concoctions, to make these portions, and to permit the survival and expansion of our native traditions to benefit all.

It was interesting when the lecturer said that even though he entered Medical College, much to the disappointment of his parents, he decided to follow this Native Medicine field, as he felt it required a level of knowledge currently not given to or entered into by people who are at the top of the class.

This coincides with my strong belief that the best should learn agriculture, and only the SECOND BEST go into Medical College, as the knowledge required to be successful in Agriculture, far exceeds that of the knowledge needed in Medicine, as we are dealing with numerous plant species, their various varieties and cultivars, their growing habits, fruiting systems and harvesting and preserving the output to be in a state fit for the purchaser, be they consumers, or intermediaries, like Ayurvedic Physicians and the like.

In a similar vein the knowledge required of the specific types of plants, how they grow, where they grow, how they can be propagated, ALONG with the way they are mixed to form these portions, and finally how these portions are applied, usually externally to the patients in the form of PATTUS and the like and ingested in the form of KASAYAS whether heated to a certain temperature and the way they are applied to the body, along with the frequency, are all the Ayurvdic/ Native Physicians knowledge, where as in Western Medicine these ancillary areas are not as important, and best left to nurses, and technicians to carry out! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

At the fellowship following the Memorial Service for Dr Tony Don Michael @ St Mary's, Bambalapitiya

with Jith Peiris

with Dad and Tilak de Zoysa

With Minister Niroshan Perera whose father Festus and Tony were good friends

With the Parish Priest of St Mary's and Uncle Lalith and Dad of course!

with Nihal Abeysundera Tony's class mate and also all the way in Medical College and Sherine Fernando

Uncle Lalith and Aunty Selvie

Brother and Sister, Lalith and Nalini

Aunty Nalini and Uncle Nihal with Sharmini Don Michael

Nihal with Mano Chanmugam

Tony's class mates at St Peter's including Dr H I K Fernando the Ceylon Wicketkeeper in the 60s

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Workshop on the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants

 – Hosted by the WNPS and funded by the Born Free Foundation @ SLF on 24th January 2017 - 9.30am to 5.30 pm

The main actors conducting the workshop were Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, who for a short time in 2016 was the DG WLC and Elephant specialist, and the Elephant expert Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, of the Center for Conservation Research.

At the conclusion of the workshop an appeal was made to try and impress upon the President as the Minister for the Environment and Mahaweli, to make sure that the water from the Moragahakanda Project does NOT result in a permanent situation where the Minneriya and Kawdulla Tanks are always at spill level, which will KILL both the US$1.25B value of the Gathering for Sri Lanka Tourism, that will outweigh any benefit farmers of Polonnaruwa District will get from having constant water to guarantee two paddy crops a year from the lands cultivated from these two tanks.

While Sumith used the word spill level, Prithiviraj countered it will be at Supply level, which is only a semantic difference in words, but amounts to the same in reality, that there will be NO grasslands in either of the Reservoirs for the 1,000 or so Elephants who use it for their fodder when the water level recedes in the Tanks.

The interpretation is on how the President sees it as a Politician from Polonnaruwa District, being concerned about a few million rupees in the pockets of a few farmers, when compared with a few thousand billion rupees in the hands of the Sri Lankan Populace from Tourism, and what he values more! The micro level or the holistic macro level expected of a TRUE STATESMEN.

This leads to the main topic of the day, which was how we are to spread the gospel to the people of Sri Lanka, that the value of the Elephant in SL cannot be measured. Their commitment NOT to harm the elephants take reasonable steps to avoid coming into conflict with them, is the real practical means of avoiding HEC (Human Elephant Conflict). It all goes to the conscience of the affected villager, on how he manages to minimize his or her personal animosity against the elephant that damages their lovingly grown crop in a manner of seconds, that leads them to take revenge against the same rogue elephant who comes nightly, by using Hakka Pattas or other traps that maim and kill. Immediate compensation can help here!

With 45% of the Country in Elephant and Human Habitat co-existence, the name of the game is how to manage harmony,  where both man and beast can live side by side, with mutual respect for each other, reducing the temptation of elephants to venture into human habitation to raid crops, by having effective barriers in the form of intelligently managed and maintained Electric Fencing, around areas of human habitation protecting humans, whilst at the same time permitting the maximum possible spaces for Elephants by giving them access to historic and traditional corridors, so they may move around unhindered, as the best way to make this objective work, and minimize the elephant need to encroach.

Further a fervent request that ALL development plans, before they are even attempted, to look at the minimal conflict areas for its construction, rather than using the conservation and environmental impact report as an afterthought, to wiggle around the problem, once the basics of construction have been agreed to.

The various practical issues were discussed, and the conclusion was that as far as fences go, they are the single most practical means to reduce HEC, and all other natural and biological means have been tested and found wanting. Additionally the actual method of fencing must take into account the terrain and practical difficulties and be adapted to particular elephant behavior to minimize the likelihood of elephants using their cunning to break and penetrate them.

Further current systems of Elephant drives were looked at and the conclusion was they don’t work, and even short term drives do NOT result in any change in behavior as they return to base, sometimes with an aggravated consequence.

Reducing the effect of Elephants getting caught to trains were discussed, and the consensus was to identify the few areas where the majority of the accidents take place, and have speed limits as the practical answer to that problem, that does NOT even necessitate DWC officers having to go on those night trains with the Drivers, if the Drivers, merely obey the Track Rules of speed!

Strict action to be taken under the law for those who use their own means of electrifying a fence, using the Grid to supply power, that invariably could kill elephant as well as human who gets caught. All other private means to be approved

A brief discussion of the conservation of the unique Tuskers of Kalawewa was also included, to provide them safe passage to Ritigala through a corridor that is currently cultivated, which results in severe harm to herds that attempt the crossing. 

In my opinion, this land should be purchased outright to expand this absolutely critical requirement to ensure the survival of the Tuskers. If NOT, they are bound to have a finite life of not more than 25 years left. Remember the total land extent is very limited here and the protected areas must be expanded.

I was very disappointed that there were NO senior officials from the Conservator of Forests, so that joint undertakings with the DWC could be seen to act on the conservation of Elephants who move in and out of their mutual jurisdictions seamlessly, but who are dealt with differently. So an appeal that they are put within the same Ministry, so that their objectives and work could support each other in managing the PROTECTED AREAS in the manner that the statute determines, with each authority helping each other to carry out their duties rather than compete.

In this instance the Range Forest Officers could often work with the Wildlife Department Officers in raids on poaching and encroaching in protected areas, to minimize the future incidences of this activity, increasing their effectiveness.

Further the participation of the other stakeholders who had been invited, and whose attendance had been confirmed, not turning up was a barrier to a successful workshop, where MORE stakeholder issues and goals could have been stirred into the same pot to come out with the needed JOINT DECLARATION to the Govt. to insist that certain changes be made in order that the Law can be obeyed and enforced with POLITICAL BLESSINGS rather than Politics and Political interference, being a barrier to its successful implementation.

The impressive show from the DWC with 6 senior officials including the DG himself, attending was heartening, but as Dr Sumith pointed out, their flexibility in putting pressure is limited as they are mere staffers whose employment could be at risk if they are seen by the politicians as interfering, and so it is the responsibility of the CIVIL society of the NGOs to put pressure on the Government to follow the statutes and enforce the existing laws fairly, so that conservation is carried out by the DWC and the current intense illwill caused by affected villagers blaming DWC officials for HEC, when in fact another civilian body, working with the local Govt. officials SHOULD intervene to sort the problems of the people, with discussion with DWC to minimize conflict.

In short the DWC can side with the animal, and the Grama Niladari side with the villager, and they mutually agree on a plan to sort out the particular problem and have a means to reconcile or compromise with an independent arbitration body, when disputes arise that cannot be resolved.

It was an excellent session and I was able to reconnect with Kumudini Hettiarachchi and meet Malaka Rodrigo, an Environmental Journalist, to try and find a means to communicate with the Sinhala Speaking audience, as that is the population that has the least access to the latest recommendations on behavior! However most of the publicity SHOULD be given to the affected areas to change their attitudes, if we are to succeed in our objectives.


The whole session was geared in such a way that we would have well defined objectives of a 5 point plan as it were to present to the Minister of Wildlife Conservation who had agreed to attend towards the end, so that we could impress on him how important ALL stakeholders unanimously agreed on a proposal for him to consider and approve.

ALAS ( as is very common amongst our leaders) he was a NO SHOW!

PS Parliament was engaged in a useless Bond Scandal Debate, an excuse to waste more time! IF there is a case they should prosecute, not waste Parliamentary time on a foolish debate of words that have NO force! Priorities Priorities, all COCK-EYED