Colombo, Development

Feature article: Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung?

The late Ray Wijewardene in conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on Living with Climate Change – Ray Wijewardene is second from right

[Authors note: Dr Philip Revatha (Ray) Wijewardene, who passed away on August 18 aged 86, spent a lifetime being unpigeonholeable – which won him many admirers and a few detractors. Despite being an accomplished engineer, aviator, inventor and Olympian, he chose to introduce himself as a farmer and mechanic ‘who still got his hands dirty’. Unpretentious and always enthusiastic, he was one man who somehow managed to have his head (literally) in the clouds and his feet firmly on the ground.

Ray’s multi-faceted career blended many disciplines and pursuits. At Cambridge University, he studied three branches of engineering — aeronautical, mechanical and agricultural. He also earned a masters degree in business administration from the Harvard Business School, and later received honorary degrees from the UK and Sri Lanka. He was Chancellor of the Sri Lanka’s technological University of Moratuwa from 2002 to 2007, where he succeeded his long-time friend Arthur C Clarke. Ray was also an outstanding sportsman who represented his country in sailing: he competed in the Mexico Olympics in 1968, and won a Silver medal at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1970.

As an aviator, he was licensed to fly fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros. He also experimented with building and flying ultra-light aircraft and helicopters – a passion he was forced to abandon when private flying was restricted during the war.

He was fond of saying, “Agriculture is my bread and butter, while aviation is the jam on top of it”. As a world authority on tropical farming systems, Ray worked for many years in Malaysia for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and later with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria.

In the 1960s, as the designer and promoter of the world’s first two-wheeled (Land Master) tractor, Ray travelled all over Asia, Africa and Latin America working with tropical farmers. But years later, he questioned the wisdom of trying to mechanise tropical farming, and dedicated the rest of his life to researching and promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture. On his estate cum farm in in Sri Lanka’s North-western Province, he kept on experimenting with rain-fed farming, agroforestry and dendro power. He never retired.

In his spare time, Ray also worked with the research and policy communities. He held various appointments as Chairman of the Tea Research Board, head of the Inventors Commission and a member of several public sector bodies concerned with agriculture, science and technology. While he stayed clear of politics, he never hesitated to speak his mind – which sometimes landed him in controversy.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene first met Ray Wijewardene in the mid 1980s when he covered the latter’s work for the local and international media. Later, they collaborated in various science communication projects – the last was in mid 2008, when Nalaka interviewed Ray on climate change for the Sri Lanka 2048 TV debate series.

Nalaka did this wide-ranging interview with Ray in mid 1995, and a compact version appeared in Down to Earth, the science and environmental magazine published from New Delhi  (31 October 1995). However, the full exchange has never before been published. Releasing this text is Nalaka’s own tribute to Ray — an imaginative and unorthodox thinker, life-longer experimenter and an outspoken public intellectual.]


Nalaka Gunawardene: A major thrust of the Green Revolution was promoting high yielding crop varieties and high external inputs. You’re questioning these now. Why?

Ray Wijewardene: All along in the Green Revolution, its promoters focused on maximizing yields through massive inputs. But they forgot that what the farmer wants is to maximize profits, not necessarily yields! During the past three decades, we have increasingly adopted high input technologies for agriculture, which naturally cost more. Increasing cost for the inputs and declining real prices (say, in terms of 1960 levels) for crops such as rice has resulted in a net decrease in the profit margins of farmers all over the tropics. Further, the heavy use of agricultural chemicals has resulted in serious environmental degradation.

So we lost on two fronts. There is now an increasing realization both among the farmers, and more slowly among the scientists and agricultural policy makers, that a return to some traditional systems practised in the past is the best option. Those systems had low external inputs, and optimum recycling of locally available inputs. We also need to optimize –- not maximize — the available land area for producing food and other crops for a rapidly increasing population.

Some argue that we can’t make agriculture sustainable and still hope to produce enough food for the growing human family. Do you agree?

As I said, the issue here is not one of mere yields, but improving the farmers’ overall profits. Sustainability is not a new concept in our agriculture. Our traditional farmers knew and practised it well. And as for back as 1936, our Department of Agriculture had outlined what sustainable productivity is in a publication called “Green Manuring”. Had we followed that course, instead of losing our heads in the euphoria of the Green Revolution during the 1960s and 1970s, we would surely not be facing the present dilemma of declining yields despite heavy inputs of agro-chemicals, particularly in crops such as tea.

You were a part of the new wave of agriculture in the 1960s, and helped mechanise farming through your two-wheeled tractor. But later you called it all a ‘big mistake’. Why?

Because we failed totally to ask ourselves a fundamental question: does the tractor mechanize agriculture or does it simply mechanize the buffalo? Ultimately, the tractor only mechanized the buffalo — and that too, not very well. It didn’t have the reproductive capability of the buffalo! Nor could it produce milk as the buffalo did, or fertilize our fields! So our initial attempt to introduce tractors was indeed a big mistake.

After a great deal of study, we realized a fundamental truth: the main, if not the whole, purpose of tillage in farming is to control weeds. The cost for (weed control by) tillage represents between 40 to 60 per cent of the total costs of agricultural productions. Tillage is not a healthy practice: it aggravates erosion, and is a major contributor to the serious loss of soil fertility. The loss of soil fertility is particularly serious in the tropics which have some of the poorest and most erodible soils on earth!

Ray Wijewardene on the set of Sri Lanka 2048, June 2008

Instead of tilling, what can be done to control weeds?

There are two main alternatives to tillage. The first is using herbicides, which usually creates further (and undesirable) dependence upon import of chemicals. It can also lead to environmental hazards.

The second method is using water for weed control, which is practised more widely that we realize. By far, the major use (over two thirds) of irrigation water in rice farming is for control of weeds in paddy fields! Some 20 tons of water are used to grow just one kilogramme of rice! The real costs of irrigated water, when added to the other (ever increasing) costs of inputs into rice production, invariably results in the costs of rice production far exceeding the price that a farmer receives for his crop!

Thus, we urgently need a ‘revolution’ in how weeds are controlled in tropical farming, with minimal reliance on imported inputs — or on expensive irrigated water. I spent many years studying the problem of how to control weeds naturally. And (I realized) looking into the tropical forests will ultimately give us the answer.

How is weed control an issue in the forest?

You don’t see any weed in a rainforest because firstly, it is shaded by the overhead canopy and secondly, the weeds are smothered by the leaf mulch. You realize that the fertility of the forest is enriched by the deep roots of the trees bringing up nutrients from manure reserves in the deeper soil levels, producing leaves and other parts of trees, which then fall on the top soil. This is how a forest system recycles fertility! This recycling of manure and fertility also controls weeds.

Ultimately, we come to realize that faming is all about managing weeds and managing fertility. These are the two key limiting factors. In the tropical forests, both these factors are beautifully managed by Nature itself. Trees are the essential link in this process — one that can determine whether a given land will be productive or marginal.

In addressing this problem of managing weeds and maintaining soil fertility under rain-fed conditions, we came across a technique which tries to mimic the forest. In the Philippines, it was called the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) — now the name is being used universally. It helps us to bring perennial trees back into farming, as was done traditionally. In SALT, we basically generate large amounts of leaf mulch on the farm land by establishing contoured hedge-rows of suitable trees. Work at IITA and other institutions across the tropics and ground level experimentation in Asia and other tropical regions have helped develop SALT to an advanced state.

What are the main advantages of SALT?

Farming with SALT reduces the need for external inputs such as fertilizers and weed control chemicals. It also minimizes soil erosion. SALT has a particular application to the cultivation in the uplands. Upland farming normally starts with the clearing of trees — which immediately removes from the land the shade and leaf litter that smother weeds and also provide natural fertility. Such clearing also exposes the land to weather processes, leading to a rapid loss of top soil.

(In contrast) SALT helps by bringing nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs back into their traditional role in the farming scene with their abundance of leaf-litter and mulch for restoring fertility and smothering weeds. What we are learning is how to do all this cultivation with minimal need for expensive tools and external fertilizers.

Are you fundamentally opposed to any use of external inputs in agriculture?

No, on the contrary! I believe we have to use some external inputs, but in an appropriate manner. I call it replenishing the land’s fertility. Especially where export crops are concerned, we have been extracting the fertility of our lands and sending it out (overseas). We need to put it back — or else we deplete our soils.

Sri Lanka doesn’t have extensive chemical deposits like India to produce all its own chemical replenishment. So we need to import some chemical fertilizers, but it must be used sparingly and alongside the natural ways of fertilizing the land. We need to pay more attention to aspects such as green manure, cow dung and earthworms – these are the real friends of farmers!

Our universities and research institutes have tended to ignore these aspects, largely because there are no powerful, western lobbies to promote their use. We have multinational companies supporting — directly or indirectly — the extensive use of chemical fertilizers. But who supports cow-dung? Who extols the virtues of the humble earthworm? For us in Asia, these elements are far more important. Indians have recognized this, but we still haven’t. As long as our agricultural scientists are trained in the western mould of high external input agriculture, this (mindset) won’t change. Cow-dung and earthworms won’t stand a chance – until some western academic suddenly “re-discovers” them…

Some activists have criticized you for working with tobacco companies to promote SALT in the hill country of Sri Lanka. What really happened?

I couldn’t care less what people do with tobacco — I don’t support smoking. But that’s not the issue here. The tobacco companies offer a very good deal to the farmer. My interest is in improving the farmer’s lot. Here’s my challenge to our critics and cynics: ‘If you don’t want farmers to grow tobacco, please come up with equally attractive packages of extension and marketing for farmers’!

I have been working not only with tobacco companies, but also with tea companies, in Sri Lanka’s hill country. I’ve been trying to get them interested in practising SALT. Earlier, the cultivation of both tobacco and tea has led to massive soil erosion. This is largely because of the misplaced belief that the land should be fully cleared of weeds before growing these cash crops. This is an imported, temperate-farming concept. What we have tried to show these farmers and plantation companies is that much more organic material must be put into farming. Sri Lanka’s tea yields have been declining, and our productivity is going to be a appallingly low unless and until we can recycle more organic matter in these crop lands. It has taken us more than a century to realize that chemical fertilizers will produce little effect without the organic matter.

I work with tobacco and tea companies also because they have good extension systems to reach out to the farmers and to share new information and techniques with them. The tobacco company did a first class job in promoting SALT because their extension staff got the message and spread it effectively.

Ray Wijewardene on the set of Sri Lanka 2048 show – June 2008

What about introducing SALT also to the subsistence farmers who engage in shifting cultivation?

I am encouraged by the fact that more and more farmers who engage in rain-fed farming realize the importance of covering the bare soil with mulch: they are gradually reverting to these techniques. They have seen these techniques used on bigger farms as well as in tea and tobacco plantations. It would have been ideal if there was a system to tell more farmers about the virtues of these methods.

But our great tragedy is that the Department of Agriculture fails to see the value of SALT. The country’s agricultural authorities have been ‘brainwashed’ totally by the “open field” concepts of temperate faming that they want more time to “research” the desirability of SALT before giving it their stamp of approval. While realizing the benefits of SALT, the inertia of the system prevents them from fully endorsing it…

It sounds like our Department of Agriculture is the biggest impediment to achieving sustainable agriculture?

So far, yes! As I have said, they are still following outmoded western methods which even the west is now questioning! The other problem is the huge gap between research and effective extension to the farmer. I whole-heartedly agree with the senior officer of the Department of Agriculture who said, in a rare moment of candour: “Fifty years of the DoA has been a total failure….Still, 90 per cent of our farmers are recipients of poverty alleviation subsidies.”

Why do you advocate growing multi-purpose trees instead of short term crops?

For two good reasons. One is that in the tropical counties, climatic conditions are more suitable for perennial tree crops than short-term crops. A major constraint in tropical agriculture is the insufficiency of sunshine. This may sound contradictory, but on the whole, we in the tropics don’t get very long hours of daylight, and on top of that, we also experience frequent cloud cover. This can affect short-term crops. But trees don’t rely on a single growing season; they benefit from the tropical sun that shines throughout the year. Tree crops are thus the natural vegetation and source of food for the tropics.

We have to question whether we practise correct type of agriculture. Many forms of “bare-soil” agriculture, as practised in countries with a temperate vegetation and climate, have been blindly adopted in the tropics. Even rice is a temperate crop, although it has adapted well to the swampy valleys where water serves ideally to control weeds. But using water for this purpose on large irrigation schemes is not very cost effective. As I said earlier, some 20 tons of water are used to grow one kilogram of rice: three fourths of this water goes into managing weeds. The rest is adequate for the physiological needs of the rice plant. Water is rapidly becoming the most expensive herbicide in the world — and freshwater is increasingly scarce!

Sri Lanka’s soil and climate — as elsewhere in the humid tropics — clearly favour the growing of more tree crops. Archaeological research reveals that ancient Lankans had more tree crops in their diet, and were less dependent on grain crops including rice. During the Second World War, when the rice supplies from the East were interrupted, I remember how our people reverted to eating more yams, manioc (cassava), coconut, breadfruit, bananas, jak fruit, and a whole range of other tree crops to supplement local rice production and maintain a healthy diet.

As a rice farmer myself, I whole-heartedly support the growing of rice and am proud of the yields achieved under difficult circumstances in our valleys and lowlands. But let’s optimize the uplands with tree crops.

You’ve also been experimenting with agroforestry. What exactly is agroforestry, and how can it help our farmers?

Agroforestry is a term used to describe a wide range of agricultural practices which combine both short term crops with long-term, larger trees in the same agricultural land, at the same time. Tropical farmers have long raised food crops and trees/shrubs, and sometimes animals, in an integrated and sustainable manner. So it’s nothing new.

However, such integrated land use systems, which require less external inputs, have until recently been ignored by agricultural and  forestry researchers due to a tragic decision several decades ago to separate the  departments and ministries concerned with agriculture (for food) and forestry (for timber)! That the two are intrinsically liked was not realised nor appreciated.

It’s only in the last decade that specialists have rediscovered the integration of crops, animals and tree production in “agroforestry”. A much overlooked fact is that deeper-rooted trees bring nutrients up from lower soil levels and deposit it on the soil surface as leaf mulch. On this, a wide range of food crops can be grown.

In your view, what’s the biggest single problem facing tropical agriculture?

The two biggest problems facing farmers throughout the world are the loss of soil fertility and control of weeds. Every year, a large extent of agricultural land is rendered unproductive due to soil erosion in the catchment areas in Sri Lanka’s central hill country. The susceptible ecosystem (steep slopes, high rainfall) is damaged by inappropriate land use and cultivation practices. One millimetre of top soil lost is 13 tons of total soil loss per hectare.

In some areas in Sri Lanka’s hill country, more than a centimetre of soil has been lost in a year, so the loss is often over 100 tons per hectare! Such erosion leads to a rapid loss of soil fertility, and can seriously affect the catchment of several key rivers that originate from the hill country. Already, the Mahaweli River‘s reservoirs and irrigation systems have begun to show the impact of sedimentation. So it’s a double jeopardy: threatening both land and waterways, particularly irrigation systems.

One thing is clear: tropical soils should never be left exposed. A rice field covered with water is fine. Similarly, uplands covered with mulch are also acceptable. But bare soil – absolutely no! That will soon lead to erosion and loss of fertility.

Some blame shifting (‘chena’) cultivation for much of this soil erosion and land degradation. But you’ve disagreed. Why?

Rain-fed shifting cultivation is practised widely in Sri Lanka and all over the tropics. Shifting cultivation (called chena cultivation in Sri Lanka) is the earliest and most wide-spread form of agroforestry in the tropics. It was a land use system in which the branches of forest trees were lopped and crops are cultivated alongside those trees. The deep rooting trees were left intact on these lands to provide shade — and to bring up soil nutrients. After cultivating on that land for a few seasons, the land was left for the regeneration of the foliage (this was called the ‘fallow period’).

The good chena farmer only lopped the branches to let sunlight through. He didn’t fully clear the forest. Sometimes the lopped branches were burned very slightly to prepare the ground for cultivation, but farmers did NOT set fire to whole forest areas. It was nothing like the burns encouraged by the World Bank sponsored projects with huge machinery and massive, destructive opening up of forest lands.

It’s only in recent decades that the traditional shifting cultivation practice has become totally “vulgarized” and farmers have started clearing whole forests for cultivation. It has been influenced by western (temperate) farming approach where they have vast areas of open farm lands. However, as available land diminished, the fallow periods become shorter and shorter, so there was less time for abandoned lands to regenerate naturally. During the last few decades, the fallow period had come down from over 10 years to less than three years.

The earlier, correct form of shifting cultivation was practised by farmers all over the  tropics for hundreds of years without serious damage to land or soil fertility. Armchair critics are quick to blame chena for causing soil erosion and deforestation. But when correctly done with adequate fallow periods, it is one of the best methods to raise crops using only rain water, in areas where irrigated water is either not available or is simply too expensive.

So banning chena cultivation – as some critics advocate – isn’t the solution?

No, chena cultivation cannot be eliminated or regulated by mere laws or through harsh penalties. Chena provides a good part of Sri Lanka’s subsidiary food crops, and it forms the only source of income — particularly during a year of low rainfall — to the poorest segments of rural society. So it’s likely to continue, no matter what the critics say or do.

It has always been a challenge to agricultural scientists and development planners to devise and promote viable alternatives to chena cultivation — or at least to find ways of making it sustainable. One way forward is to promote the use of fast growing trees which will help recycle soil fertility faster, so that the farmer can return to the same plot of land after shorter fallow periods. This is the principle behind SALT and “alley cropping”. Many much fast growing trees have been identified and are now being popularized.

Will the small tropical farmers always be prisoners of local and global market forces?

In fact, their problem is that market forces are not allowed to operate freely! Governments both in the North (developed world) and in the South (developing world) are interfering with market forces in ways that marginalize the small tropical farmer.

At the international level, prices are kept artificially low by Northern governments offering huge farm subsidies to their own farmers, and then flooding the markets with cheap produce, which undercuts our farmers. Apart from subsidies, the North can afford to keep prices low also because of the vastness of agricultural enterprises (i.e. economies of scale). Our small farmers naturally incur higher unit costs.

The subsidized foods, imported from the North, freely enter our markets and pose increasing market competition, e.g. wheat and milk from subsidized farms in the US, Europe and Australia. The Americans’ PL 480 (Public Law 480), which annually provides large quantities of wheat to the developing countries at comparatively low prices, is one of the biggest enemies of our farmers, who are squeezed between diminishing real prices for their produce and the increasing costs of production.

Interestingly, the small farmers in Japan, Taiwan and Korea are paid four to five times the price per kilo of paddy paid to the farmers in Sri Lanka. The Japanese authorities well appreciate that the so-called “world price” for rice is based on production from the very large farms of the US which benefit from the economies of scale, and with proximate low cost access to the inputs and facilities for higher yields.  There is no way the much smaller-scale Japanese farmers could produce rice at comparable prices.

What about our farmers and the local market?

It’s the same with the small farmers is Sri Lanka and in most other countries of Asia. A good stating point would be to offer our farmers realistic prices for their produce.

Unfortunately, our politicians just love to subsidize the city consumer upon the sweat of the village farmer. If higher prices are paid to the farmer, it will gradually lead to enhanced rural prosperity, which in turn will lead to a whole chain of events – for example, reversing migration to the already congested cities. It makes sense in every way to offer a realistic price to the farmer. But it doesn’t happen!

Finally, you have long been critical of international development aid. Why?

I believe development aid is a part of “neocolonialism” — a conspiracy of sort that keeps developing counties bound to inappropriate development models and ill-fitting technologies. It is our short-sighted politicians who mortgage the future of our entire nations to the west.

I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., once said to his people: “You buy what you want, yet you beg for what you need”. This is exactly what our politicians are doing in relation to development aid.

I, for one, would prefer to see all development aid to the global South stop. Then we’ll learn to stand on our own feet — or we’ll perish. That could be the best thing that can happen to Sri Lanka, and we will surely learn the meaning of “independence” as “non-dependence”. And I’m confident: we shall not perish!

[Note: The interview has been reproduced without further editing or updating.]