Systems Ecologist Ranil Senanayake in conversation with Science Writer Nalaka Gunawardene. For Part 2 of this interview, titled Who’s Afraid of Exotic Species, Gene Pirates and Government Babus?, click here.

Dr Ranil Senanayake is a rare public intellectual in Sri Lanka. He is extremely well informed, analytical, multidisciplinary — and courageous enough to speak his mind on matters of public interest in a land where many academics and professionals choose silence, or grumble privately.

In particular, he has been vocal about the indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemical fertiliser in farming; the use of exotic tree species for monocultures in the name of forestry; heavy reliance of imported petroleum for developing Sri Lanka’s economy; and the erosion of biological diversity at the levels of habitats, species and genes. Besides raising these concerns at scientific fora, he has been a regular contributor of op-ed essays to newspapers and is increasingly expressive online.

In 2011, he collected many of his public media articles in a collection titled:

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, and here I am stuck in the middle again! Thirty years of attempting to affect policy change in Sri Lanka. Its cover blurb says the book hopes to raise awareness “of the mistakes made in the past, so we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.”

Dr Senanayake obtained his PhD as a Systems Ecologist from the University of California at Davis in 1978, where he worked under Professor Michael Soulé, the US biologist best known as an early promoter of conservation biology. He also worked as a researcher with the well known oceanographer and TV personality Commander Jacques Yves Cousteau.

In the late 1970s, he briefly worked for the government of Sri Lanka attached to the ministry in charge of the Mahaweli River diversion project. As a young professional, he questioned some of its premises and ecological practices, leading to his dismissal and subsequent vilification by the powerful minister.

For the past three decades, he has combined the roles of researcher, university teacher and activist. While his services or advice were never sought again in his native Sri Lanka, he has since been a consultant to foreign governments, UN agencies, development organisations and conservation organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

He has held positions such as senior lecturer at Melbourne and Monash universities in Australia; Executive Director of the global network Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) anchored in Nairobi, Kenya; and Senior Scientist of Counterpart International based in Washington, DC.

Today, as Chairman of Rainforest Rescue International, a non-profit organisation based in Galle, Sri Lanka, he continues his life’s work to protect vulnerable environments through ecosystem restoration, development of sustainable livelihoods, education, research and advocacy. He is also on the Advisory Board of the Living Planet Foundation in Texas, USA, and patron of Lanka Organics (Pvt) Limited.

Author of numerous scientific papers, media articles and presentations, he has served on the UNEP committee that produced the comprehensive and authoritative Global Biodiversity Assessment.

Dr Senanayake is the originator of the environmental restoration system known as Analog Forestry, which mimics the natural forest and strengthens rural communities — socially and economically – by nurturing tree species that provide commercial products. He field tested analog forestry in Sri Lanka through the non-profit entity Neo-Synthesis Research Centre (NSRC) that he set up with like-minded scientists and conservationists in the 1980s.

Dr Senanayake comes from an old, respected family in Sri Lanka. His grandfather F R Senanayake was a leading figure in the Sri Lanka independence movement and initiator of the Temperance Movement. His granduncle D S Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon from 1948 to 1952, and his father C Upali Senanayake was instrumental in developing the Sarvodaya movement and the National Heritage movements of Sri Lanka

Dr Senanayake is no armchair conservationist: he is a diver with interests in marine archaeology; as well as an ichthyologist and a herpetologist.

In March 2012, he gave a long and reflective interview to science writer Nalaka Gunawardene, who has covered some of his research and advocacy for 25 years. In this first of a two-part special, they talk about the meaning of development, and Sri Lanka’s heavy reliance on high external input farming.

This conversation is particularly timely and relevant in view of the massive infrastructure development being pursued after the Lankan war ended in mid 2009. In some respects, the current ‘development spurt’ is comparable to the accelerated Mahaweli Development programme of the 1980s when the government of the day bulldozed its way through without adequate public debate of the cost-benefits, choices and alternatives.

L to R – F R Senanayake, D S Senanayake and Dudley Senanayake

Nalaka: Ranil, let’s begin at the beginning. Your family has long running connections to the land and heritage of Sri Lanka, which shaped your views. Tell us something about your roots…

I should probably phrase it ‘Ewam me sutan’ (‘thus have I heard’) as the Buddha says…

My family that I come from was associated with the Sri Maha Bodhi. It was one of the families that travelled across [from India] when the sapling was brought and planted in Anuradhapura. The family then flourished in Anuradhapura until the time when a sapling from the Sri Maha Bodhi (sacred Bo tree) was sent southwards. In those days when people travelled, they moved in caravans. They were on their way to Attanagalla, where the sapling was due to go to. They rested at this place.

And when they got up to move camp again, they found that the tree had rooted through the Paththraya (bowl) or Kalaya (pot). It had rooted! And then the King at that time…dictated that the tree should not be moved. It should be kept there and an arrow shot there and the distance of that arrow be the temple and the people who were there would be the custodians of the temple and the guardians of the temple. And that is how the village of Bothale came into being. That’s my home village. That’s where I come from, and that is the history of this family and how it came to be…

Nalaka: You initially wanted a job at the Dehiwala Zoo but the then Prime Minister, who was your uncle, frowned upon the idea. Why?

Ranil: I was involved with snakes and frogs and lizards and animals for a long time. So they (family) wanted me to train as a Zoo Director. And I did. I was sent to England. I went to Regent’s Park Zoo (London) and Whipsnade Zoo (Kent) and I was trained as a Zoo Director and I came back. And it was after this that I went and spoke to my uncle Dudley about joining the Zoo.

And, his response was: “Ranil, I know you are the best man for the job. I know you have gone out and qualified as a Zoo director, but you don’t have a basic degree. And the job requires a basic degree. And if I let you have this job, then it will be seen as nepotism — and therefore, I think it’s best you do not apply for the job.”

Of course, I accepted it. Fair enough. Then I applied for to the University of California and other Universities in the States, to begin my formal education. And that’s when I first began going to school…

Nalaka: You went there for eight or 10 years?

Ranil: Yes, 10 years.

Nalaka: And at the end of that process, you became a Systems Ecologist – Sri Lanka’s first?

Ranil: Yes — and also the first in South Asia…

Nalaka: What exactly does a Systems Ecologist do?

Ranil: A Systems Ecologist basically is trained to look at anything as an ecosystem. It could be a drop of water, which is an ecosystem for planarians; an ecosystem for amoebae, paramecium, etc., as an ecosystem.

Or, I could look at a lake as an ecosystem; or I could look at an ocean; a forest; an agricultural system — it doesn’t matter. They are all ecosystems. So I am trained to look at anything as a system and then see: are there any problems, systemic problems, and can I adjust these systemic problems to bring back some degree of stability to that ecosystem? Basically that’s my training!

Nalaka: As you were leaving the US, your mentors reminded you of Aldo Leopold’s famous warning to all ecologists. What was that?

Ranil: Aldo Leopold just said, ‘The price that you pay for ecological knowledge’ — and at that time, I didn’t realise that there was a price to be paid! — and my major professor Michael Soulé is the one who reminded me of this. He said, “Ranil, remember, the price you pay for ecological knowledge is an acute awareness of the wounds of the world. You will see the wounds of the world long before anybody else will. You would be affected by seeing these wounds of the world long before anybody else will, and you would be frustrated…

Nalaka: Were you?

Ranil: (Laughs) Yes, of course! That’s an understatement!

Mahaweli Misadventures

Nalaka: You returned to Sri Lanka around 1978-79, to find your island being rapidly transformed! The economy had just been liberalised, the Mahaweli River Development Programme accelerated. Foreign aid and trade were intensified. How did you react to all this?

Ranil: First, I had to look at it as an ecologist, with my training. And the training told me something was wrong here. Because, there was, in all our systems that we were trying to build up — whether it would be a agro-ecosystem or whatever — there was simplicity. That means, we were simplifying the ecosystems, we were reducing the diversity. We also started adding more and more external energy into this ecosystem in order to increase production, which were both not very good.

And, of course, the final thing was there was a huge amount of poisons, toxins, pesticides, weedicides and fertilisers, etc., being applied on our agro-ecosystems. The long tern implications really disturbed me. I said, “Look, we should think a little further than going into this kind of development.”

Nalaka: You briefly worked for the government of Sri Lanka in the late 1970s. Initially, you were impressed by President J R Jayawardene‘s writing and speeches (on development) — but later, you fell out with one of his key ministers, the one in charge of Mahaweli. What happened?

Ranil: Well, at that time when I came back, I was appointed as a consultant to the Ministry of Mahaweli. And…within the Ministry, there was a Land Development Department, which I built up. In fact, most of the tree on the airport road, the Kohomba (Neem, Azadirachta indica) trees were root-balled and brought from Puttlam. I had to teach the government employees how to do that. And we set up a department that was going to be doing a lot of the arboriculture that was  going to be required by the project.

With the Mahaweli coming in, I thought, there was going to be a lot of native species, rare species, etc., that was going to be drowned. So I said, “Let’s take these things, let’s protect them and put them into the new landscapes that we were going to make.” And that’s how I began.

Unfortunately, while I was doing this, there was a proposal that came to the Ministry from Guthrie Corporation — which is today, even today, one of the largest oil palm companies in Asia — to come to Sri Lanka and have 25,000 acres in the Maduru Oya system, to grow irrigated oil palm.

I was totally aghast! I was horrified!  Because I was an ecologist, and it went against my basic my training. This is a Wet Zone plant, and they were going to bring it to the Dry Zone  and irrigate it! I said:  “Look, irrespective of all the ecological problems, just consider what will happen in a dry year. We have 25,000 acres of plants that require irrigation and we have a dry year. The water now has to be shared between the plantation and the farmers. Who will lose out? Obviously the farmers, because the farmers are doing annual crops and these people are doing perennial crops.”

I said you cannot have this project in Sri Lanka. It’s bad for the people! And because I refused to sign the okay for the files. I remember at that time the (Ministry) Secretary telling me, “Ranil, you are just a consultant. This is the Minister. These are the Minister’s friends. He wants it done; they want it done. Who are you? Why don’t you stop being silly and just agree — and then it will be all over.”

I refused to. I’m a Sri Lankan and I’m a professional. And this goes against my training and it goes against who I am. And I said No, I refuse to partake in this. And then, of course, their reaction was: “Ah, well, there is nothing you can do about it — we have made the decision!”

Nalaka: Was that the parting of ways?

Ranil: Not quite. Parting of ways happened when I took the report and I went to the Canadians — I don’t want to mention names but the First Secretary at that time, was a friend of mine. And I showed him the report and I said, “Listen, the documents that you have show that the [Canadian aid] money being brought into Sri Lanka is for the well-being of the Sri Lankan small farmer. If these monies are spent on meeting the needs of a multinational, and if this question is raised in your Parliament in Canada, who will be on the mat?”

Within three days, the Canadians had basically axed the project. They said they refused have this oil palm plantations.

And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back! The Minister was furious! He maligned me in Parliament…that I had only got “postal degrees”, etc. [Then Opposition MP and one time minister] Lakshman Jayakody had to table my certificates in Parliament.

After that point, there was no working with the government! The funny thing is, since that time up till today, I have not received one single consultancy within the government of Sri Lanka — whatever government, UNP or SLFP! Bureaucratic vindictiveness runs deep. And it’s the bureaucrats who control this country, not the politicians!

Nalaka: If we look at the bigger picture, back in 1977, what policy choices were available to the government that had been elected with a huge mandate? The government had to meet the rising expectations of Sri Lanka’s “DDT Generation” in terms of jobs, economic growth. Could we have developed in a different way?

Ranil: Of course, we could have! And, in fact, we wrote about it many times. It was written about in The Ecologist magazine, at that time. [See ‘The Damnation of Paradise” in The Ecologist, June/July 1984.] We published articles many times.

What we pointed out was this. It’s very easy to borrow a large sum of money — as we are doing today! — and put it on giant infrastructure mostly because it affords easy kick-backs to the politicians and the bureaucrats. However, if you bring in a large project like that, the material, the infrastructure and the maintenance will all have to be done from outside Sri Lanka.

Now, the Mahaweli is a giant river and we have a beautiful system by which it flows down into the sea. There are many, many falls, there are many, many opportunities for energy. If we did small to medium sized production of energy in this country, not only would we have had the same — or probably more — energy than we are getting now, we also would have created a light industry  and a small industry supporting these things that would really the people of this country would still be enjoying. [Note: Mahaweli Hydro power complex consists of six major power stations with an installed capacity of 660 MW – they contribute around 13% of Sri Lanka’s electrical energy every year. For additional background, see official CEB website.]

We did not. The idea was grab the money and put the largest possible thing in place! Totally wrong!! Also, they were making these huge reservoirs without consideration of the silt load that was coming off the mountains. Without spending one penny to ensure that the silt loads were protected.

So the huge investment we were doing was being ‘discounted’ almost from the time we were constructing. I mean, this was ridiculous! It was only an exercise of one’s borrowing and spending a large/huge sum of money and wasting a resource that we could have husbanded. That we could have used gently over the country and built this country up. To be independent and to have a strong, medium size industrial sector. We missed it…

Nalaka: The Mahaweli project has been analysed in hindsight by different scholars and researchers. The Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) had a complete symposium some years ago, looking back at the Mahaweli Project. On the whole, how do the costs and the benefits weigh in your mind? 

Ranil: I have not been looking very carefully, I must admit, at the income streams or the cost streams going into Mahaweli project.  I only can see the fact that we have reduced our capacity to be sustainable as a consequence — because we have a centralised system of distribution and unless that centralised system (which is expensive to maintain) functions very effectively, the productivity is going to be lower.

Also — this is most important — that entire system of delivery is based upon high external energy input agriculture. Which means that you are now dooming the entire agricultural productivity of this country, for external inputs in order to produce the food that we require! The rot was started then.

Today, this country has to pay 50 BILLION rupees annually – half a billion dollars annually — just on the subsidy for fertiliser alone! If we take that off, our food prices will shoot up. If we put it in, our soils are destroyed. And all this is a result of the actions that were taken at that point and we still haven’t addressed this as a problem…

Related Groundviews article: Future of Farming in Sri Lanka by Ranil Senanayake, June 2011

Questioning Development

Nalaka: Let me ask you a Big Question. What does “development” mean to you?

“Development” in the meaning of the word means ‘the gradual unfolding of’. That’s what development means. It’s the unfolding of the potential, I think, it refers to the unfolding of the potential of who a person or a peoples could be, and can be.

It has been perverted today to mean that it is conspicuous consumption and adopting the technology, and the ways and means of the West as development. I refute that. Development should be reflected in the mental and physical well being of the individuals of any nation concerned. And if that is not the primary focus of development, then I think it has lost its way.

In this context, I would also like to see, to quote one of our early politicians, the late Right Honourable D S Senanayake, our first Prime Minister. He said: “The performance of my or any other government should be evaluated on the larder of the poorest of its poor”

If we have that vision, we would be doing much better today than trying to make a few people mega-rich and keeping the rest desperately poor. That is NOT development! GDP is not development! It does not reflect the well-being of the people of the country. It does not reflect the well-being of the poorest of the country. Until and unless we can build them up, both mentally and physically, then development does not function — except for a few people who are interested in the turnover of money.

Nalaka: That’s what I call ‘Some people’s development’!

Ranil: Exactly – I agree totally!

Nalaka: Whose development thinking or philosophy does yours come closer to? Is it Ernst Schumacher? Is it Edward Goldsmith? Or somebody else’s? Because there have been some liberal thinkers in the West who thought differently…

Ranil: Yes, I agree, actually, with most of these people. Schumacher – his ideas was mostly borrowed or taken or studied from Buddhist societies and Buddhist values. We are a Buddhist country. We shouldn’t be requiring somebody else from outside this country to tell us who we are, or what we are.

Teddy Goldsmith was a old friend of mine. Teddy respected very much the indigenous thinking. Indigenous doesn’t mean wild. Indigenous means “having a history in a given place over a long period of time”. Which is what we are. We did not respect who we were; we wanted to become something else. Whether it was to be a Singapore or to be a London or to be whatever. We were not satisfied with who we were! We were not content. And the Buddha was very clear: if you lose contentment, you have lost everything…

Addicted to Oil

Nalaka: You’ve constantly questioned our high dependency on oil. Back in 1979, for example, you asked in a published article: Is oil essential to the nation’s development? What’s your answer now?

Ranil (laughing): It should be pretty obvious where we are going!!

Okay, we will talk about the old question of oil and carbon a little later. But the most important thing here is, actually, I should probably quote you from another personality who sort of commented on this. And this was Swami Siva Kalki, or Mike Wilson: he came to Sri Lanka with Arthur Clarke. I remember Mike penning a short story at that time. The title of the story was ‘When the Ships Stopped Coming’. And the theme was: what would happen to Sri Lanka if the ships stopped coming here because of a war?

At that time, there would have been chaos. Today, there will be more than – for this town, Colombo, to operate, we need huge quantities of energy to be delivered. Otherwise we will starve! We will die of thirst! I mean, our social breakdown will be horrifying.

Consider now, what is happening in the Middle East — with Iran the US, etc. — if anything happens, what are we going to do? How are we going to deliver the vegetables or food into Colombo? How are we going to light our homes? How are we going to cook our food? Has anybody thought about this? Do we have any plans? Of what might happen and how can we respond if something happens? No!

They are just like, as I pointed out, a drug addict. We are addicted to this development drug. Oil is a development drug! And we are addicted to it. And the more we become developed in that context, the more we become addicted. And when it is taken away, Heaven help us!!

Nalaka: So what do we need? Hydrocarbon Anonymous?

Ranil: We need to be aware of the dangers that are in front of us if there is a disruption. And we need to plan some kind of approach that will help mitigate a problem that in reality could very well happen at any time. And we are not prepared…

Nalaka: Let me ask the oil question in a different way. You’ve travelled widely in Africa, in Asia and Latin America, and seen countries that have struck their own oil and what it does to their societies. Do you personally wish we’d strike oil in Sri Lanka?

Ranil: I will also paraphrase this with a quote. It is from the Shuar. The Shuar are a group of indigenous people who lives in Amazonia. In Ecuadorian Amazonia. Under their feet, there is a huge reservoir of oil. But they refuse to let anybody drill for their oil. In fact, they are even fighting with their government. Refusing to let anybody drill for oil under their feet…

Nalaka: Why?

Ranil: Ah, the reason is this. They say oil represents the spirits of a long dead world. To ask it for power, you sacrifice your children. If that is not the truth, I don’t know what is. Do you want that curse to be on us? No!

Nalaka: We are ALL addicted to oil, whether we like it or not. How do we gently kick the addiction?

Ranil: That is political. I mean, that is why we have so called leaders for. Leaders are supposed to lead us out of messes, not take us into messes! We trust them. And is that trust misplaced? I don’t know. We have to now examine that. They have to take us out. We can’t. You as an individual can’t. I as an individual can’t. They are the only people with the power to take us out.

But first they must be willing to understand, first. Second, they must be willing to be responsible by the people of this nation and their future. As long as they are not willing to do that, I can’t see a way out…

Related Groundviews article: Oil, Coal, Gas and Carbon: Fundamental Truths From Indigenous Peoples by Ranil Senanayake

Heavy Duty Farming

Nalaka: In your writing, you pointed out that it’s not just for transport, not just for electricity generation that we rely on oil. But we are also very dependent on oil in our agriculture. Can you explain that nexus?

 Ranil: See, agricultural fields traditionally…it’s the energy of a human being and may be animals, etc., that is used in an ecosystem to give us a yield. If we measure these things in terms of energy, then for the expenditure of may be 0.4 to 0.5 kilocalories per unit of production, we get 1 calorie of food out. And those 0.5 to 0.6 calories that we utilised was human labour, animal labour – they were internal.

When we change, and we move into fossil and fossil energy – whether it be the tractor, whether it be the fertiliser or whether it be the insecticides etc. — we are now starting to utilise oil energy and replacing the human and animal energy with oil energy.

Today, in the United States, who is an example of how this agricultural system works. It is common…studies have revealed that it takes 1.67 kilocalories input into the field to get 1 kilocalorie of output. Which means, that the food you eat is essentially made of oil…

Nalaka: What about tropical and developing Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka, it’s the same problem. We are now moving into a situation where the production — the energy that we derive from the food — is almost equal to the external energy we have to buy from the outside of this country, put a subsidy on it, and then give it to the farmer!

There is another story. In the early days, when — and this is a story of what leaders should be. When D S Senanayake, the first Prime Minister, was taken with his ministers on to a podium where Massey Ferguson brought their first tractor to Sri Lanka. And they set up a demonstration. On one field, they had a farmer with a buffalo; in the other field, they had their new tractor. The Prime Minister and his ministers were on the podium; so was the Managing Director of Massey Ferguson. And a pistol was fired and off they went. Obliviously, the tractor finished the job and came up to the podium and the buffalo and the farmer was still in the field.

And the Prime Minister was invited to look at this machine, which he did, and at the conclusion, the Managing Director asked the Prime Minister, “Sir, what do you think of our new machine?” To this he replied, “Sir, this is indeed a wondrous machine, but…” he said, ‘tell me, where is the dung?’

In that, in that was an illustration of a person who understood agriculture! Show me leaders who can take us forward in that manner today, and we have a future. If we do not have leaders to take us forward in that manner, we have NO future!

Nalaka: Your anecdote reminds me of the famous encounter between Ray Wijewardene and Buckminster Fuller. Ray was again an early promoter of the ‘Green Revolution‘…Ray then took steps back and questioned the mechanisation of agriculture. So this resonates with that story…

Ranil: Of course, absolutely! I’ve known Ray for sometime. I respect him hugely because he was an honest scientist. He looked at everything; he evaluated everything in a very, very honest and even manner. And then, of course, if there was a problem he would yes there was. So Yes, I admire him for the change that he did with his life.

Nalaka: People like Ray advocated a healthy mix of traditional and modern methods. Is this the way forward? And out?

Ranil: I would think so. I would think so. Because with tradition, we have experience. With modernity, we have innovation. And it’s innovation and experience that gives us the ability to move forward.

And yes, I truly do believe that it is the synthesis of science and tradition that is going to give us the models for the future. In fact, in the old days, I’ve created an NGO/Institute called the Neo-Synthesis Research Centre. And that’s what it was supposed to do. It was supposed to do research into the new synthesis that would take us forward into the future.

Nalaka: Where do soil and water fit into this discussion? Because we need soil, energy and water in agriculture…

Ranil: Let’s begin with soil. Soil is not just an inert medium; it is an ecosystem with huge complexity and huge diversity. For instance, if I were to take a good gram of soil, good farmyard soil, a gram just enough to cover my thumbnail and look at it…I would find in that gram of soil there is between 1 to 2 billion individual cells of bacteria. In one gram! Sharing that space in that same gram of soil we’ll find about 100 to 200 million actinomycetes. Sharing the same space you will find 1-2 kilometres of length of fungal hyphae. Sharing that same space we have virus particles, micro arthropods, collembolids, worms, nematodes, etc., etc.

Soil is a living system! Unless we treat it as such, we will not get the return that it will give us.

An example is this. If you look at a farmyard soil and if you look at the first 15 centimetres of a farmyard soil, you will find that in that 15 centimetres of a farm yard soil in a hectare, you find between 10 to 15 TONS of living organic matter.

Now consider: 10 to 15 TONS! That’s like having an elephant or 14 horses living in your soil! But the reality is this: that biomass is working day and night doing chemical transformations, doing creating nutrients, etc., in the soil, that is 7 to 10 horsepower of energy working in your soil day and night. This is what gave energy to agriculture and that is what made agriculture  sustainable over the last 3,000 years.

And the moment we put artificial fertiliser on to that ecosystem, we begin to destroy it. So from 10 tons, we will drop to 6 tons. From 6 tons, we drop to 5, 4, 3, 2 — until most of it is gone. Then where is the energy for agriculture? Ah! We have to bring it from outside, as more ferlizer!

This is stupid, this is short sighted, and it is going to doom us as humanity if we do not recognise the reality of the ecosystem we are living in, and learn to work with it, instead of working against it!

Related Groundviews article: The Loss of Identity: Development and Agriculture by Ranil Senanayake

Nalaka: How and where does water come in?

Ranil: Water is the most important element in our lives. And also for agriculture.

Sri Lanka, we have about 114 or thereabouts watersheds in this country. And in this country, we had water that was potable, that was drinkable, in practically 80% of the water sheds. Until the advent of modernity.

Today it’s hard to find one single watershed that has water that is potable. That you can take and drink. The moment that has happened we have now put our entire population into a dependency situation, and we have put them into an extremely dangerous situation. Because now we are exposing them to all kind of sub-lethal poisonings, we are exposing them to parasitic and other diseases, etc. Because of the quality of water.

So the first thing in water is quality. And the second thing is quantity.

In terms of the quality of water, if we perform our agriculture without materials that accumulate or without materials that disrupt ecosystems, aquatic ecosystems, the water will stay pure and will stay clean. But we don’t. We abuse it by putting toxins and poisons.

Today you go to any stream anywhere in an agricultural area and look into it, you will find green strands of slime – filamentous algae. They were never there before. They are there now because of the high amount of nitrates and nitrites we are putting in with our fertilisers. They leach out to the streams and there they go. That’s one problem.

Next, we have the problem of all the heavy metals and the materials that are capable of biological magnification. I pointed this out in 1978, and thereabouts. I said: “Be careful of what we use it not only kills our wildlife, it will also kill us!”

Because, as I said at that time, biological magnification takes it from one to 50,000 or a 150,000 whether it be DDT or Strontium or whatever. So if you measure it in the water and it’s one we say that’s no problem but in 15 years time it would be magnified to 15,000 or 30,000 or more in the bodies of animals and in the plants and foods we eat. So water takes it through the system and the ecosystem and concentrates it. And I said, be careful of what we apply!

L to R – Ernst Schumacher, Edward Goldsmith, Rachel Carson

Nalaka: Rachel Carson said this 50 years ago in Silent Spring, but clearly the peddlers of DDT and other agro-chemicals carried on regardless?

Here I should tell you an anecdote. The article I wrote at that time about the dangers of adding these things to the water system and into our environment and the dangers to our wildlife, was rejected and not published in the Journal of Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, the WNPS. I was a member. I resigned in disgust. Because I found at that time that the president of the society was one of the biggest sales people of the poisons!

And this is another way they control us. They send their agents and they take control of possible areas where the criticism would come. So our destruction of the quality of water happened as ignorance on part of ourselves and very conscious suppression of facts by people who were in power at that time. So this is just to do with that part of water.

Then another thing that we got to think about in terms of water. And that is clean water. What creates clean water? What creates clean water is the ability of the biological system, or the ecosystem, to phyto-remediate. Use plants to clean water.

But phyto-remediation does not merely extend to planting a plant where it will pick up some toxins from the water. No, no! Phyto-remediation of water starts from our forests. Because, for every for every single molecule of carbon dioxide that is fixed in the process of photosynthesis, a 100 molecules of water are required and are released through evapo-transpiration. So if you consider that we have, in this country, the production, net primary production of say one billion tons of carbon material…then a 100 billion tonnes of water would be released to the atmosphere.

What is happening is through evo-transpiration, is that the plants and the forests of this planet take the polluted water from the ground, clean it, and put it out to the air to become rain again. And the more we reduce our forest cover the more we reduce the capacity of the country to clean its water to clean itself.

These are fundamentally important aspects of water. Not just sampling something in a well or sampling something in a canal, No, we have to take a wider view of water.

Related Groundviews articles:

In Part 2 of this long format interview, Nalaka Gunawardene will talk to Ranil Senanayake about challenges of conserving biodiversity at ecosystem, species and genetic levels in world driven by short-termism, political expediency and bureaucratic arrogance. He will also share the worldwide experiences in mimicking the natural forest through Analog Forestry.

Interview recorded on 19 March 2012 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Transcribing by Dhammi Nissanka Dela

Interview photograph by Janaka Sri Jayalath