Commercial Agriculture, so dear to the hearts of the IMF and the World Bank, has always been beloved of Investors who ‘bring in the Capital’ that we in the Third World have made us so short of mostly by them.
Far from bringing it into the equation, nobody, certainly not the WB, even mentions the investments made on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) projects by the host country and her people. They include infrastructure in the form of highways (on which no tolls are levied), power at subsidised rates, land free or at laughable prices, manufacturing plants defended against market-rates for workers, ports, airports, container yards and so on, plus, of course, income foregone, a huge chunk, on tariffs and other taxes. We hoi polloi have to pay VAT on our bare necessities to maintain the investors and those who give them the necessary approvals. Our Central Bank has failed to address this matter, and am sure we’d all like to hear from that body.
As Investors know, Land is the primary source of Capital. The term ‘Capital’, is derived from ‘Cattle’; it gives rise to the thought that ‘all flesh is grass’. When our native capitalists entered the State Council and, later, our Parliament, calls of ‘cattle-thief’ were frequently heard; that is where ‘capital accumulation’ in Europe began. In Africa, for instance, for millennia before the poisonous and altogether inedible locusts from Europe descended on her, wealth and social status were associated with the possession of cattle. Nowadays the cattle-thief is also the butcher, and that source of capital has been augmented by even more profitable scams on import duties and VAT that are built into what you and I pay but never reach the Treasury. Vendors of vehicles, for instance, who have taken to squatting along roads in residential areas, (including ours), set prices inclusive of import duties they have not deigned to pay. The massive fraud on the refund of VAT payments that were never made on ghost exports is common knowledge.
The earliest attempts at ‘commercial agriculture’ were made by the Dutch traders of the VOC. They were ‘burghers’ / townsfolk, not ‘boers’ / farmers. Their interests lay in spices, especially cinnamon, and their activities were limited to those segments of the maritime areas that they controlled. They exploited the notion of rajakariya, free of charge and free of its obligations, to extract labour and skills for the cultivation and processing of cinnamon and other spices for export to Europe. And, similarly, for capturing elephants and harvesting pearls. All for export.
Next in line in this graph of Development as it burrows down, was ‘plantation agriculture’. It began with the felling of the forests in our central highlands, and selling the timber - (the same strategy that Bush promised would work in Iraq, ‘a self-financing invasion’ to be financed by stolen oil), - and building roads through the hill-country with the forced free labour of rajakariya. They proceeded to expand to ‘a viable’ (i.e., a more profitable) scale, the traditional, ‘native’ cultivation of coffee. Till the invader/occupier got the hang of cultivating coffee, or didn’t quite, ‘native production’ constituted the bulk of the coffee exported by those ‘investors’.
When they had managed to destroy coffee cultivation, primarily through the greed that defined their view of progress, they turned to tea which they introduced into this country from Assam in the late 1860s. It’s come full circle now, - the ‘smallholders’ produce the bulk of the tea exported from here and it fetches the best prices – (for reasons that have to do with where ‘the market’ has got to: ‘instant’ and ‘bagged’ tea -which demand the swift appearance of a warm, brown liquid, with lots of caffeine, never mind the flavour).
As a cover for the destruction of thousands of villages and fields and systems of water supply, their ‘historians’, including some acolytes here, have supplied sanitizing terms that attempt to elevate that barbarity by transforming it into ‘policy’, as in ‘a scorched earth policy’. Such writers cannot erase the true history of those they speak for - barbarians who had slaughtered real people who had done them no harm. With every word they have written for publication, they have become accomplices, at whatever remove, in that gory history.
The great achievement of that enterprise was described thus by H W Cave a hundred years ago: "Weeding is very effectively and thoroughly carried out. It would astonish farmers in the Old Country that … the tea gardens of Ceylon are kept cleaner than most of the flower gardens of England." However, a bare decade after Cave’s view of the tea plantations, a colonial governor said, "These plantations are washing the country down into the sea." The Planters had more clout in London, at the time and for many years later - indeed for all the years that have passed after Independence.
David Craig, who spent three years at Peradeniya, and was later Professor of Creative Writing at Lancaster, put it differently:
How did they pay for it all? The country paid for it,
The red soil bled for it, the wounds
Still glare among the tea bushes.
The top-soil ebbs away into the sea,
Rivers that sparkled in the chronicles
Skulk in their pools like coffee-dregs.
A clear demonstration of what ‘modern agriculture’ was about came with the enthusiastic response of plantation companies to a call for the production of paddy ‘on a commercial scale’ in Minneriya. It was around 1915, the big European tribal war was on, the supply of food for their troops was getting dicey, so: incentives were offered, as they usually are, for ‘investors’, out of money extracted through taxes that fell most heavily on ‘subsistence farmers’. They were promised a handsome margin between the cost of production on low-paid or unpaid ‘labour’ and the selling price of paddy. The company crashed because they had no notion of the cultural basis of paddy cultivation. Persons like Karl Marx and Arnold Toynbee from Europe could have figured that out, (they did so in some degree) - but not the louts in Colombo and on the thottams who went looking for fast cash in the Dry Zone.
The ideology of modernisation and commercialisation that equates the features so designated with ‘efficiency’ is of course crap. The paddy millers in Polonnaruva and the big wigs at the CIC would burst their bundies laughing at that preposterous notion: their operations are heavily subsidised, the one by thuggery, immunised by the long arm of political power, the other more directly by the State. The CIC received Pelwehera Farm, summa, along with a grant of 100 million rupees to help them set-up their enterprise. That was from a Government that could not spare 10 million for the Dept of Agriculture to run the seed farms as it had done for decades.
In the mid-1960s food production was put on ‘a war-footing’, the troops called out. Who were they? The big companies, - Ceylon Tobacco, Carsons, Whittalls and other agency houses. It was called the Special Leases Scheme (SLS). It was only natural that the terms of the Plantation Enterprise in its infancy - and all the way thereafter, beyond crawling, walking, running - would be re-enacted: no taxation, duty-free import of agricultural machinery (much of it by then rendered un-saleable beyond the boundaries of the Developed World), 4W drive vehicles, air-conditioners for the C-7 households of entrepreneurs who were to carry out their operations in the dry zone, and so on. 500 acres was the smallest patch of land given to them.
The Ministry of Lands attended to the paper work on the allocation of land, the Ministry of Finance to such trifles as no-tax, no-import duty, but the allocation of the goodies that could be got "Duty Free!" (as the word went at the Colombo Club, with a machang! added at the CR&FC), was left to the Ministry of Agriculture in which I served at the time. The rush for ‘permits’ took on the character of things that happen on the rugger field: scrums, elbows, knees.
It was a grand Scheme, exciting as well, but as in all systems that involve control and selection, there was plenty of room for abuse. Abuse could arise from the officials entrusted with the task of scrutinising applications choosing not to apply themselves to their job of assessing the relative merits of the requests before them.
One victim of that unsystematic system was Bevis Bawa. As a ‘market gardener’ or, in his preferred avatar, as a Landscape Gardener, he had asked for permission to buy a Mini-Moke, duty-free to market his produce. Receiving no response from the relevant officials, he had written to his pals, ‘Dicky’ (J R Jayewardene, Minister of State, number two in that Cabinet), and to ‘Peter’ (Colonel C A Dharmapala, Permanent Secretary / Defence). Unfortunately for all concerned, his pals aforementioned were NOTT with the Minister for Agriculture, M D Banda, ‘a Dudley man’. Banda himself had no time for the SLS and had delegated the matter to his Parliamentary Secretary, P C Imbulana, who, in turn, chose to leave matters in the hands of the officials, and kept himself open, occasionally, for appeals. (All this was long before we received the multiple gifts of Executive Presidents, Provincial Councils & co. In that long-ago time, ministers and their officials were expected to get on with the work entrusted to them).
When the above mentioned aebaeddiya / disaster, occurred, I advised him to write to my Minister or to his deputy. He chose instead to send me a card on which he had drawn a picture of himself, his head turned towards the viewer with the mournful expression of a bull-dog long gone long in the tooth. The applicant, rendered supplicant, was shown on hands and knees, balancing pots of flowers and baskets of vegetables, fruit and eggs on his back with a pineapple sticking out of his anus. Mr. Imbulana being engaged at the time in sorting out some complications that had to do with ‘the Kirambakande case’, I took Bevis’s letter to Minister Banda. He said, "Give him his mini-moke - and a trailer!" It was the first time I heard him laugh.
For the SLS, the Action Stations at the Front were located around Alutharama / Mahiyangana: plenty of uncultivated land, mostly forest, and at the time, mostly full of trees. A few thousand ‘peasants’, in maybe a hundred hamlets, sheltered in that area but remained invisible: they could not be seen for the trees.
The Generals remained in Colombo, naturally, but they had no problem finding Commanders to Direct Operations Out There. Among their several ‘finds’ was the truly inspired one of Richard Cunningham. A young man who had, so he said, and I did not disbelieve him, graduated in English and Music from the University of Sydney, he had disembarked here a few years earlier, walked in to Whittall’s, offered his services, and been handsomely received. It was natural that he would make friends with Jayantha Dhanapala who was working there. Jayantha brought him round, told me he was a poet; I published a couple of his poems in ‘Poetry Peradeniya’.
Whittall’s posted him to Alutharama – with the blank cheque that eventually the tax-payers in the country would pay: (no, they were not the Company/Corporate Tax dodgers, who have rarely been the bulk supplier of tax revenue). Richard ‘went to town’ there, pursued his fantasies, and, in an ordered world of another kind in which such incompetence or misdemeanours would call for punishment, ‘made losses’; the investor, he reasoned, was immune.
His was an adventurous life. He was quite happy here and his several disappearances were for him a kind of expatriation. On the first of those, I received a cable from him asking me whether I could meet him at the airport. As I was about to leave for Ratmalana, another cable begged of me to meet him inside the airport. My wife said, ‘He’ll have no visa and no cash’, - and so it proved. He had a ‘chit’ from his pal, Karl Harper, to an Indian trader in the Pettah (whose premises I had had to inspect / raid), for a monthly grant of 450/- rupees, which he promptly invested on rent for a house in Colombo 7.
Yes, he was ‘a smart-cookie’, garnered much glee from conning his associates in business, (never his personal friends), and ended up as some kind of celebrity, featured in a book on ‘The World’s Greatest Shipping Frauds’. The harm he did in Alutharama was inexcusable though relatively mild.
By way of contrast the record of the Ceylon Tobacco Company was of a degree of culpability that merited incarceration for its big-bosses. Despite being the most mercenary and exploitative commercial enterprise in this country (as elsewhere) it hired a foremost agronomist, Dr. Ranjith Mulleriyawa, to run its ‘Farm’ in Alutharama. He began to establish a Farm there with small-scale irrigation systems, good seed and all. His employers were unhappy - that wasn’t what they had in mind. He was fired and a District Land Officer, Cedric Forster, whose knowledge of agriculture was probably nix, was brought in. He delivered the goods: aerial fotos of ‘before’ (jungle) and ‘after’ (clouds of dust whirling over that denuded land). Current operations conducted by the CTC above the road to Randenigala are of the same order.
It was a time when several agronomists from Israel worked here. Dr. Abd, whose given name I don’t recall, studied the SLS; his view was so critical of that carnage that his report was filed away and put out of sight.
Later efforts to undermine our capacity to feed ourselves, all promoted under a rubric of ‘commercialisation’ have failed. They range from the cultivation of ‘cash crops for export’ (baby-corn, baby-carrot, gherkins etc.) to GM maize (which produced a horrendous crash, that became visible a couple of weeks ago, over thousands of hectares in Monaragala: it had happened a decade ago under the Southern Development Authority, but the lessons were not learnt).
The undermining, however, continues, with Maithripala Sirisena, who is re-enacting his performance at the Mahaweli ministry the last time round but with a much freer hand, and tuition-master Bandula Gunawardena, who sounds perplexed by the difference between his elbow and his nether regions.