Death of Dr. Rewatha (Ray) Wijewardene
A Legend fades into another "plane"

Arjuna Hulugalle


A group of close friends of Dr Ray Wijewardene, P. G. Joseph, Parakrama Jayasinghe and Nalin de Silva and I were together when we got the sad news of his death.

We were meeting Edgar Gunatunge, Chairman of the Tokyo Cement, the joint Managing Director, Kuni Yanagihara, and another senior Executive of the organization, Salinda Kandapola. Also present at the meeting was a Consultant from the Ex Corporation of Japan, Ms Ai Kawamura, who is working with the Carbon Fund of the Ministry of Environment.

There was instant sadness. A legend had passed into another plane. They all remembered what was on the door at Ray’s study. "Old pilots never die, they just go to another plane", which depicted his passion for flying, particularly as a pilot in aircraft which he built.

I am prefacing this tribute thus because the subject of our group discussion in the morning of the 18th August, when the news broke, was organizing the growing of Gliricidia Sepium in the villages, and particularly in the villages of the war ravaged Northern Province.

Gliricidia Sepium was so close to Ray’s heart and he would have followed the discussions, I am certain, with great intent from where ever he is today.

P. G. Joseph and Ray Wijewardene were the fathers of the Gliricidia mission and Dendro Energy and that initiative started well over two decades back. Parakrama Jayasinghe is carrying on the work Ray started as President of the Bio Energy Association. Former Air Force Group Captain Nalin de Silva is helping growers to find markets, and Ms Kawamura got the inspiration to start her work in Sri Lanka after Ray convinced her about the significance of Gliricidia.


An extra-ordinary
human being

What made Ray so special? One was his humility. Second were his human qualities. To me, he was religious in an extraordinary way. His Buddhism grew from the family of his father. His lessons on Christianity were from his mother. Veneered by years of the best education a person can aspire to, he had a confidence to take the best of all religions.

Philosophically speaking, Man remained central to all his dealings and thought processes. Even as an Engineer he did not look merely for material production and for the creation and acquisition of wealth. All action had to serve humanity in the long term. Sustainability was the essence of any proposal. This is the underlining logic that prompted him to spend so much of his time during his last years to promote Gliricidia Sepium as a resource to be developed in Sri Lanka.

Intelligence would have taught him that Gliricidia would not be fully recognised in his life time. Wisdom and Reason, which was the basis of his existence, made him think otherwise. Ray was an exceptional human being. A great leader and in my view one of the most outstanding thinkers Sri Lanka ever produced.


Landmaster tractor

One of his early achievements was developing the Landmaster two wheeled tractor, which he pioneered in Nottingham in 1955.

300,000 units of this model were sold in 27 countries including Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Australia, Philippines, Malaysia and Japan in the nineteen sixties, and the nineteen seventies. Subsequent to that, the manufacturing company rewarded him with a grant to study at Harvard.

Ray had many anecdotes of his period at Harvard, but one which stands out is about R. Buckminster Fuller, a foremost American thinker of the twentieth century, who Ray accepted as his mentor, posing the rider to him whether he has really achieved anything by "inventing" and developing the Landmaster to replace the Buffaloes in the paddy fields of South Asia. Neither Buckminster Fuller nor Ray was sure of the answer.


Making the best of

Ray was born to an affluent family but money remained all his life a means to an end. His approach to money reflected what Buckminster Fuller had written on the subject:

"Those who make money with money keep it scarce. Money is not wealth. Wealth is the accomplished technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growful needs of life. Money is only an expediency-adopted means of inter-exchanging disparately sized, non-equatable items of wealth."

Maybe Ray could not have said this if he came from a different background. He accepted the opportunities which his heritage furnished him with. He seemed fired with an obligation to give of himself more than others could, because he was endowed with so much. Posterity will certainly salute him for taking the challenge and never shunning from his duties.


Commitment for a cause

I remember when he made a presentation to me, in his study, on the importance of Gliricidia Sepium, some years back, he told me he had already made several thousand presentations to other audiences of individuals or groups on the same subject. Most of them could very well have been in his study.

What struck me was the commitment and passion he had with regard to the subject. At the early stages, when Ray and Joseph promoted Gliricidia as an alternative source of energy, as an alternative to artificial fertilizer and as a fodder for cattle and goats, there was so much derisive condemnation. To the average person they could not visualize this plant replacing the cheap fossil fuels and fertilizers we were importing. Today, however, thousands of tons of Gliricidia are being grown and marketed.

This will exponentially grow in volume once the government wakes up and reduces or eliminates its massive subsidy for furnace oil and artificial fertilizer, which is having such a debilitating effect on the Economy. Sri Lanka will then truly realize Ray’s dream of growing its own energy and its own fertilizer.

Ray’s hallmark was to stimulate thinking and to help his listeners to unfold their dormant creative powers. Practical action was foremost in all his studies. His interest in rice farming meant physically stepping into the paddy fields of the Kalawewa area. Without actually doing that oneself, one could not really get into the skin of a problem was a fundamental principle.

One of Ray’s most endearing qualities was that he promoted people who he thought had talent. I remember Dr A.C.Viswalingam telling me that Ray had met him in Japan where Viswalingam had acted as an interpreter for him. Ray saw at once the talent and potential. Immediately, after his return to Colombo, he drove to Kandy and urged Viswalingam’s father to send him to Cambridge. After getting the paternal assent, he then wrote to his friend, the Senior Tutor at Peterhouse, Professor Pringle recommending his candidate. Ray was once again proved right in his choice and his act of helping a bright young student who later went on to get a Doctorate from the University.


The most outstanding coconut planter

To Coconut planters, including the Coconut Cultivation Board and the Coconut Research Institute, he was the greatest coconut planter the country had ever produced. His estate at Kakkapaliya, called Kohomba, grew year in and year out the highest number of nuts in the country.

The figure exceeded 7,000 nuts. This is in contrast to the national average of 2,500 nuts.

In the last decade, Urea was substituted with Gliricidia, grown on the land with a mixture of Sun Flowers and its composted leaves and branches crushed for phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen. To this, he added local dolomite to get the calcium carbonate and magnesium. It was also fascinating to inspect his Dendro plant fired with Gliricidia fuel pumping water from his large rain water reservoir. From here, a network of pipes conveyed the drip irrigation to the coconut trees. Alley cropping with Gliricidia was a highlight of his plantation. The Gliricidia plants sequestered nitrogen and enriched the soil to support the coconut with added fertility.


Internationally recognized, Ray’s return to Sri Lanka

Dr Mohamed A Saleem, an agronomist and Environmental Engineer who returned to Sri Lanka after 34 years abroad, and is today promoting Gliricidia through the Mahatma Gandhi Centre, did his doctoral dissertation in association with the Agricultural Engineering and Research Division of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture based in Nigeria in the 1970s. Ray was the Head of this Institution. Dr Saleem reminiscing on that period said Ray made his name by guiding a team developing technologies for low tillage agriculture. To promote this he flew the length and breadth of Nigeria, piloting his own plane. His innovative thinking and practices were internationally acclaimed.

Back from his Odyssey abroad to Sri Lanka in the Nineteen Eighties, Ray served in the Tea Research Board as Chairman, and also as a member of the Mahaweli Authority, Coconut Development Authority, Coconut Research Board, Presidential Task Force on Science and Technology, and Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies and finally as Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa.

Many a time, I urged Ray to write his biography or arrange for someone to write it. I am not aware whether anyone took it on. It is however, an important book that has to be written. The biographer will have a treasure of his anecdotes and achievements from transcontinental flights by self made aircraft to riding with the Pashtans in Afghanistan on white horses in the company of his maternal uncle to the discovery of the value of the Murunga tree for water purification. Of course his passion for flying and his achievements as an oarsman and yachtsman will adorn this exceptional story.

No article on Ray can be complete without a word on his father Don Edmund (Dr D.E.) Wijewardene and his mother Corin Amanda. They were both trained in Gynaecology. Many including the writer are grateful that Dr D.E. delivered them at birth.

Ray’s study at home resembled a pilot’s cabin. His home, though in the heart of Colombo is from an age gone by. It has grace and simple elegance. It has space and a spirit of generosity and magnanimity. Ray lived a full life here and completed his eighty odd years in the devoted care of his life’s companion, Seela, who he had chosen in the Kindergarten at Ladies College. She gave him the happiest home he needed; a home to accomplish his life’s work. What more could a man have wished for?

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