Success story in organic farming in Welimada's hills


by Dr. Prasanna Cooray

The recently released WHO report on kidney disease (in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka), has acknowledged the possible role of agro-chemicals in the causation of the disease. It has recommended, among other things, developing a regulatory framework to improve the quality control of imported fertiliser.

However, in this country, since the recent past, we can cite enough and more examples of blatant failures at quality control, from drugs to saline and syringes, to name just a few, despite the existence of immaculately formulated regulations on paper. Therefore, it is imperative that people have other options, preferably availability of and accessibility to foods that are grown with no chemical inputs, which are affordable. At a time when the entire country is grappling with this need, here comes a story from Welikandagama, in the Badulla district, of a practical solution, which allows society to breathe a sigh of relief. While what Athula Priyantha does stands out as an example to emulate, ventures of this nature will have to be replicated across the country, if our children are to be safeguarded from the deleterious effects of agro-chemicals present in their food.

V. M. B. Athula Priyantha, BSc Agriculture (Special), MSc, Natural Resource Management, the agriculturist cum environmentalist, believes that agriculture and the environment are one and the same thing. And he not only believes, but also practices it like a religion. According to Priyantha, farming is an intrinsic component of the environment and should be done in a way to foster, and not destroy it. And his farm in Welikandagama, Welimada, is a living example of that.

Placed in the upper catchment of Uma Oya, Welikandagama, the once lush mountainous village started to lose its lustre when a project to plant pines and eucalyptus was introduced somewhere around the late '60s. The hillocks that overlook the village, which were barren from previously planted tea,were replaced with the aforementioned exotic plants. The repercussions of this venture were soon became evident. The streams that flowed from the hills serving the villagers' water needs, in addition to maintaining the water table, dried overnight, along with the wells.

Although the pines and eucalyptus grew in height, the undergrowth that was once lavishly spread out beneath the taller trees, giving rise to many layers of vegetation, soon disappeared. The resultant loose soil paved the way for soil erosion and loss of fertility. Also went out-of-sight, species of wildlife like owl and jungle fowl that frequented the village and helped the farmers, by preying on their pests, such as, rats and insects. Some others, for lack of food in the forest started invading the village, thus making life miserable for the farmers.

Although the villagers protested to the authorities, their pleas and screams fell way short of an audible ear, for the need for street lamp-posts and logs for rail tracks was great, as the authorities claimed. However, the villagers did not give up and rallied round Priyantha and formed the Welikandagama Hill Conservation Society. The campaign to protect Welikandagama became more vigorous, and at last, the authorities had to succumb to the pressure when A. H. M. Fowzie, in 2004, the then Minister of Environment and Natural Resources ordered the Forest Department to halt planting pines and eucalyptus in Welikandagama. This move was duly supported by the Upper Watershed Management Project of the Environment Ministry.

It is heartening to note that the Forest Department has taken a u-turn since then. In November 2008, the villagers of Welikandagama, hand- in- glove with the Departments of Forest and Agrarian Services, through funding made available by the UNDP, implemented a Micro Watershed Rehabilitation Project with great success. This project cemented the revitalisation process of Welikandagama.

"The streams that had been dried up for a long period of time, re-emerged within a year or two after re-forestation. Now there is enough water for farming throughout the year," commented Priyantha, with the tone of a victor.

While Kithul (Caryotaurens), damba (Syzygiumassimile) and kudu-daula (Neolitsea cassia L), were among the indigenous species replanted and the natural forest was encouraged to re-emerge. The Welikadagama villagers' efforts received a fitting accolade when they received two awards for the Best Land Improvement and Soil Conservation and Water Resource Development projects, at the 2011 Green Awards presented by the Central Environment Authority.

With the once healthy environment restored, Priyantha contemplated in further rejuvenating it with farming, sans chemicals. However, first it was a daunting task to get fellow farmers on to his side.

"First, it was not easy, as most of the farmers had come to be dependent on chemical reliant agriculture. The companies had brain-washed them. They were so hooked on chemicals for every stage of cultivation, and also for harvesting and storing," said Priyantha, reminiscing on the past with discontent.

Priyantha set an example by setting his organic farm ‘Mihimandala’ in Mirahawatte, Welikandagama. Started a year ago in an extent of no more than a 1/4 acre, it has now expanded to 2 ½ acres. His farm employs a farm manager and eight labourers, all on a full-time basis. In addition, his farm has been promoted as a training centre by the Organic Farming Unit of the Agriculture Department, and provides in-house training to three novices at any given time. ‘Mihimandala’ has also obtained certification as an organic farm from the ‘Sricert’ certification institute.

Speaking on sales, Priyantha observed, "at first, it was very difficult. People didn't care two hoots whether it was organic or not. In fact, selling organic was more difficult than the other."

But with possible association of agro-chemicals in the causation of kidney disease (in the North Central Province), coming to light, the public perception on what they should eat has really changed, observes Priyantha.

"Now my main problem is meeting the demand. We produce about 500 kg of veggies a week. But that is not at all enough to meet the growing demand," said Priyantha.

He is dependent on the railway to transport his produce. His regular customers are scattered throughout the country, as far as Colombo, Anuradhapura, and even Vavuniya.

Priyantha estimates that in organic farming, 90% of the cost is incurred on labour. Lack of workers conversant with organic farming technology, he identifies as the main obstacle faced by the organic farmers in Sri Lanka. According to Priyantha, organic farming involves application of a ‘technology package’, which spans from the nursery stage to harvesting and storing and includes the preparation of nurseries, planting, application of manure and pest control.

Priyantha identifies labour management as the most important aspect of organic agriculture. He believes that "day-to-day monitoring is crucial for good management of an organic farm."

"As there is no application of chemical fertiliser, both the country and the farmer save a lot of money. Roughly, one acre of vegetable cultivation requires 30 bags of fertiliser a year. Nowadays, although a 50 kg bag is given at Rs.. 350 to the farmer, the government subsidizes up to Rs.. 3,000 on a bag," said Priyantha, who explained the enormity of economics involved with chemical intensive agriculture.

Cow dung, cow urine, chicken manure and compost comprise the fertiliser Priyantha commonly applies to his farm. With three cows being reared on the farm, half of the fertiliser problem is met by them, says Priyantha. In addition, all the waste produced in the farm, including vegetable waste, is used as manure. This amounts to 10,000 - 15,000 kg of organic matter, estimates Priyantha.

Kalawel (Derris scandens), leaves of the tuna tree, together with a mixture of green chillies, garlic and ginger are the common pesticides used at the ‘Mihimandala’ farm. "When mix-cropping is practiced and with plenty of birds around, there won't be much need for pesticides," explained Priyantha, giving another lesson on the merits of organic farming. On a concluding note, Priyantha said, "agro-chemicals not only make people sick, they also damage the environment. So, my exercise, even on a small scale, is nothing but an attempt to show the country that we can save at least our next generation from disease, by reverting to organic farming."

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