North Central Province, Sri Lanka – Samathie is sick. As the farm’s driver, the two of us rode together countless times past the lush fields of rice in the Kala Oya River basin, between the coastal city of Putallam and Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, Anuradhapura. It’s an enchanting sight: the carefully crafted mud bunds divide the paddies into level, rectangular blocks ringed by jungle on three sides. The still water casts reflections of the sky through gaps in the foliage. And those fields are clean – vast swaths of cropland without a single weed, insect or microbial blemish to be found. After having lived his entire life in this region, Samanthie may now have few chances left to gaze out over those fields. Yet, at this point, he may not want to.
Since Sri Lanka first gained independence in 1948, it has been the aim of each successive government to push the nation closer to self-sufficiency in rice production. It was among the first nations in Asia to systematically pursue intensive breeding programs to develop new, high yielding varieties, doing so even before the establishment of IRRI in 1962. In 1967, efforts at intensifying rice cultivation were redoubled, with new credit and incentive schemes designed to make it easier for small farmers to cultivate improved varieties. In the 20 years that followed, nitrogenous fertilizer use increased nearly two and a half times, with similar rises in herbicide and pesticide applications. Meanwhile, little, if anything, was done to ensure proper handling or disposal of these agro-chemicals by Sri Lankan farmers.
Starting in the 1990’s, doctors in Sri Lanka began noticing a marked rise in a previously rare condition, Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology (CKDue). Although concentrated to a limited geographic area (namely, the North Central Province and areas immediately adjacent to it) the rate of reported incidences began to grow exponentially. Through a series of studies, it was discovered that the victims were overwhelmingly individuals over 50 years old, especially men, who lived in rural farming communities. It was observed that these individuals had been ingesting elevated levels of cadmium, arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals, which were later traced back to the food and water supply.
Within the last few years, two major events in the agroecologal history of this island nation have occurred. First, in 2009 Sri Lanka joined the ranks of net rice-exporting countries for the first time in modern history. In 2012, however, the World Health Organization published a report stating unequivocally that the means employed to achieve that goal were directly contributing to the astronomic rise an incurable and often fatal condition, a condition which it now estimates affects1 in 7 of this region’s 1.26 million inhabitants.
Fortunately, there is a growing sense that the issue may at last be reaching a watershed moment. Among the myriad of efforts by countless groups and individuals striving to find sustainable ways of reaching the nation’s development ambitions, three projects of the Sevalanka foundation and its affiliates stand out for recognition.
Firstly, Sevalanka foundation, which has district offices throughout the country, has been networking with local farmers’ organizations and CBOs to catalog the germplasm holdings of local seed banks. Of the two primary purposes for this project, the first is to preserve heirloom cultivars for their own sake, as important cultural artifacts in a nation which historically possessed strikingly high rates of agricultural biodiversity. The second purpose is to identify traditional crop cultivars – specifically for rice, legumes and vegetables – whose pest and disease tolerance, resilience in the face of climatic uncertainty and, of course, yields make them suitable for organic cultivation in each of the nation’s multitude of agro-ecological zones. Astonishingly, because of this and similar efforts, the organization was recently approached by high-ranking members of the Dept. of Agriculture, who proposed using state-operated seed farms to make these traditional cultivars more widely available to the general public. There have even been discussions on the possibility of phasing out state subsidies for synthetic agricultural inputs and replacing them with funding for organic soil amendments and natural pest and disease treatments. It is difficult to overstate the potential effect which these efforts could have on mainstreaming ecological agricultural practices and thereby reducing importations and applications of synthetic agro-chemical inputs.
Another of Sevalanka Foundation’s noteworthy efforts in the field of sustainable agricultural production involves their unique approach to organizing farmers’ associations. In most regions of the country, it is the women who attend to the home gardens, while the men are responsible for commercial production. Experience has shown that women are often receptive to trying organic farming practices in their home gardens when it is presented as a means of improving the health and food security of their families. These women are in turn organized into cooperative societies, which support each other by sharing experiences and resources. In this way, the community has the opportunity to experiment with organic farming methods, to see the results first hand and to refine its practices on a small scale before risking the uncertainty of whole or partial conversion of their cash-cropping areas. Numerous such associations now exist throughout the country.
In order to induce farmers to begin organic cash crop cultivation, however, markets for the produce must be in place where producers can get a premium for their efforts. For while an export market for organic tea and spices, as well as a niche local market for “poison-free” products, as they are often marketed here, have existed for many years, these were anything but mainstream.
Enter the Good Market, one of a few commercial venues serving as platforms for social enterprises, which over the last year have succeeded in raising consumer awareness and tapping into latent demand among the more affluent urban population. They have unleashed a burgeoning demand for organic products and offer a significant premium for them, creating significant pull from farmers, farmers’ associations, absentee landowners, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and more. Meanwhile, the Good Market has organized its own organic Participatory Guarantee System as an intermediary to 3rd party certification. With the first round of inspections and certifications now nearing completion, the program aims to create an organic label which is accessible to small farmers while maintaining high levels of transparency, traceability and credibility. This increasing interest from entrepreneurs as well as the general public, coupled with the expertise of the NGOs, CBOs, educators and consultants who now find themselves with a growing audience interested in methods of organic cultivation, has the potential to produce a conversion within this country on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago.
From my home where I now write, one can look out over the river winding through the forest below, where each evening local men and women gather to bathe and wash their clothing. Hearing the laughter of the children as it mingles with the sound of the churning water where they play reminds me how urgent is the need for healthy, environmentally sound solutions to the poverty which plagues this region, and fills me with hope that our efforts may someday help to spare these families from Samanthie’s fate.