Traditional Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudyanse Tennekoon
Part 2

Ecologist Magazine Editor Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudiyanese Tennekoon
Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudiyanese Tennekoon

Goldsmith: What were the traditional methods of controlling the paddy bug and other pests?

Tennekoon: Pests were very much less of a problem than they are today. For one thing, the traditional varieties of paddy had long stems so they blew in the wind which made it very difficult for the insects to land on them. The Hybrid varieties of today are short-stemmed and much more rigid - which makes it much easier for bugs in general. Also the traditional, as opposed to the new varieties of rice had big droopy leaves which shaded the soil underneath and prevented weeds from growing through. The paddy particularly needs protection from insects during one short critical period in its growth, about two weeks. During this period, the whole family would be on the alert and ready to step in and deal with any emergency; this was essential for protecting our crops. One thing that we always did during the critical period was to pour cactus milk (daluk) into the inlet to the paddy field. This was very effective in keeping away certain insects.

If the paddy plants turned yellow, we would bury bamboo leaves in the inlets until the grain began to form, at this stage the grain would be fairly liquid . To protect it from insects we would obtain the discarded robes of the Buddhist priests, and make wicks out of them by soaking them in coconut oil. They would then be lit and placed in different parts of the paddy fields; because of the bright yellow vegetable dye that the robes contain - they burn with a bright light and at the same time emit a very strong smell which repels any insect pests. Another device that we used was to crush up leaves of a certain creeper that grows here into a juice which we then poured in the water at the inlet to the paddy field. The juice would float and settle around the plants. It had the effect of killing the godwella worms that eat the paddy during the two critical weeks.

We also used to put dried Makra leaves and stack them in the four corners of the field. We would plant the branches of the Kadura tree at the four corners of the field; they were used as supports for coconut lamps which would attract the bugs away from the paddy field. We would be very careful to plant the seeds at the most auspicious time from the astrological point of view. I am sure that this also helped to reduce the pest infestations.

Another thing we did was to collect sand from the river beds and sprinkle it over the paddy fields and irrigation channels; this I am sure was also effective. We would also make long ropes which we impregnated with a very sticky substance derived from the Jak fruit; the children would drag the ropes across the fields and the bugs in the paddy would get stuck on them.. Alternatively, we would tie a lot of rags on to a long bit of string and impregnate the rags with a resin called 'dummala.' Once more these would be dragged through the paddy fields. The children would also seep the paddy fields with a special tool (the pinovia) removing any bugs that might be on the surface of the water.

Senanayake: All this gives an idea of the co-operation required from all the members of the family for this highly sophisticated type of agriculture to be possible. Once the family unit breaks down under the impact of development, there is no way in which it can be practised - one can only then resort to the highly destructive modern agriculture practised in the West.

Tennekoon: That is right.

Goldsmith: Do you use biological controls as we refer to them in the West?

Tennekoon: Yes, indeed. One of the most effective ways of controlling the paddy bug was to crush coconut refuse and spread in each corner of the paddy field. This would attract a grey brown bird called the Demalichch or seven sisters. This bird would come to feed on the crushed coconut and at the same time would eat any paddy bugs that happened to be around.. It would also eat the Godewella worms that feed on the paddy plant especially during the two week period.

Goldsmith: Were there any traditional rituals for controlling pests?

Tennekoon: There was a ritual that involved boiling milk and allowing it to overflow. it was called 'kiriuturunewa' which literally means "the milk flows over the pot". It was considered very effective against the brown hopper - an important pest of the paddy plant. Another ritual consisted of planting a specially decorated stick in the middle of the paddy field which was considered very effective in repelling insect pests.

Goldsmith: How about rodents? Were they a problem in the old days?

Tennekoon: To control rats we would bury four pieces of root taken from the eastern side of the mee tree and burn them in the four corners of the paddy field. The rats as a result rarely entered the field.

Goldsmith: How about birds?

Tennekoon: These were very much under control for we would grow rice specially for them in small sections at the end of each paddy filed which were called 'kurulu paluwa'.

Goldsmith: but how did the birds know that this rice was theirs rather than the rice grown in the rest of the paddy fields?

Tennekoon: We have been doing this for thousands of years. The birds have had ample time to learn which was their paddy and which was ours; they rarely trespassed on to our part of the paddy fields unless of course they were invited to do so to eat the paddy bug or the godwella worm and besides, if they did so, they would be chased away by the children.

Senanayake: There is no magical way of controlling pests. Our peasants are too wise to believe western scientists who try to sell them ' miracle' strains of rice and 'miracle' chemicals that are supposed to eliminate all pests. The pests of the paddy will be around long after western scientists have gone, long after industrial society has collapsed. The truth is that we must lean to live with them and reduce their depredations by a vast variety of different ways, - each one of which by itself may make but a small contribution. This is only possible of course when the knowledge required for doing so is handed down from father to son which it cannot be when children are sent to urban schools and imbued with all your western scientific superstitions. It is also only possible when there is the full co-operation from all the members of a family - co-operation which can never be achieved when employees have to be paid for every hour of work they do.

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"In a Goiya's Looking Glass": Farmer-folklorist Mudyanse Tennekoon on Sri Lankan history and society