Traditional Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudyanse Tennekoon
Part 3

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

Goldsmith: How did you assure the fertility of the paddy fields?

Tennekoon: Again we used a lot of different methods. One was to plant the Mee tree in the paddy fields. The Mee is a leguminous tree, which means that the bacteria on its roots fixes nitrogen, and we used to grow about eight of them to the acre. Its leaves also contain a lot of nitrogen, as must the litter that accumulates under it. Also, and this you will find particularly interesting, the fruit of the Mee tree is much appreciated by fruit bats which used to congregate on the trees in vast numbers when the fruits were ripe; the bats droppings (which are particularly rich in nitrogen) were thus an important source of fertiliser. We also obtained nitrogen by sowing the paddy before the first rains (Akwassa). As you know, these rains contain a lot of nitrogen.

Mudiyanse Tennekoon at Cultural Survival's Samudra Cottage
Mudiyanse Tennekoon at Cultural Survival's Samudra Cottage
Mudiyanse Tennekoon at Cultural Survival's Samudra Cottage

We would also encourage the growth of many leguminous weeds on the paddy fields between harvests in particular those we refer to as Thora, Andana, Hiriya, Nidikumba and Pila. They would grow wild on the 'pillewas' the small areas of wilderness that lie above and on either side of the paddy field. We did not cultivate these areas because it was from there that the seeds of the leguminous weeds were derived. It was also there that the buffaloes used for ploughing the paddy fields would rest, and the dung that they produced would be washed off by the rains into the paddy fields beneath. This too added to their fertility. It was also behind the bushes that grew on the 'pillewas' that we would defecate and urinate. This provided yet another contribution to the fertility of the soil. Today, of course, with modern development the 'pillewas' have been ploughed up so as to increase the area under paddy - the result is bound to be a reduction in soil fertility.

Also, as I have already mentioned, traditional varieties of paddy had long stems so that is very much more straw to return to the fields than there is today with the short-stem varieties.

Equally important, behind each village there used to be considerable expanses of jungle. It is from there that was derived the water that flowed into the 'tanks'* and which was used for flooding the fields. It was not only water that the jungle provided but also jungle soil that was highly fertile and that flowed into our fields whenever they were flooded.

* The term tank derives from the Portuguese Tanque and is used in Sri Lanka to refer to artificial ponds and reservoirs which play a critical role in their traditional agriculture.

It was by using all these methods that we retained the fertility of our land. They must have worked - or we would no longer be cultivating this land.

Goldsmith: Have you tried to use artificial fertiliser?

Tennekoon: Yes, I have to because for the last few years I have been growing the hybrid rice that requires fertiliser.

Goldsmith: What effect does it have on the rice?

Tennekoon: I have one acre of paddy. In a very good year it produces one hundred bushels - which is a lot. My family needs seventy five bushels a year so in a good year I have surplus. The trouble is one needs a bigger an bigger surplus to live on because we are becoming ever less self-sufficient. Perhaps my father produced less paddy that I did but he needed less. Also, he could be sure of producing enough of their needs each year because he planted so many varieties; some always grew well whatever the problems we encountered in a particular year. Each one of these varieties was less vulnerable to severe conditions than is the hybrid variety we use today. This simply dies when there is a drought and we are getting worse droughts every year, as everybody knows, because they have cut down the jungle. Another problem is that the hybrid paddy does not keep. If you try to store it it gets mouldy in a couple of months.

Goldsmith: How long did the traditional varieties keep?

Tennekoon: For at least three years.

Gunasekara: I remember my father cursing my mother for cooking new rice in the home when there was still three year old rice in the storage house. I think that the method of storage was also important. The rice was stored in large earthenware pots which were put on a stand so that the rats couldn't get into them. The earthenware is porous so that the rice remained aerated and cool. Also, the pot was lined with layers of lime leaves and also kara leaves which would serve to repel possible insect pests.

Goldsmith: I am sure the reason why modern hybrids do not store well is that their water content is much higher. If you use artificial fertiliser, the weight of your produce increases but this is largely due to its water content. If you dry the produce you find that the weight is very much the same as it was without the use of fertiliser. In Europe, two studies have shown that storage problems in the third world are largely due to this increased water content. One of these studies was done at Sussex University by the Institute of Development, the other by UNEP.

Tennekoon: In any case the hybrid wheat has no taste, the flour we make from it tastes like wheat flour.

For all those reasons and many others I am giving up hybrid rice and intend to cultivate the old varieties again, the trouble is finding the seed but I am getting all the local farmers together so that we can help each other return to the traditional agricultural system.

There is another advantage of the old system: it is that we used to produce all sorts of foods that we cannot produce any more.

Goldsmith: Which ones?

Tennekoon: To begin with we used to go into the jungle to get many foods such as the Baulu, Weera, Jak fruit, Himbutu, Wood Apple, Wild Pear and Avocado. Now the jungle has been cut down, we no longer have access to these foods. We must try to recreate the jungle.

We also used to obtain a vast variety of fishes from the steams, the tanks and the paddy fields when they were flooded. Some of these fish such as the Lula, Kawatya, the Hadaya and Ara could live in dried up ponds. In this area at least, they have nearly all disappeared, some of them eaten by the Tillapia that have been brought here from Africa and foisted upon us by the government. The Government insists that Tillapia only eats vegetable matter but this is not true. Others especially those that live in the paddy fields have been poisoned by pesticides. Since there are no longer any fish the larvae of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria can now survive the dry period. As a result malaria has become a lot more serious problem than it was.

The Lula that used to thrive in the tanks was also of great value to us because it favoured the formation of blood. That is why we always fed it to pregnant mothers. There were other fish that we obtained from the tank: the Lorale, the Petiya, the Hirikanaya, the Walaya, the Anda and the Ankutta. The Korale in particular was a very sweet fish. Now we only have the Tillapia; it is not bad but it does not replace all the traditional species, all of which had special uses. Also the Tillapia does not go into the paddy fields, it stays in the tanks. The change has unquestionably impoverished our diet and also our lives.

Goldsmith: What other food did you obtain?

Tennekoon: We derived a lot of vegetable food from the tanks, for instance Olu rice - the seeds of the Olu plant, a sort of lotus. We also ate the green stems of the Olu. In addition, we grew lotus yams in the tanks and we also made flour from the Kaketi roots that we obtained from the mangoes, bananas, coconut, jak fruit, pepper vines and some vegetables, such as bean grams and bean sprouts. These we still cultivate up to a point but they are not what they used to be.

Nor must we forget the Chenna or slash and burn cultivation as it is referred to in the West. It was carried out in the hills behind the village which were not suitable for paddy cultivation. After we had cultivated them for a few years we would abandon them and only return 10-14 years later, by which time the jungle had re-grown. Each family would cultivate about half to one acre which was not private property - cultivation there was in common with other villagers. The main crops we would grow there were millet, Kuruken and other dry grains. In recent years population growth reduced the cycle to 4-5 years which did not fully allow the jungle to recover. In any case today Chenna cultivation is discouraged by the government and much of the land once used for this purpose has gone into permanent cultivation for which it is not suited.

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