Traditional Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudyanse Tennekoon
Part 4

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

Goldsmith: It seems that practically all the traditional foodstuffs also had medicinal uses, did you have any effective traditional cures for malaria?

Tennekoon: A very effective one. We use banja or ganja-marijuana as it is usually known. This was one of our most important medicines; it used to be called "the leaf that can win the entire world" so great were its medicinal uses. We used to reduce it to powder and boil it like tea and add jaggery (sugar from the Kittul palm) to it. It was only effective against malaria but also against worms. We often took it with other foods for it reduced the time it took for them to be absorbed by the blood. Honey has the same effect.

Gunasekara: Robert Knox the Englishman who was shipwrecked in Sri Lanka in the 16th century and spent seventeen years here as a prisoner of the king referred to banja as the cure for malaria in his Account of Ceylon. The plant was called "the ruler of the three worlds".

Goldsmith: Do you still use banja for medicinal purposes?

Tennekoon: No, today it is banned by the government.

Goldsmith: It is said that you can increase yields by transplanting the paddy plants when they have just sprouted, have you tried to do this?

Tennekoon: The government tries to force us to. They learnt this technique from the Japanese. In many areas of Japan where they grow paddy there is an annual frost which often lasts as long as three weeks. The plants get damaged if left in the paddy fields. They get round this by broadcasting the seed inside green-houses where they are protected from the frost. They are then transplanted into the paddy fields. But here we find that the plant after being transplanted is sick, it takes as much as two weeks for it to recover. The only way to get round this is to use artificial fertilisers to give them a fillip and pesticides to protect them in their weakened state against pests. Also the transplantation takes up a lot of time and this interferes with other activities such as Chenna cultivation and tank fishing. The government is also very keen that we should have three harvests instead of two which they claim is possible with modern agricultural methods but this takes up a lot of time and interferes with most of our other activities - including our social life - besides which it will provide a permanent niche for the brown hopper.

Goldsmith: Have you tied to use a tractor?

Tennekoon: I haven't but many farmers have done so. It is not as good as the buffalo. A pair of buffaloes weigh about 2,000 pounds. Their feet are just the right shape for pressing down the soil in the paddy field, which as a result forms a clay or crust which holds the water in. They also stir up the soil above the clay and loosen it.

The buffalo also produces about 1,500 pounds of dung every year and a vast amount of urine both of which contribute very significantly to the fertility of the soil. The tractor on the other had is much too heavy for the paddy field. Wherever it passes it breaks through the clay and water penetrates into the sub-soil. So if one uses a tractor one requires very much more water and this especially today is unlikely to be available. Also it stirs up the soil. The light organic matter comes to the surface and is lost to the flood water. So its use leads to reduced fertility. Needless to say of course the tractor neither defecates nor urinates, hence makes no contribution to soil fertility. Nor does it produce milk and ghee (clarified butter) nor curd, both of which play a very important part in our diet. Nor, for that matter, does it reproduce itself when it dies one simply has to buy another tractor.

Of course it saves labour and that is what we are always told, but my profession is agriculture which means that I must be in the fields, that is my life. I don't want to sleep all day nor to spend my time gossiping with my neighbours. in any case what is the point of saving labour in a country which has such high unemployment. In the old days, labour saving devices made still less sense; the family and the community were intact and there were always enough people for the ploughing, the sowing, the harvest and the maintenance of the tanks.

Senanayake: If they had not co-operated in this way the tanks would never have been maintained. The civilisations of Anuradapura and Polonaruwa would never have existed. We would never have been able to sustain a population which was possibly as much as fifteen million people, equal to the present population.

Goldsmith: Isn't the government trying to restore the old irrigation system?

Senanayake: They have restored a number of tanks with World Bank aid. But only the big tanks and that is not enough. The big tanks are only of use if the small village tanks are also in use and these have largely silted up. It is the job of the Department of irrigation to maintain them but they cannot be maintained by a bureaucracy. Once the social structure of the village has collapsed they must inevitably silt up and remain that way. In fact if we wish to restore our traditional agriculture we must first restore the social life and the culture that gave rise to it and without which it cannot be conducted.

Tennekoon: I fully agree. It is not the tanks that must be restored but the whole system of tank cultivation and this cannot be done by bureaucrats. We used to have five different types of tanks. First of all there was the forest tank which was dug in the jungle above the village; it was not for irrigation but to provide the drinking water for the wild animals that live in the jungle. They knew it was for them, they had thousands of years to learn this, so they do not come to the village in search of water and interfere with our agricultural activities.

The second sort of tank was the mountain tank. There were no canals running from it, its purpose was to provide water for Chenna cultivation.

The third sort of tank was the erosion control tank known as the 'Pota Wetiye'. We used to have several of those and the silt would accumulate in them before it could build up in the storage tank. They were so designed as to be easily de-silted.

The fourth was the storage tank. There were usually two of them. They were know as the twin-tanks. They were used in turn. One was in use while the other was being maintained. These were connected to a large number of village tanks which they fed and which fed them too with their overflow.

Senanayake: These tanks played an essential part in the traditional rural life. One could not imagine a village in the dry zone without a tank any more than one could imagine it without a temple or a rice paddy. In fact the three basic constituents of the village were the temple (dagoba), the rice paddy (kumbura) and the tank (wewa). Of course there were other important constituents as Tennekoon has told you. The jungle above, the garden and the scrub where the Chenna cultivation took place.

Tennekoon: Absolutely.

Goldsmith: What did the old traditional village look like?

Tennekoon: The houses were built very close together. In this way they occupied the minimum amount of precious land. This arrangement favoured the essential co-operation among the villages. For instance, one woman could look after the children of a number of neighbours at the same time which is important when the maximum number of people are required in the fields to harvest the crops or maintain the tanks.

Goldsmith: How was the maintenance of the tanks organised?

Tennekoon: It was part of the Rajakariya service that was owed to the king. Everybody had to provide this service forty days a year. It was not for the purpose of serving his personal whims or caprices. It was work that had to be done in the interests of the whole community.

Gunesekara : Indeed one of our Kings tried to get the people to de-silt the artificial lake in front of his palace in Kandy as part of their Rajakariya work they refused to do so saying that this was not community work. It was his personal responsibility and he had to arrange for it separately.

Senanayake: Of course the British misunderstood the whole principle of Rajakariya, they thought it was abusive, a relic of Kandy's feudal past and they abolished it. This was one of the most destructive things the British ever did. It destroyed the very principle of co-operation in this country. Fortunately it did not destroy it completely, it lingered on in a somewhat rudimentary form. The villagers still worked fourteen days each year for the common good, a practice that was finally stopped in 1970 by the Irrigation Department. Bureaucrats will not tolerate any co-operative work by the villagers. It reduces the demand for its services. If the Rajakariya system were still functioning there would be no need for the bureaucrats of the irrigation department. Of course, now that it is their responsibility to maintain the tanks they do nothing about it.

Tennekoon: "What was everybody's business had become nobody's business."*

* A comment made by a British official at a Select Committee set up by the British parliament in 1849 to consider these matters.

Goldsmith: I take it from all you have told me that you reject out-right the whole package of western technological agriculture?

Tennekoon: I do.

Goldsmith: You would prefer to be a traditional farmer of the old school?

Tennekoon: I would, but everything is done to make this as difficult as possible. In the eyes of officialdom I am a pauper because I am a "subsistence agriculturalist". I am uneducated because I have not been subjected to western education. All my knowledge, in particular the traditions and culture of my people counts for nought. I am even considered unemployed because I am not part of the formal economy. I make little contribution to the workings of the market. I have even been told that I am a beggar.

Senanayake: All this will change soon, you will be the model and our youth will flock here to learn our traditions from you. This must be so because current trend cannot be sustained.

The problem has got out of hand. The jungle has been everywhere cut down to make way for plantations. As a result there had been vastly increase erosion and the tanks have silted up at an unprecedented rate. There is no longer anybody to maintain the anti-erosion tanks, twin-tanks or the village tanks. In some villages the tanks are completely silted up.

In the meantime everybody is moving to the towns and the cities. Colombo now has vast slums which did not exist a decade ago. If current trends continue Colombo will soon look like Calcutta. People are becoming to depend more and more on the formal economy for their food and its price is going up by leaps and bounds. The government is not interested in feeding the people, if it were it would not use half our land in the wet zone to produce cash crops for export. Nor would it be building the vast complex of dams that make up the Mahaweli scheme. It would restore instead the agricultural system of the past. This of course it cannot do without abandoning its present priorities - development in particular.

The attempt to transform this country to a tropical version of a Western industrial nation is suicidal - it can only lead to ever greater malnutrition and indeed famine. And all this in Sri Lanka which should be, as it had been in the past, a "land of milk and honey".

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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