Grassroots - Chemical-Free Farming

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals

Grassroots - Chemical-Free Farming


women working in field

The Polonnaruwa district, in the North Central Province, is one of the best areas in Sri Lanka for crops. It has a favourable climate and good soil, backed by a network of irrigation canals providing a regular supply of water. But 30 of its small farmers committed suicide in 1995.

Using high-yielding varieties of seeds, fertilizers and chemicals, the farmers had been able to produce a reasonable yield from their paddy each year. But after years of heavy fertilizer and pesticide use, their soil degraded and their harvests dwindled. They struggled in vain to get the minimum needed to keep their heads above water. They had borrowed heavily to buy chemicals and fertilizers and hire tractors and were now unable to pay back the debts. The only way out, they thought, was to end their lives.

In Sri Lanka, and around the world, the environmental bills of the Green Revolution are coming in. Modern agricultural methods have eroded fertile land, marginalized poor farmers, swept away indigenous farming knowledge in the name of scientific progress, and ousted local food varieties and farming systems, adapted to environmental conditions.

Yet some rural communities in Sri Lanka are developing viable alternatives. At Nawalapitiya, some 40 kilometres from Kandy, the country's central hill capital, a retired school headmaster, G. K. Upawansa, is rediscovering and promoting indigenous farming systems which operate in harmony with the environment.

Working in rural schools, Upawansa came into contact with the problems faced by poor farmers through his students, and decided to set up a programme to ease their burdens. Immediately after retirement, he bought some land and started experimenting with eco-friendly agricultural practices. Eventually he began to achieve higher crop yields and news about his methods spread from village to village. People came to learn from him, demanding information and training. He established a modest training centre which, each year, trains about 100 young men and women from rural communities with hands-on experience in ecological farming.

Upawansa believes that modern farming practices damage ecosystems. Intensive tillage, he says, slowly degrades the land, while chemical fertilizers kill microbes in the soil and affect its ability to fix nitrogen. The fertilizers also destroy insects and animals which maintain a check on pests, while pesticides wipe out insect predators. After a couple of years, the pests develop resistance and multiply rapidly.

He also takes issue with conventional agricultural wisdom on weeds. Agricultural experts advise farmers to keep their plots free of them, saying they compete with crops for nutrients and harbour pests. In fact, says Upawansa, the so-called 'weeds' harbour predators of crop pests and enrich and conserve the soil. Experts also advise farmers to remove trees to allow more sunlight, but Upawansa retorts that this also harms soil fertility.

He adds: 'Indigenous farming practices were based on religious beliefs and values. During the planting and harvesting of crops, people performed religious practices to invoke the blessings and protection of the Gods. These had important therapeutic effects. If the farmer had a bad crop, he would find solace in religious practice, which would sustain his commitment. Modern agriculture has replaced cultural practices with monetary values. In times of need, farmers now have nothing to hold on to.'

Working together with a group of non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka, he developed an alternative process of agriculture. This consists of:

- An agricultural system, based on the needs of communities and local methods of cultivation;

- Recycling farm wastes, making compost from organic wastes;

- Producing biological pesticides from local plant extracts and using natural predators to control pests;

- A cropping pattern that follows local weather patterns and climatic rhythms:

- Minimal tillage: the soil is never turned, but loosened with village implements like country ploughs;

- Mixed cropping;

- Rekindling cultural and religious practices when harvesting and planting crops.

Lantara, a small vegetable farmer and one of the first to adopt the package says: 'On average, I make a profit of about $300, which is sufficient for my family. In the past, I used to worry about the constant price rises in chemicals and fertilizers, dictated by those who live in the city. Now I am not concerned. The higher prices rise, the better it is for me. The price of vegetables grown using modern methods rises correspondingly, which makes my produce more competitive.'

Last year, Upawansa trained a group of 24 poor women farmers from Sri Lanka's highest village, Shanthi Pura in the mountains of Central Province. The conditions are harsh, with strong winds and little water. Land is sparse and the farmers have to make careful use of every inch of it.

People with cart

Mary Paul, Secretary of the Sinhala and Tamil Women Farmers' Association, to which most of them belong, says: 'Most of us were living in desperate conditions and some were thinking of selling their land and leaving the place. We all have small plots. After the constant use of fertilizer and chemicals, the soil started losing its fertility. My family's cow died after eating grass contaminated by chemical spraying.

'At first it was difficult for us to switch from chemicals and pesticides to organic farming, after being trained at Upawansa's centre. But we persevered and succeeded. Now some of us earn an average of about $20 a month. We sell most of our produce to a nearby shop, which stocks only organic food and so attracts people from far and wide.'

She and her group list the advantages of chemical-free farming:

- Better profits as there are no cash inputs. Seeds are exchanged among group members;

- Even in harsh weather conditions, yields compare favourably with modern agricultural methods;

- Soil fertility improves season after season;

- Natural predators of pests have started to reappear.

Now Upawansa and his team plan to establish small regional centres throughout Sri Lanka to provide information and training about organic farming. He says: 'We are a small country with a growing population. Ecological farming is the only way we can achieve food security without destroying our precious natural resources. In the last budget, the Government allocated $90 million to write off farmers' debts and $30 million for the fertilizer subsidy. We can save a significant amount of these funds if we adopt ecological farming methods and return to our roots'.

Don de Silva is a communication specialist and environmentalist. He can be reached at:

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