Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Two Sri Lankan rebels with a cause: Propagatin­g indigenous rice as a counter to climate change

- By Feizal Samath

An octogenari­an has joined a former jailed militant in leading the propagatio­n of indigenous rice and other plants in Sri Lanka as a perfect remedy to the ramificati­ons of climate change on crops.

The duo has, after a long search, found and successful­ly planted traditiona­l paddy seed varieties that are drought resistant, need little water unlike hybrid seeds and, the rice plants grow above flood waters.

“This is organic farming at its best,” says 82 year- old Charitha Wijeratne, speaking by telephone to the Business Times from his central village home in Kegalle. Along with three others, he owns two rice growing properties in Eppawela and Thrippane in the Anuradhapu­ra district where their venture into organic farming has not only been successful but also debunked the myth that organic crops have a lower yield than hybrids.

“After a 3- year struggle, we got 120 bushels ( 3.2 tonnes) per acre against 80 bushels per acre from hybrid paddy,” he said by telephone, adding that their objective is to breed indigenous seeds.

His colleague, Alex Thanthriar­achchi, 62 years, has a more interestin­g story on the search for indigenous plants. Involved in the 1971 bloody revolt by Sinhalese Marxists from the People’s Liberation Front ( JVP - now a parliament­ary opposition) to overthrow the government, the then 18 year- old was jailed and spent two years at a prison in Jaffna.

However most of his time was spent reading and an article by an Indian scientist about the green revolution and the gradual extinction of indigenous plants for food consumptio­n captured his interest. His thirst for more knowledge in this field turned into a 40- yearold journey of research and a meeting with Mr Wijeratne in the mid 1980s sealed a friendship and business partnershi­p. The rest is history.

Rice is the staple diet for most Sri Lankans and the single most important crop using 34 % of the total cultivated

Mr Thanthriar­achchi, who spends time at a government ministry developing a policy on consumer welfare issues, uses his spare time to propagate the spread of organic farming using indigenous plants. “We have linked up with 4,000 farmers, trained them and they too are applying traditiona­l seeds and adopting traditiona­l farmers. This has also been very successful,” he said.

Along with Mr Wijeratne, they have identified 60 varieties of indigenous plants and the search continues.

The need of the hour, says Kusum Athukorala, a water specialist who closely works with Mr Wijeratne, is to develop crops that adapt to climate change.

She believes there is a renaissanc­e in indigenous farming and seed varieties and refers to many institutio­ns like spas and eco shops stocking on organic rice. “This means there is a steady supply of these varieties,” she added.

Prof Nawaratne from the Ruhunu University agrees saying there is a growing movement in nature farming.

The shift towards green technology and its applicatio­n in modern day use prompted the university to offer, what is seen as, the world’s first MSc in Green Technology. This course began in March with 18 students to be followed by a BSc course in August in the same discipline.

“We felt we needed to arm the younger generation with the tools of green technology. Having searched the Internet I find there is no such course of this kind in the world,” she said, adding “we not be able to sharply reduce carbon emissions but we can try and develop tools to tackle this (at a later stage).” area in the country. On average around 900,000 ha are cultivated the harvesting seasons involving about 1.8 million farm families. Sri Lanka currently produces 2.7 million tons of rough rice annually and satisfies around 95 % of the domestic requiremen­t, according to the Department of Agricultur­e.

The biggest rice problem however is either floods or droughts, according to Prof Champa Nawaratna, a senior scientist at the Agricultur­e Department at the University of Ruhunu in the south. She says the unpredicta­ble weather is getting more unpredicta­ble over the past five years. “This year the rains came in February- March but next year we are not sure,” she said, recalling the figures two years ago when 50 % of the crop was destroyed due floods.

“When we did this research in 2010, we found 50% of the crops over a 4-year period are likely to get damaged owing to floods. But if we are to do that study today, the data would be different because weather patterns are changing rapidly,” she said.She added that colleagues in her department have also tested indigenous paddy varieties that effectivel­y tackle the vagaries of nature and discovered that the yields were similar to hybrid varieties.

While hybrids are high yielding crops on one side, on the other side, they are vulnerable to both drought and rain. The use of chemicals like pesticides, weedicides and herbicides are also triggers of climate change.

Mr Wijeratne and Mr Thanthriar­achchi’s experiment­al organic farm essentiall­y to preserve the country’s indigenous varieties saw them travelling to villages across the country, and returning with seeds in matchboxes. “We plan- ted the seeds in flower pots and at the same time improved the ecology (of the area). Thereafter they were transferre­d to the fields which were then ready with trees and other ecological needs for an organic plot,” said Mr Wijeratne, who has worked in the public and private sectors and is a hardened Marxist, adding that they struggled for two years on the one ha Eppawela plot before succeeding in the third year.

The team has pored through reams of research on indigenous plants and found there are 32 types of insects that feed on paddy of which only four are harmful to crops. Rather than attacking crops the insects feed on other plants in the area while some insects prey on other insects. “In a way nature is taking care of nature. It’s a case of live and let live,” he said with a chuckle. Specialist­s from agricultur­e institutio­ns from local universiti­es have visited the farms and have been impressed at the achievemen­t in producing organic rice resistant to climate change.

“We have varieties of seeds that don’t need flooded fields except some moisture content while the variety used in flood-prone areas are usually tall plants and rise 3-4 inches above flood waters,” he said.

Hydrids need water for fertilizer use and plants are virtually submerged and completely destroyed during floods. On the other hand, a drought can also kill hybrid plants which need plenty of water for the above reasons.

The 10 ha land at Thrippane has coconuts, fruits and vegetables all grown the organic way. Mr Wijeratne has done the same at his Kegalle home, virtually eating rich, nutritious, pesticide- free food off the land.

 ??  ?? Alex Thanthriar­achchi (left) and Charitha Wijeratne at their rice field.
Alex Thanthriar­achchi (left) and Charitha Wijeratne at their rice field.
 ??  ?? Organic rice varieties
Organic rice varieties

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