Although RAY WIJEWARDENE, 71, holds degrees in engineering and aeronautics from Cambridge, is a Doctor of Science (Honorls causa) from Sri Lanka's technological university in Moratuwa and has received numerous awards. including the fellowship of Silsoe College of Cranfield University, USA, he prefers to Introduce himself as a farmer and mechanic. That introduction is accurate, for he still "gets his hands dirty" by working on his small farm in SH Lanka's intermadate-dry zone, where he experiments On new forms of rainfed farming and agroforestry. But l4ifewardene Is no ordinary former: he is one of the world's leading experts on tropical farming systems. He is now invotved with the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), a method which considerably reduces soil erosion. Wilewardene spoke to Nalaka Gunawardene in Colombo
You were a part of the new wave of agri. culture in the'60s and beyond. You helped mechanise farming through the 2-wheel tractor, but later called it a big mistake. Why?
We failed to ask ourselves a fundamental question: does the tractor mechanise agriculture or does it mechanise the buffalo? Ultimately, the tractor only mechanised the buffalo, and that too, not very well.
After a great deal of study, we realised that the main purpose of tillage in farming is to control weeds. The cost for tillage represents between 40 to 60 per cent of the total cost of agricultural production. It is also not too healthy a practice as it aggravates erosion and is a ma) .or contributor to the serious loss of soil fertility.
What are the alternatives to tillage as a means of weed control?
There are 2 main alternatives to tillage. The first, using herbicides, depends upon the import of chemicals and can lead to environ- mental hazards, The second method is using water for weed control. Both methods involve reliance upon external factors. I spent many years studying the problem of how to control weeds naturally and found that the answer lay in the tropical forests. You don't see any weeds in a rainforest because, firstly, it is shadoi the overhead canopy, and secondly, the 4 are smothered by the leaf mulch. The lieft of the forest is enriched by the deep roots c4 trees which bring up nutrients frorn mas reserves in the deeper sod levels, prodij leaves and other parts of trees, which thm on the top soil. In the tropical forest, I managing weeds and maintaining fertillity beautifully managed by nature itself.
What are the main features of the SWJ Agricultural Land Technology (SALT)?
Farming with SALT, which originally be in the Philippines, reduces the need of control chemicals and also minimises :A Sion. In SALT, we basically generate 4 amounts of leaf mulch on the farm 1" establishing contoured hedge-rows of S trees. It also helps in bring - - I trees and shrubs back into their traditio in the farming scene with their abun= leaf-litter and mulch for restoring fertilityl smothering weeds.
Are you opposed to external inputs, in agriculture?
No. On the contrary, I believe werh 01 use some external inputs in an app P manner. I call it replenishing the land's lity. But we need to pay more attention pa such as green manure, cowdung ellewas - the real friends of farmers. 0" sopports cowdung? Who extols the lon of the humble earthworm? For us in I these are far more important. India has bobal this, but we still haven't. As long as podcalitural scientists are trained in the bre wiculd of going for high external-input this will not change. Cowdung and won't stand a chance - until sam scientist suddenly're-discovers' them.
How can agroforestry practices help tropical farmers ?
Npullaccary is a term used to describe a lzmWof agricultural practices which com bolls short-term crops with larger trees bow longer lives, in these agricultural at the some time. Tropical farmers have = food crops and trees/shrubs, and sainacs animals, in an integrated and sustainable manner. However, such integrated land systems have until recently been sod by agricultural and forestry It is only in the last decade that arm have rediscovered the integration of j6 "imals and tree production in agroforestry.
What are the problems facing tropical agriculture?
The 2 biggest problems facing farmers ogboest the world are loss of soil fertility comarol of weeds. Every year, in Sri We central hill country, large chunks of Whoral land are rendered unproductive sad erosion in the catchment areas. A layer of one millimetre of top soil lost per ha rammmo to a loss of 13 tonnes. In some 6 that a centimetre of sod has been jo a year so the loss is often over 100 sper br, Tropical soils should never be so met as this will soon lead to erosion and loss of fertility.
Shifting cultivation has been blamed for Much of this soil erosion and land degradation. Do you have a different point of View?
Rainfed shifting cultivation is practised brim S6 Unks and all over the tropics. kW (called chena cultivation in M" is the earliest and most widespread lgollincestry in the tropics. It is a land in which branches of trees are dand dw crops are cultivated alongside mom The deep rooting trees which are inact as these lands provide shade and nutricients. After cultivating on that Ima Iliver seasons, the land is left for the Oloden of the foliage (called the fallow period).
It is only in recent decades that the traditional shifting cultivation practice has become totally 'vulgarised', and farmers have started clearing entire forests for cultivation. However, as available land diminished, the fallow periods became shorter and shorter. During the last few decades, the fallow period has come down from over 10 years to less than 3 years. Armchair critics are quick to blame chena for causing soil erosion and deforestation. But when correctly followed with adequate fallow periods, it is one of the best methods to raise crops, using only rainwater, in areas where irrigated water is either not available or too expensive.
How can this problem be resolved - by banning chena cultivation, as some critics advocate?
No, chena cultivation cannot be eliminated or regulated by mere legislation, or by imposing penalties. it provides a good part of the country's subsidiary foodcrops and is also a source of income to the poorer segments of rural society. So it's likely to continue, no mat- ter what the critics say. Promoting the use of fast growing trees will help recycle sod fertility faster, so that the farmer can return to the same plot of land after shorter fallow periods. Many such fast growing trees have been identified and are being popularised.
Will the tropical farmer always be a prisoner of market forces?
Governments both in the North and South are interfering with market forces in ways that marginalise the tropical farmer. Prices are kept artificially low at the international level by Northern governments, who offer huge farm subsidies to their own farmers. The market is then flooded with cheap produce, which undercuts the local farmer.
The farmer must be offered realistic prices for his produce. Unfortunately, politicians subsidise the consumer in the towns upon the sweat of the farmer in the village. If higher prices are paid to the farmer, it will gradually lead to enhanced rural prosperity, which 'in turn will lead to a whole chain of events, reversing migration to the already congested cities.
You have long been critical of International development aid and questioned its need. What is your position on this?
I believe development aid is a part of neocolonialism... a conspiracy which keeps developing countries bound to inappropriate development models and technologies. It is our shortsighted politicians who mortgage the future of our entire nations to the West. I, for one, would prefer to see A aid to the Third World stop. Then we will learn to stand on our own feet or perish. That would be the best thing that can happen to Sri Lanka, and we will surely learn the meaning of 'independence' as 'non-dependence'. And we shall not perish!
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.