Indigenous Technology and Sustainability of Peasant Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Book Review


Reviewed by

G. H. Peiris

Professor Emeritus,

University of Peradeniya

Book: Indigenous Technology and Sustainability of Peasant Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Author: Sudath Gunasekara

Agrarian transformations in peasant societies that were brought under the yoke of European colonial dominance – a subject that has continued to generate empirical investigation, speculative comment and irreconcilable dispute since at least as far back as the late nineteenth century – has all along been of vital relevance to the broader fields of scholarly inquiry such as those pertaining to ‘ecosystems’, `underdevelopment’, decolonization’, `modernization ‘and "globalization’. Since subjugation by western imperial powers was more profoundly disruptive in the ‘Central Highlands’ of Sri Lanka than in most other parts of Asia, Africa no a Latin America, its geographical and socio-economic impact on the Sri Lankan peasantry has been subject to more intensive critical scrutiny, and has produced a wider range of interpretative diversity, than in the context of ex-colonial situations elsewhere including those parts of the Raj where the imperial economy penetrated deeply into rural areas, as it did in parts of the Deccan, Assam and Bengal.

Thus, the present volume might, at first glance, appear as the most recent in a succession of research writings that has been enriched over many decades by a veritable procession of eminent scholars in History and the Social Sciences. Scrutiny dispels such a superficial impression and indicates that Sudath Gunasekara’s study is featured by a refreshing novelty of approach, provides new insights into the complexities in the reactions of the peasantry to alien

intrusion highlighting the relevant micro-spatial diversities, and, even more significantly, displays intellectual impulses and commitments seldom found in other works of its genre.

Dr. Gunasekara’s discourse has a distinct orientation towards ‘technology’. Despite the enormous geographical transformations that have occurred in the highlands of Sri Lanka, first, with the intrusion of plantation enterprise, and, more recently, under the commercialising impact of ‘Green Revolution’, the area on which his study is focused – Uma Oya catchment – contains more than mere remnants of indigenous technology pertaining to resource management, irrigation, agronomy and environmental conservation that has survived several millennia. The author has delved deeply into the resilience of these traditional practices so as to demonstrate their potential, for being incorporated into the application of the concept of comprehensive watershed management which could, in turn, provide effective solutions to the intensifying problems concerning both the sustainability of peasant farming as well as the imperilled survival of the peasantry in the more remote rural areas of the country.

The choice of the study area lends another distinguishing dimension to Dr. Gunasekara’s book. Apart from the wide-ranging physical diversity of the Uma Oya catchment in respect of elevation, terrain, rainfall and natural vegetation, it is also featured by pronounced heterogeneity in respect of other criteria such as agrarian and settlement history, utilization of resources, commercialisation of the economy, and the relative importance of non-traditional economic activities. Devoting due attention to this diversity, Dr. Gunasekara has captured the subtle spatial variations in the peasant responses to the influences of modernisation. This documentary sources or statistical data of dubious value generated through questionnaire-based field surveys.

As Sudath Gunasekara’s other writings show, he hails from an idyllic rural setting with close geographical similarities with the more inaccessible parts of the Uma Oya basin.

The intimate knowledge he possesses of the economic, social and cultural ethos of peasant life is for him almost a "birth right" which, I believe, has been acquired, not so much from what others have written or through inquisitorial sample surveys, but by living that life. His formal academic training at baccalaureate and doctoral levels, and the experience he has had in public administration especially in assignments pertaining to rural development, would undoubtedly have vastly enhanced that knowledge. Field investigations conducted by Dr. Gunasekara specifically for the present study appear for the most part to have taken the form of verification of intuitions and inferences rather than a voyage of discovery. This volume is, thus, more than all else, the end-product of a long process of learning and profound reflection, reinforced by both extraordinary academic and executive competence as well as an exemplary sense of dedication and commitment to the promotion of interests of the more depressed segments of our peasantry.

G. H. Peiris Professor Emeritus,

University of Peradeniya

10 October 2011

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