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Is forest clearing really necessary for development of agriculture?

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By Upali Cooray

(Former General Manager of CWE)

The Island newspaper has carried a very relevant editorial, on 5th December, as well as in recent times, in respect of the government’s agricultural policies. The government’s policy of permitting Divisional Secretaries to give approval to suitable farmers to clear forests in some areas for agricultural activity, while legal action is being taken against clearing swathes of forests in the Kallaru area, by a political strongman, during the yahapalana regime, amounts to duplicity.

My argument is that it is not necessary to clear forests at all because the present agricultural output would be more than enough if productivity in growing and marketing is improved two-fold. The authority to permit clearing residual forest land has now been given to the district secretary. These officials mostly become flexible in the face of political pressure. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Devani Jayatillake, the female forest officer who stood her ground despite a political strongman trying to force her to permit a wetland to be converted to a playground. The ignorance of one of the politician’s henchman was visible when he asked the female official whether oxygen can be ‘eaten’. (Oxygen kannada?)

It is pertinent to mention here that the constitution of Bhutan compels any of its governments to maintain a minimum of 60 percent forest cover, yet it has a forest cover of 70 percent. Also, it’s a carbon neutral country. I know that Sri Lanka cannot emulate Bhutan, but we must thrive to increase the forest cover as much as possible. What every government in the past has done and is doing is destroying forests gradually.

In order to debase the argument that residual forests should be cleared for agricultural activity, one must first ascertain how the present system of the agricultural marketing chain operates. It is a well-known fact that nearly 40 percent of the produce perishes by the time it reaches the final retailer.

A main drawback is the existence of multiple intermediaries causing low realization to the farmer, high losses and high prices to the consumer. Most of the lower level markets, such as the ‘pola’ and the ‘kada mandi’ markets are underdeveloped and imperfect. Over 90 percent of these markets are periodic, ill equipped and lacking in facilities. The farmers deal with collectors, commission agents and wholesalers. The number of growers who bring their vegetables to the government managed economic centres are a minority.

In Sri Lanka, the farmers have a strong bond with these intermediaries contrary to the perception that the intermediary is a swindler. Though the numbers of farmers, who bring their produce to the Government managed Dedicated Economic Centres (DEC), might show high numbers, many are collectors or traders who operate under the guise of farmers. They may even do some farming while their main activity is collecting. The evil picture of the middleman is not always correct.

The collector or the wholesaler mostly buys the produce from the farmer, on credit, and the settlements are made only when the produce is sold. Besides, many intermediaries are considered as personal friends in need, who will offer credit for contingency expenditure of the farmer family or for occasions such as weddings and funerals, etc, keeping the future harvests as collateral. Therefore these numerous intermediaries of the traditional inefficient channel of very low productivity have become an integral part in our country’s economy.

The hidden cost, healthwise consequent to consuming pesticide sprayed and unhygienically washed and stored vegetables have not been factored by any specialist and I have great doubt that the way the government is going about allowing more forest land clearance for agricultural activity will not give the expected result of increasing farmer income or reducing the cost to the cosumer. Besides this step will reduce the already depleted forest cover further. There will still be farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture at the mercy of the middleman

The DEC project was started in 1998 with the worthy vision of improving the productivity of the agriculture marketing channels and it was expected to be done through modern efficiencies in backward and forward integration. While the government owned the infrastructure, the traders operating were private wholesalers. The board of governors is appointed by the government and generally a person of Additional Secretary level at the Ministry of Trade or District Secretary is the Chairman. However, this seemingly modern idea was distinctive from the totally state owned and operated channels that existed at that time such as now defunct Marketing Department, Markfed and Sathosa. Even then, the private sector traders and wholesalers still dominated the system.

The DECs which have now grown to 15 in number have not been able to serve the purpose for which they were established due mainly to political interests taking precedence over the other economic objectives. Most of them have become political strongholds where middlemen with full patronage of the political strongmen of the areas have made them their power bases than serving farmers and consumers. DECs are just another link in the marketing channel adding to cost of the produce. The millionaire wholesalers obviously are funding their political masters and in return they are protected and allowed to hold sway in the market.

I vividly remember how some years ago, during my tenure in the CWE, a political strongman in an area famous for big onions prevented the CWE from entering into forward contracts with big onion growers for direct purchase from farmers. When he got to know the programme, he nominated one of his henchmen as a Chairman of fake farmer organisation from whom the CWE was directed to purchase onions. Chairman of the farmer organisation was in fact a commission agent. The Central Bank- sponsored forward contract programme, which was of immense benefit to the farmer, was sabotaged by this politician who is still a lawmaker.

Some private sector companies, in Sri Lanka too have done a total integration process of agricultural produce very successfully and a supermarket chain has been able to sell very good quality vegetables at lower or competitive prices. It is reported that the waste has been reduced to 10 percent and the dedicated number of out grower farmers in the chain is over 1,000.

There have been newspaper headlines, such as “fruits and vegetables sold near overflowing toilets” and the title “Dambulla- Economic centre scandal”. There was also a legal case which went before the Dambulla Magistrate where the courts have warned the manager about the unsanitary conditions of the Centre. This is a good illustration of the situation in the vegetable and fruit marketing exercise in Sri Lanka. Vegetable vendors and farmers washing vegetables in polluted canals and drains near the cities and towns is also a common sight.

The use of suitable plastic crates and wooden crates for transporting fresh vegetables and fruits is an effective way of reducing costs and minimising waste which is now said to be around 40 percent.

The primary objective of this exercise should be to give a higher income to the farmer and a lower price and good quality produce to the consumer. It is known that other developing countries which have already done total integration have found that farmer income could be increased by 20 percent and wastage reduced to five percent. Transportation in crates ideally has to begin from the farm gate and end with the retailer which means that the new rule has to be complied with by all concerned in the chain, starting from the farmer, the consumer being the exception.

There is going to be only a very minimal benefit enforcing the transporters and wholesalers/traders to use crates. Then the question arises whether such total integration of the supply chain is practical in the existing marketing channels. The present archaic system is driven by the sole objective of exploitation, nothing else, when the driving objective should be satisfying the needs of the farmer and the consumer. It is necessary to understand the inefficiencies in the present infrastructure set up of agriculture marketing which consequently results in an inefficient wholesale market.

 

Some other developing countries in South America, Africa and, specially India, have done total integration successfully in a completely different manner. Sri Lanka is still proceeding with the same archaic system with inefficiencies aplenty.

One can see lorry loads of vegetables being transported to various parts of the country packed in polypropylene bags and the labourers traveling while sleeping on the bags. The result of this need not be elaborated.

In these circumstances any major overhaul of the system could be manipulated in a manner more advantageous to the trader than the consumer or the producer. The wholesalers will still pay the same low prices to the farmers and keep his unconscionable margins when selling to the consumer. For instance, there have been occasions where Nuwara- Eliya vegetables brought to Dambulla DEC for transport to other parts of the country, have gone back to Nuwara- Eliya for resale during the April season. The reason is pretty obvious.

My umpteen visits and interactions in a long career in matters relating to procurement of agricultural produce, such as onions, potatoes, dhal, dried chilies, coriander, garlic and rice, from India, enabled me to closely interact with major state sector players, private sector traders, companies, farmers in many states of India and I have seen the strides taken by the Indian agricultural marketing channels towards modernization. The change that has occurred is remarkable. The responsibility of managing marketing channels for agricultural produce has been gradually taken over by the private sector companies that are selected by a government bidding process. The setting up of the channels according to guidelines spelt out by the government, is the responsibility of the companies. It is a practically possible and proven symbiosis of state and private sector. This is very much a state facilitated and guided system. The difference is that the most suitable companies with proven track records, and the professionalism, are selected.

The main equity holder is a company selected by a two- stage bidding process. Twenty percent to 40 percent of equity is subsidized by the government depending on the area, but the government, is not a shareholder and has no role other than monitoring to ensure that the company complies with required standards. Only the professionals selected by the company manage it. The farmer to retailer link is straight and there are less or no superfluous intermediaries. Producer and consumer satisfaction is very high.

It is known as the hub and spokes channel. The hub is known as a terminal market situated in a major city or a town. The spokes connect the hub straight, without or with a minimum of intermediaries. The hub offers facilities such as export processing, stocks for wholesale and retail trading, cold storage, temperature and sunlight controlled storage, ripening chambers, packing houses, quality testing facilities, cool chain transport, payments and market information.

Sri Lanka is a country with high humidity. Certain areas in the up country, specially the area in and around Boraland,a in the Badulla district, in the Uva province is very suitable for storage of big onions for long periods of two to three months without perishing. The onions lose weight due to lack of moisture in the atmosphere. The disadvantage is Boralanda is very far from the markets thereby increasing cost. However, the dry atmosphere, with low humidity can be emulated artificially by dehumidifiers or air conditioning near the market. Dried Chillies have to be stored in a very dark atmosphere with dehumidification. Fruits and vegetables in cold storage and ripening chambers.

Farmers bring produce to collecting and grading centres set up by the company in close vicinity to the farm, in crates having cleaned and graded them. Further cleaning and grading is done at the collecting centers. Though farmer/out-grower is dedicated to the company they have the freedom to select the buyer. But the Indian farmers are quite satisfied and happy with the companies and they have a better income, better methods of cultivation and their welfare is assured including support for children’s education.

Most farmers are changing rapidly to Agribusiness and are no longer subsistence farmers. Modern methods of increasing productivity are inculcated among all stake holders by the company. The farmer has instant information about the market, especially the prices, electronically conveyed at the farm. The sale of produce, at the terminal market, is based on electronic auctions and no middleman holds anybody to ransom or manipulate the system. Yet the traditional systems In India have not totally gone away and exists parallel to the modern system. The government does not meddle with it. But one can see it being given tough competition to exist.

Sri Lanka government should rectify the exploiter-based system which will leave no stone unturned to maintain the status quo. It is worthwhile to investigate and see whether there are hidden hands benefiting from the present system. It is high time to give up subsistence farming and inculcate the concept of Agribusiness to the farmer so that he would not be exploited by the middleman.

It will be prudent to think of the idea of operating a terminal market system with the collaboration of the private sector, initially as a pilot project with the option with whatever the adjustments necessary to suit local conditions. Terminal markets are not an Indian idea but appears to be borrowed from developed countries with adjustments in line with Indian market conditions.

I am fully aware that the government finds it difficult to subsidize various services to the people. This should not be a subsidy but only startup support to genuine companies having the expertise.

Let the present system remain with no more DECs. The government need not be shy to get guidance from the private companies that have already done this locally, though in a small way. Such a private state terminal market is a vital necessity in Colombo to compete with the Manning Market and Dambulla – a hotbed of inefficiency, waste and exploitation. The brand new modern vegetable market in Peliyagoda is a good place to commence it.

Let’s hope it will not fall a victim of the politically- controlled vegetable mafia.

The writer can be contacted on (egalawan288 @gmail.com)

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Opinion

Is government in self-destructive mode?

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The government seems to have forgotten the two main factors that propelled it to power. One factor was the threat to the national interest that developed due to the evil deeds of the previous government in their disastrous tenure, and the other is the deleterious effect the ruined economy had on the poor people. Governments which never forget what helped them come to power and face electoral debacles.

Of the two political parties that had governed this country, the SLFP is more nationalistic and the UNP is more neo-liberal and pro-West. The latter governed this country from 2015 to 2019, and adopted policies that made the country almost a vassal of the West, and also ruined the economy by robbing the Central Bank. Nobody wants to invest in a country where the government robs its own central bank. Further, that government colluded with the separatists and Western powers to hound the war- winning armed forces. Those misdeeds on the one hand caused an upsurge of nationalism among the middle class and the professionals, and severe hardship among the poor. These two groups that account for more than two thirds of the population could easily be rallied against the government, as never before.

The electoral system that was in operation was not expected to allow anything more than a thin majority, but given the people’s frustration now SLPP won with a huge majority. The economy and nationalism are the two main factors that decide elections in Sri Lanka. Here it is the economy of the poor people, the large majority, that matters. This is evident from the fact that during the period 2010 to 2015 all economic parameters like the GDP, debt ratio, inflation, etc were favourable but the SLFP government lost the election, because their development effort, notwithstanding all indices, did not help the poor people. It seems those big projects that resulted in good economic indices like a high GDP, did not alleviate the hardship of the poor.

This government has the opportunity to base its economic policies on nationalism, to help those who improve the lives of the less affluent. More than 60% of people who voted for this government are poor rural people. The government should have focused on these people.

More than 70% of people live in the villages and are sustained by an agricultural economy. Yet, the government in its recent budget has allocated less than 6% to the development of agriculture. Although it has stopped the import of some goods that could be produced locally, and this has helped the local farmers to some extent, much more should have been done for the development of agriculture.

Not enough is done to initiate the local manufacture of seeds, fertilizer, aggro-chemicals, storage and machinery. At least 20% of the budget should have been allocated for the agriculture, plantations and fisheries sectors. These are the major areas of the economy that need to be developed to improve the living conditions of the rural population. It will also lessen our dependence on foreign imports.

Further, if more money is invested in this sector, it may be possible even to give employment to those workers who are returning from abroad due to Covid, and also reduce the number of people leaving the country for semi-slavery, which is a disgrace to the country, not to mention its adverse social impact.

This is the time for this government to lay the groundwork for the development of the rural economy, health, education, household income, housing, sanitation, availability of potable water etc. It has not allocated sufficient funds for the education of poor people. Economy cannot be improved without developing education. Rural schools lack basic facilities like toilets, pipe- borne water, electricity, buildings. We have seen on TV children and teachers holding umbrellas during classes as roofs are leaking. By developing the national economy the government can “kill two birds with one stone”. Economy of the poor could be improved without compromising the national interest. A national economy would make optimum use of natural and human resources. Experts need not be imported for simple development work and also for solving connected problems. For instance, entomologists need not be brought from abroad to deal with the problem created by the Sena caterpillar. Governments may not have to sell or lease valuable national assets like the harbours, airports, industries sector, if those are better managed. This government pledged in its election campaign to protect the national assets. But now it seems to have forgotten that promise. 6.9 million people who voted for it are disappointed. This is another reason why the government is losing its popularity. No foreign power should be allowed to force the government to sell the country’s national assets. In the context of today’s global geopolitics, Sri Lanka is in a position to resist such pressure.

Further, surely, we cannot be lacking in technical and managerial expertise to run state enterprises. If we are short of money, it is better to wait till we improve our economy and are in a position to find the money. Someday things will improve and we will be able to operate them profitably. If we sell even 49% that is almost half, and we may never get it back. Another area that the government has failed is the environment protection sphere. Unscrupulous racketeers are allowed to do much damage to forests, wetlands, lagoons and other valuable ecosystems which are detected only after the damage is done. Are the officials responsible for looking after these national assets blind, or are their palms well-oiled or are politicians behind these activities. These activities are anti-national and are viewed as such by the people. Unless the government remembers that 6.9 million voted for it, most of them the rural poor, and realizes quickly that the lives of rural people have to be developed based on national economic policies, which make optimum use of natural and human resources available in the country, look after national assets and protect the environment, it will be in trouble come the next election.

N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA

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The ‘Sena’ Caterpillar invasion: Where are we heading?

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By PROF. ROHAN RAJAPAKSE

Emeritus Professor of Entomology, University of Ruhuna

This is a continuation of the previous article written by me, published in The Island on 19 Jan 2021. (Fall Armyworm: Strategies for Effective Management). I also wrote about this pest in 2019 and I have emphasised the following: The Fall armyworm – FAW (Spodoptera frugiperda known as sena caterpillar) female is a strong flier capable of flying more than 100 KMs per day, nearly 500Km of flying during lifetime, depositing 1500 eggs an average. The other factors that are centered on FAW are: FAW consumes many different crops but prefers Maize; also it spreads quickly across large geographical areas, and can persist throughout the year.

The FAW, originated in the Americas, invaded the Africans in 2016, and was detected in the Indian subcontinent, in 2017, and believe the FAW naturally migrated to Sri Lanka, from India, in 2018. Sri Lanka lost the initial opportunity in 2018, as we were not adequately prepared to stop the spread, although the Department of Agriculture did some work; but the FAW was present in all SL districts, except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. The ban on cultivating maize, in the following year helped to contain the spread, but now it is spreading again, confirming the belief that once FAW invaded it will stay.

Hence what are the strategies available now? As we emphasized, the management of FAW has to be centered on Short, Mid and Long-term strategies.

 

Short-Term Strategies:

Destruction of FAW eggs found on leaves and developing whorl by hand. The middle level expertise in the Department, such as Agricultural Instructors, KVS and the development and Project Assistants, recently recruited to the Government service, along with the farmers, should be trained to detect the eggs and destroy them immediately on the ground. If we miss this opportunity, the eggs will mature and tiny first instars larvae could be seen. At this stage, the only opportunity is to apply a Department of Agriculture approved chemical pesticide, using a knapsack sprayer or power sprayer at the recommended dilution. The names of the recommended pesticides are available with all research and extension officers of the Department of Agriculture.

It is also recommended that no single strategy of FAW pest control will yield strategic results. The employment of Integrated Pest Management Strategies should be carried out, such as combining Chemical control with cultural and sanitary control practices, which will give satisfactory control. When the larvae are small, proper timing and spray of pesticides are critical for elimination of this pest.

 

Mid-Term Strategies

: It is of paramount importance to understand that elimination of these dangerous pests are to be carried out jointly by the Government and Provincial Councils for effective control. The US University researchers, after working jointly with USDA, have identified the effective parasitoids, and they have released millions of parasitoids using the federal government facilities and the Universities in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Sri Lanka should avail this opportunity by writing to the authorities of the USDA, and arranging to import the strategic parasitoids, already identified to suit tropical countries, such as Sri Lanka.

This reminds me of the imports of eggs. Larval and pupal parasitoids from Indonesia, Malaysia, and establishment of those parasitoids in the WP and Coconut Research Institute to eliminate the Coconut leaf boring caterpillar Promecotheca cumingii n early and mid -70s in Western Province, which is in practical operative till now.

 

Long-Term Strategies:

Sri Lanka should declare an Emergency if it wants to eleminate the pest. Maize is a staple food of many African countries. The Long-term strategies are early detection of the pest, stopping its spread, and initiation of research programmers to import tolerant varieties, and granting permission to import such tolerant varieties produced by SEEDS giants, such as Monsanto.

However, these could be controversial. The Director General of Agriculture should be the leader and chief executive of this strategy, and no one should undermine his authority, as we witnessed a team of Rwandan experts, from Ghana, coming here and advising farmers without the knowledge of the DG, and even the Minister himself. Still no one knows what sort of pesticidesethese Rwandan Experts have recommended?

(The writer is Former Senior Professor of Agriculture Biology, University of Ruhuna. Received his PhD in Entomology from the University of Florida, USA, in 1985, on a research assistantship. The title of this thesis is on the Fall armyworm, its parasitoids and Ecology for effective management)

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Opinion

How to avoid water shortages and power cuts

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A section of the Southern Expressway affected by floods (file photo)

 

It is a strange thing in this country with so many rivers flowing into the sea right round the island, as soon as the rains cease there is a drought and there are thousands affected with no possibility of getting anything out of what they have cultivated, be it rice or vegetables. And while the rains last there are a number of places that get inundated with roads impassable and people displaced from their abodes.

If one recalls the history of this blessed isle it was King Parakramabahu the Great who said that not a drop of water should be allowed to go into the sea without being made use of. That was the era when Sri Lanka exported rice to other neighbouring countries. How did they do this? They had neither sophisticated equipment nor machines that are available now. They also did not have the help of foreign qualified experts. But with whatever skills they had they were able to achieve what they wanted. All this was done by conserving the water from the seasonal rains the island had.

The weather patterns have changed and now we do not get rain as stated in our books on Geography. What we learnt from the books was that the south western monsoon will be from around May to end August/ beginning September. The North eastern monsoon brings rain from November to February. In between these two monsoons there will be convectional rain in the months of April and October. Does the rainy seasons occur as in the book now? Not at all. The weather patterns have changed completely. The farmers are not sure as to when the rains would come, unlike in the good old days.

The rains are unpredicatable. When it rains it pours for a short period. But in that short period there are floods and roads, paddy fields and houses get inundated. The rains cease and the flooding subsides. The authorities have forgotten what happened and they get back to their normal routine until the rains strike again with the same results.

Then there is a prolonged period of drought. Now the reverse happens. There is no water to cultivate and in some areas no water to drink. What has been cultivated has withered away. The farmers are in a quandary as they are unable to pay back the loans they have obtained to cultivate with the hope of repaying after the harvest.

When there is heavy rain for a long period the reservoirs and tanks swell up and then the sluice gates are open to let the excess water out. This water that is let out just gushes out and goes into the sea without being made use of at all. Why is it not possible for the irrigation authorities to have tanks at a lower level to collect the excess water and make use of this water too? There is such a large amount of water that is released like this which can be made use of for cultivation when there is no rain.

The large amount of water carried by the Kalu Ganga has been flowing into the sea from time immemorial without being used for anything other than for people to bathe and bathe their animals. This is a source where the water can be conserved and if possible diverted to the dry zone to assist the farmers in their cultivation.

Even in the city of Colombo when it rains heavily we have seen the same areas getting flooded. This has been the case for a long time. But so far nothing has been done and come the next rain we will experience the same problem. This is so in the areas in Galle, Ratnapura, etc.

It is time the relevant authorities looked into this and do the needful to conserve the large amount of water that flows into the ocean without being made use of. It may be possible to use this water not only for agriculture but also for generation of hydro power. If this can be done, this island will never have to face water cuts and power cuts.

 

HM Nissanka Warakaulle

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