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Palm oil ban ill-conceived

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Open letter to the President

Whilst appreciating and congratulating Your Excellency on much of the new thrusts proposed in the policy statement, the writer was thoroughly dismayed by your decision to totally ban oil palm cultivation. By contrast, for example, Premier Narendra Modi, two years ago, on the advice of the Technology Commission of India (NITIAayog), decided to expand the cultivation of oil palm in India to 2 billion hectares to meet the national vegetable oil demand, in fact, replacing some low income generating arable crops. Irrigated lands are being used for part of the oil palm cultivations. It would appear that you have not consulted appropriate technocrats and academics in making this vitally important decision. I should kindly urge Your Excellency to also create a similar body as that of India here, a National Policy Commission of experts, to advise on policy matters of national interest.

It would appear that you were driven to this decision largely by the outcry of villagers living in the oil palm cultivation areas of the Southern Province that oil palm is the cause of drying of water bodies in their settlements, and some highly biased so called ‘environmentalists’, who have failed to look at the total picture relating to this highly productive and most profitable oil crop. It is the number one and most widely used global vegetable oil, producing 42% of the global oil demand from only 14.8 million ha as against soybean, the number two, which produces only 29.8%of the global oil demand from 103.8 million ha! Economic benefits of oil palm far outweigh that of coconut, tea and rubber in that comparative annual returns/ha for raw produce being Rs 612,0000, 175,000, 88,000 and 80,000 respectively, as per an estimate made by some scientists.

 

Misleading CEA report

Unfortunately, a scientifically highly erroneous report produced by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) on the matter added ‘fuel to the villagers’ fire’! The report has been heavily criticised by the Coconut Research Institute and numerous other independent well-informed scientists. However, the criticisms had little impact on the Yahapalana regime which, having suspended its initial decision to expand the oil palm cultivation to 20,000ha, vacillated for years without generating a final decision!

The CEA supported the contention that oil palm dries up the soil, incorrectly arguing that whereas a rubber tree transpires only 63 litres/day, oil palm transpires 500-600 litres; the oft quoted figures, however, are 1,300 and 1100 mm/year for oil palm and rubber respectively, in the literature, or 120l/rubber tree and 300l/oil palm tree/day. The mean annual rainfall in the wet zone, where both these crops are grown, is as high as 3000 mm, well in excess of the crop requirements! The CEA seems to be unaware that evapo-transpiration rates of crops are calculated on unit area basis and not per tree or plant basis! Whereas the standard tree density of rubber is 520/ha that of oil palm is only 143, implying then that the two crops transpire comparable amounts of water per unit area of land based on our above cited per tree values. Furthermore the reported green water footprint of oil palm, that is the component of water received from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and is evaporated, transpired or incorporated into plants, is 19,148 cubic metres/ha for oil palm as against 32,410 for rubber.

It is more than evident that over the years, global warming leading to climatic changes as well as increased water use by the increasing population caused this situation. In my own experience, a beautiful stream that ran across my farm in Kandy which I bought in 1992, dried over the years and by 2015 even traces of its existence disappeared! As excessive water consumption is the main argument against oil palm cultivation, it is vital that a hydrological study be conducted, comparing history and current status of water bodies in an exclusively rubber growing area, as against an oil palm areas in the wet zone to convince the concerned parties.

Coming back to the CEA report referred to above, some 12 points had been cited there critical of oil palm, but nearly all of them have been refuted by the CRI, the organization mandated for R & D on oil palm and a host of independent scientists well versed in the science of oil palm. It is unfortunate that you failed to consult them before making the vital decision.

 

Palm oil and health

Some concern has been expressed over some bi-products formed during palm oil processing supposed to be carcinogenic, but the latest research has established that consuming palm oil in moderation hardly poses a health risk. Whilst some saturated fatty acids in palm oil may be cholesterol elevating, coconut oil it can be argued to be worse in that regard, in that the cholesterol elevating saturated fatty acid content is more. Of course coconut oil has numerous health benefit too, and although it was downgraded as an ‘artery-clogging tropical oil’, several decades ago, it has now become ‘the darling oil of the west’. Further, apart from others, the high (38%) monounsaturated fat content in palm oil has a distinct health benefit, in that it decreases the LDL (bad) cholesterol.

 

GMOA’s letter

It is ridiculous that the GMOA, which often pokes its nose into matters that it is not thoroughly conversant with, has thanked you for banning oil palm. Have they studied all aspects of the issue: economics, environment and health in-depth before making such utterances? I should refer to an exhaustive review that appeared in an issue of the journal ‘Nutrients’, 2019, on the subject of oil palm by Eva Gestiro and nine co-authors which has discussed the health effects and other matters thoroughly. On a previous occasion too the GMOA had strongly advocated reverting to traditional rice varieties, little realising that they yield only 25-30% of the new improved varieties; and in doing so we will be compelled to import bulk of our rice requirement! Moreover, we have many new rice varieties with similar health and nutritional benefits as the traditional ones, but yielding several fold more!

 

Alternative lands for oil palm

or other uses

There are some 60,000 ha of uncultivated paddy fields essentially in the wet zone which can be used for other purposes. They are left fallow as returns on investment in rice farming are low. One option is possibly oil palm cultivation, after draining the excess water. In such lands the excess water could be collected in ponds at the bottom of the catena and used for fish culture or irrigation. Raised beds can be prepared, as done for cultivation of coconut in Thailand and Indonesia, in highly ill-drained soils, and used for coconut, oil palm or market gardening. The current provisions of the Agrarian Development Act prohibit alternative use of these lands, but, surely, the Act can be amended.

 

Coconut oil alternative

It has been suggested by many that we should promote coconut oil as an alternative to palm oil, and the extent under coconut be expanded for the purpose. At the current mean national yield of coconut oil (0.8 M/ha) and the global mean palm oil yield of 3.8-4.0 Mt/ha, we would need five times more land to produce coconut oil than palm oil; and where is the land? With global warming and air temperatures rising, especially in the dry months in the dry zone, there is a serious problem of pollen germination and nut setting in coconut in this area. Hence land expansion for coconut is very limited therein. There is little or no land in the intermediate and wet zones for additional coconut growing. One option, however, appears to be cultivation of coconut as a shade tree for tea in the low and mid countries, and the CRI & TRI research has established that this is feasible. The demand, however, for both virgin and conventional coconut oils appears to have decreased since 2015, whereas that for coconut water is rapidly increasing. In fact the forecast for coconut water demand is to double over the next five years from 2. 25 to 4.5 billion USD. Consequently, the demand for our king coconut is growing, and it would appear more prudent to cultivate king coconut in available lands than producing nuts or oil!

 

Moving totally to organic farming

Promoting organic farming as far as possible is desirable, but achieving the above target stated in your speech is far- fetched, given the fact that global organic farm cover is increasing only by about 10% of its current extent, which is only 2% of the total global farm cover! Of this 66% is in pastures, and only the balance is in crops! There is much ongoing research in organic farming, especially in the field of microbial fertilizers. However, widely applicable technologies are yet to come. As regards microbial fertilizers, the soil medium should have the nutrients for effective uptake by microbes, implying that the soil should anyway be replenished regularly with nutrients, chemically or organically, except for nitrogen, which legumes and certain other crops can fix from the atmosphere.

So conventional farming cannot be easily replaced. What is more important in the short term is to correct the shortcomings thereof. One important area is judicious use of agrochemicals for which a massive farmer training effort is needed. This necessitates an effective extension service, the current one being in shambles! So please get the government to address this issue. At the same time research and technology output is rapidly declining, mainly because qualified technocrats from research institutes are leaving for greener pastures, especially to the universities where the total remuneration package is more than double for many comparable posts. This lateral brain drain now appears to be more serious than the vertical!

We trust you would give serious consideration to the issues cited above.

 

Dr PARAKRAMA WAIDYANATHA

 

 



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Opinion

Use existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas

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By MAHINDA PANAPITIYA

Irrigation Engineer who has worked for Mahaweli Project since 80s

As originally planned, the present phase of the Mahaweli Project should be focused on social and economic development of the families settled in Mahaweli areas. It could be done by promoting food production in a sustainable way, to gain the return on investment of capital cost incurred on the infrastructure constructed for delivering water to fertile lands in the dry zone. The potential available in lands under Mahaweli Project, which cover about 1/3 of farming areas of the Dry Zone, could easily help the country to become self-sufficient in healthy foods, deviating from monotonous rice cultivation, provided it is managed with a right vision.

Concept

According to the concept explained below, there is a need to change the present management approach to a role focusing food production using limited water resources in the Dry Zone. For example, the term “Block Manager” in the Mahaweli Management System was used during the construction phase in the 70s, because areas were blocked for the purpose of managing construction and settlement activities. There are five such blocks, each of about 3,000 Hectares, under Kalawewa Reservoir. Now the project is in the production phase. Therefore, the Block Managers appointed earlier should now be named as Regional Production Managers, because the very word BLOCK implies negative at the production phase.

The role of a Production Manager replacing Block Manage is a completely different discipline from what was adapted during the construction phase. In the current production phase, Irrigation projects should be perceived as a Food Producing “Factory” – where water is the main raw material. A Production Manager’s focus should be to maximize food production, deviating from Rice Only Mode, to cater the market needs earning profits for farmers who are the owners of the “factory”. Canal systems within the project area are just “Belts” conveying raw materials (water) in a Typical Factory. Farm labor, fertilisers etc. are other inputs.

Required Management Shift

In order to implement the above management concept, there is a need for a paradigm shift at national level in managing large scale irrigation projects. In the new management paradigm, the farmers would be treated as clients, not the servants at the mercy of receiving water, according to rigid schedules decided by irrigation management staff. In this approach, the main purpose of managing irrigation systems is to deliver water to the farm gate at the right time in the right quantity.

It is also very pathetic to observe that main clients of irrigation projects (farmers) are now dying of various diseases caused by indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals. Therefore, there is a need to minimize the damages caused to the ecosystems where these food production factories are located. Therefore, the management objectives should also be focused on producing multiple types of organically grown crops, profitably without polluting the soil and groundwater aquifers.

Proposed Strategy

Existing Engineering staff should either be trained or new recruitments having Production Engineering background, should be made. Water should be perceived as the most limited input, which needs to be managed profitably with the farming community – jointly. Each Production Manager could be allocated a Fixed Volume of water annually, and their performance could be measured in terms of Rupees earned for the country per Unit Volume of water, while economically upgrading a healthy lifestyle of farmers. Staff of agencies such as Central Engineering Consultancy Burro (CECB), established in 80s at construction phase of the Mahaweli Project, can be trained to play the role of Production Engineering. CECB could be renamed as Central Food Production Burro (CFPB).

In addition to the government salary, the staff should also be compensated in the form of incentives, calculated in proportion to income generated by them from their management areas. It should be a Win-Win situation for both farmers as well as officers responsible for managing the food production factory. In other countries, the term used to measure their performance is $ earned per gallon of water to the country, without damaging the ecosystem. Another advantage of this approach is that the young generation of the farmers automatically get attracted to commercial agriculture because of high income generation.

Recent Efforts

We were able to introduce some of the concepts explained in this note during 2000 to 2004, under a program called Mahaweli Restructuring and Rehabilitation Project (MRRP) funded by the World Bank. It was done by operating the Distributary canals feeding each block as elongated Village Tanks. Recently we tried to modernize the same concept at Pilot Scale in System B, by independently arranging funds from ICTA. In that project, called Easy Water, we introduced an SMS communication system to the farmers, so that they can order water from the Maduru Oya Main Reservoir by sending a SMS, when they need rather; than depend on time tables decided by authorities as normally practiced.

Conclusion

The World Bank also recognised the above concept in 2003, as the best water management approach suitable for South Asian countries. Due to the lack of vision of existing managers in the irrigation sector focusing on food production, the above approach has not yet reaped the full benefits. What we need in Sri Lanka, is a political leadership to create challenges for irrigation officials to play a role of educated profit-oriented farmers, deviating them from Rice only mode, by promoting concepts similar to above. Also note that while I worked for a project in Azerbaijan funded by the International Fund for Agriculture Development, I was able to introduce the same concept and they are now using it successfully. I do not see any reason why we could not practice here.

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Opinion

Would anyone in power and sure to lose an election call for an election?

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If she/he would, why don’t tyrants seek election periodically?

(no kerena deege hevnallath adai! Even the shadows of a failing marriage are misaligned.)

by Usvatte-aratchi

I was mightily amused by the demands of several astute political leaders in and outside parliament that president Wickremasinghe uses his constitutional discretionary power and dissolve the parliament, after February 2023. Consider for a moment reasons why he simply cannot.

Wickremasinghe ignominiously lost an election to parliament from his district, after 45 years and after perhaps ten elections, all of which he had won handsomely. Not one member of the party he led, the oldest in the country and which unconventionally had made a president in 2015, won election to parliament in 2020. The party, as a whole, collected enough votes from the entire country to entitle it to nominate one person to sit in parliament. Bhikkhu Ratana’s hurriedly put-together party did equally well! Bhikkhu Ratana was as well entitled to be installed as president as Wickremasinghe. He had distinguished himself by advocating the production of crops without chemical fertilisers and pesticides (vasa visa nati kema). After 12 months of prevarication, Wickremasinghe decided to sit in parliament. He pleased himself in the House with some occasional clever witticisms. After more than two years, a vastly popular Prime Minister was forced out of office. Suddenly, this lone pine in the wilderness grew so tall that Wickremasinghe was appointed Prime Minister. Two months later he was President of the Republic, all constitutionally proper. But the framers of the constitution had made fools of the people, in whose name the constitution was made. In the constitution, there is no office of a vice-president who would be elected to the office along with the president and who would assume office as president for the rest of the period of five years, in the event the office of president felt vacant for any reason Nor was there a provision that in the event that a person not expressly elected by the people as president of the republic were to come to hold that office within the constitution, that he/she would hold the office of the president no longer than it was necessary to elect a new president, to wit, four calendar months. The great republic to the north of us has a vice-president and so has the oldest republic in the world, the United States of America. In our country, the lack of that provision paved the way for a politician who failed to win a seat in parliament in 2020 to decide the fate of that same parliament in 2022. How bizarre? Is that ironic or tragic? Do we laugh or do we cry?

There are two forces contributing to an equilibrium where it is in the interests of the president and a large group of members of parliament to avoid dissolving parliament. The first force is exerted by Wickremesinghe who is abundantly aware that he would lose in an election for president. Recall that two years ago, he could not win a seat in parliament. The other force comes from a majority of members of parliament who are sure to lose their seats in an election, any time soon. Among them, there is a large number of MPs who entered parliament for the first time and would lose the right to a lifetime pension which they would not earn if they did not complete five years in parliament. To most of them, this is a valuable asset which they loth to lose. I am advised that according to the Constitution, the president has the discretion to dissolve the parliament after a minimum of two and half years from the date of their election to office. Parliament itself has the power to request the president to dissolve parliament, provided more than two-thirds of all members of parliament adopt a resolution asking the president to do so. The second force discussed earlier prevents such motion. These two forces ensure that no matter the commotion created by those that seek the president to resign and parliament to dissolve itself, there is sufficient inertia to make the status quo stable. They are each perfectly dependent on the other for survival and they dearly crave survival. The president cannot dissolve parliament and survive. Nor can members of parliament survive without Wickremasinghe a president who, on his own, would not dissolve parliament. This hysteresis can last for about another 3 years legally and longer illegally. I would not rule out the latter probability.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa and President Rajapaksa were both thrown off their perches by forces outside parliament.

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Opinion

Science vs religion – II

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Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method. Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical.

By GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE

(The first part of this article reproduced from our Asia News Network partner in India, The Statesman, appeared on 25 Nov.)

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite”, the British biologist Thomas Huxley wrote in 1887, “Intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.”

Before the last century, the vast unknown territory of inexplicability was ruled by religion.But the last century has seen a tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge, and ever since, science has been reclaiming more and more territory from religion so that scholars started predicting a diminishing relevance and eventual disappearance of religion from human society.

While it is true that religion’s stranglehold has been remarkably weakened in most countries during the last half-century, except in the diehard Islamic states which stubbornly refuse to reform Islam, the resurgence of religion in our contemporary socio-political life negates the prediction of religion’s demise.

There is too much religion on the streets now that is increasingly intruding unto our lives. It is not the spirituality that Sagan had talked about, it is religion in its crudest original form – bloodthirsty, demanding total and unquestioning allegiance from its followers who would not shy away from spilling the blood of non-believers. While science continues to conquer ever newer frontiers and invents technologies that are revolutionising our society, a full transition to a scientific society is not possible without the complete displacement of religion.

From medicine to biotech, from electronics to telecommunication, from AI to nanoscience, the progress of science during the last 50 years has completely transformed the way we organize society, conduct business, and connect with people for ideation.

The paradox is that while we are exploring the frontiers of science and technology driven by limitless human yearning and thirst for knowledge, we are also reinforcing the prejudices, bigotry, and intolerance of contrary ideas and beliefs in our social and public life with renewed vigour and pride. Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method.Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued against recurrent tendencies of applying the methods of natural science in the research of human affairs, which are essentially outside empirical scientific approaches.

The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics, etc. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical. This is always an epistemological problem in social sciences, and this is where religion is supposed to supplement the techno-scientific worldview of science to understand how Nature works her laws in the universe and in human society.

But Nature also includes her children and us humans, and her well-being depends on their activities. No one knows that better than us, especially at this juncture of time when the world is precariously poised between sustainability and irreversible devastation from uncontrolled human greed.

Religion was supposed to impart and promote morality, ethics, love, and compassion among humans to make them understand their symbiotic relationships with nature, with fellow beings, and with animals. Religion was supposed to teach humans to limit their greed, increase empathy towards others, and strike a harmonious balance with nature to make the world a better place for all to live. What it has done and the moral blindness it has promoted instead is for all to see and judge.

Religion today is relentlessly marching to colonize every aspect of our socio-economic and political life with increasing aggressiveness. Suffering has been trivialised by it, the pain has been glorified by it, killing has been sanctified by it and the tattered social fabric that has resulted is being flaunted with egotistical pleasure and pride.

Though it will be unfair to blame religion alone, it has to take a large share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It is propelling us energetically to forget our humanity and respect for those who do not share our faith and driving us towards an Orwellian world where intercultural understanding, the richness of culture and diversity, and the ideal of an inclusive and pluralistic society are strongly denounced in favour of a blind pursuance of faith as dictated by its self-proclaimed guardians and their bigoted followers.

The ideal of peace and harmony are receding at the speed of light as religion strives to regain the territory it has lost to science and is countering science with what can best be described as a pseudoscience that is carving out a niche for itself – and a wide one at that.To quote Huxley again, “The question of all questions for humanity is that of the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the Cosmos.”

Religion derived sustenance from the concept that humanity was positioned proudly at the centre of God’s magnificent creation, the Earth, around which revolved everything, and humanity – the crowning achievement of God’s creation in his own image, the pinnacle of his divine handiwork, occupied the centre-stage on this earth.Science would shatter the concept, but not before thousands of Giordano Brunos were burned at the stake for holding a contrary view.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn convincingly explained how paradigm shifts take place in the history of science when one dominant worldview is replaced by another. He showed that scientific progress is like Darwinian evolution – a process of selection of one amongst all the competing theories that have the most predictive power puzzle-solving ability, a concept that was later supported by Bas van Fraassen in The Scientific Image (1980).

But each such major paradigm shift has shaken the edifice of religion from which it could never recover. Thus, when the geocentric Ptolemaic worldview was replaced by the Copernican worldview, man lost his centrality in the scheme of things. Till then, heaven was in the sky, hell was underground and God in heaven ruled all three while religion regulated the entry to heaven or hell.

Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the Universe, and later Hubble displaced the entire Milky way from the centre of the universe, giving us instead an expanding universe of billions of galaxies in which neither is humanity at the centre of creation nor is the earth at the centre of the universe; in fact, the universe itself is one tiny dot in a multiverse of many universes.

Thus, God’s magnificent creation has been relegated to the position of a second-rate planet attached to a third-rate star, discarding religion’s medieval fancies. Today we are humbled by the immensity of the universe and mesmerized by the eternal silence of infinite space.

But for religion, the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the cosmos was not a question, it was an irrefutable truth questioning which meant inviting risk. Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelesticum on his deathbed in 1543, beyond the morbid reach of the Inquisition.

Galileo and Bruno were not that fortunate. Science established that neither does life enjoy any special privilege – countless worlds exist in deep space devoid of life, and countless species have become extinct in the course of evolution. We may be one someday, and going by our misdeeds on this planet, that day even may not be too far.

Darwin would finally dislodge humanity from the centre of the biological universe, giving it a lowly ancestor that was too humble compared to an almighty God to be a creator of such intelligence as possessed by man. Thankfully, the inquisition was dead, but prejudiced minds that shun logic were not. They are again back at the centre stage in force, flaunting scriptures, dictating how we should conduct ourselves, threatening to push us into a hell of ignominy and violence if we disobey.

Creationism is still being taught in many US public schools, despite the Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. Half the people in the USA still don’t believe in evolution, their share in India is unknown. But here, vigorous attempts are now on somehow bringing God inside the classroom in any guise, be it a hijab, or anything else.

Worship only makes you a slave. A slave forgets his reason, and his purpose for existence, and ultimately becomes an automaton to serve the master – Religion – and obey its commands without thinking.Religion is not the source of spirituality, peace, morality, virtue, and ethics any longer. Its principles may be eternal, but its methods are gross. It has now become the source of violence, hatred, unconcealed greed, corruption, and a road to power.

Instead of breaking barriers, it is building them afresh, destroying the very roots upon which mankind has built civilizations through the millennia. Don’t expect the State to control religion and the street will always celebrate it with ever-ostentatious pomp and splendour. It is therefore for us citizens to shield our children from the corrupting influences of religion. It has no place in the fabric of the mind of civilized men and women, just as God has no place in the fabric of the space-time that science tries to untangle. We don’t need the ancient wisdom of the spirit to guide us, because religion which was supposed to imbibe it has lost its divinity. It is now for science to redeem religion.

(Concluded)

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