by Steven Novella
Cautionary tales are extremely useful, as long as we take the right lessons away from them. As the saying goes, the best way to learn is from mistakes, but even better is to learn from someone else’s mistake without having to commit it yourself (and suffer the consequences). Sri Lanka has now made itself into a cautionary tale, and I would like to amplify any learning that can come from it. The primary conceptual lesson here is that – when ideology trumps science, the outcome is likely to be very bad.
There is also a specific lesson here. Organic farming may sound good in principle (if you just listen to the ideological marketing), but in practice it is a disaster. Sri Lanka has decided to do what other countries have done before, namely impose from above a commandment on how to run an industry based entirely on the philosophical beliefs of the leader. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Lysenkoism in the former Soviet Union, where the archaic ideas of geneticist Trofim Lysenko were given official support and decimated Soviet agriculture, costing millions of lives.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has done something similar – banning agrichemicals in Sri Lanka and forcing all farmers to farm organically. The result was absolutely predictable, a crash in agricultural output. While Sri Lanka is a net food importer, they still are dependent on local rice and other staple crop productions. Their exports are also mainly agricultural, such as tea, rubber, and many spices. Some reporting has focused on the timing of the change, during a fragile recovery from a pandemic. Also some have pointed out that going suddenly full organic is a problem because most farmers don’t know how to do it, and there was no adjustment period.
But even if the change was handled optimally, there was still the unavoidable negative impacts inherent to organic farming. The European Union, for example, has already done an analysis and found that organic farming is not sustainable, and it is worse for the environment, mainly through increased land use. Organic food is also not healthier than conventional produce, as if often implied by proponents. Why, then, would Sri Lanka go full in on such a bad idea?
The answer is that organic marketing has worked. They have created a false impression about their brand, based on bad ideas and bad science, but it sounds superficially appealing and many people buy into it. Organic farming is based on the appeal to nature fallacy, that something which is “natural” (which is arbitrarily defined) is inherently better than anything “artificial”. Worse still, the origins of organic farming is pure magical pseudoscience, not even appeal to nature, but appeal to magic. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, their president has bought into the hype and marketing, and further still has the power to unilaterally impose their beliefs onto an entire industry.
As a result, across all crops, Sri Lanka farmers have had a 19-25% drop in their productivity on average (not evenly distributed, with some crops having a 50% drop or even complete failure). That figure is in line with previous research, showing similar levels of reduced productivity from organic farming. This is a disaster for the industry, and also the people, leading to food shortages and spikes in prices. Because exports are also hit hard, this is another strain on the overall economy.
The limitations inherent to organic farming are also exacerbated by trying to massively increase the scale. Right now organic farming accounts for about 1.5% of worldwide food production. It is only 0.6% in the US, and 8.5% in the EU where it is very popular. As you try to scale up industries, new problems are introduced, which is why we cannot just extrapolate from low levels of market penetration to very high levels. (The same issue arises when we talk about increasing renewable energy sources into the electricity supply, with the intermittency becoming a greater and greater problem.)
For organic farming one major issue with scaling up is the availability of organic fertilizer. When you are talking about one farm, you don’t necessarily have to consider the entire system at the scale of a nation or the world. But when you decide to make an entire country 100% organic, you do. Organic farming is possible at the 1-10% range because of the availability of organic fertilizer, which comes from composting and cattle manure. These are two ways of recycling nitrogen, but of course this recycling is not perfect, so we need to introduce nitrogen into the system. Some plants can fix nitrogen from the air (through soil bacteria) and these can be used as crops to put nitrogen into the soil. All this works if the percentage of crops grown without external inputs of nitrogen is kept relatively small. The system breaks down as you try to scale up.
Sri Lanka discovered this at the national level. They don’t have enough organic fertilizer to go around. They make about two to three tonnes of compost per year, but rice cultivation alone requires four million tonnes. They could try to import manure or compost from other countries, but the supply of organic fertilizer is largely already spoken for. A significant increase in demand will not necessarily be met by an increase in supply, and prices will therefore go up. Now imagine trying to do this on a larger scale. The world has no place to import organic fertilizer from. The system does not work without external inputs.
Organic farming is bad for the environment because is requires greater land use. It is also more expensive because it requires greater labor as well (you have to pull all those weeds if you can’t use herbicide). Further still, organic farming does allow for the use of pesticides, but they have to be “natural”. All of the pesticides they use find use also on conventional farms, but organic farming relies on a subset deemed “natural”. This does not mean less toxic. Further, they don’t always use the optimal pesticide for each situation, because they are artificially limiting their choices – following loose ideology rather than evidence.
The bottom line is that there is no real advantage to organic farming, and there are serious drawbacks. The negatives get exponentially worse if we try to scale up organic farming. Right now organic produce is a “boutique” option for the well-off. Trying to feed the world organically would be a disaster – Sri Lanka on a worldwide scale, but even worse.
Rising farce of Family Power
Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.
He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.
He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.
“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,
“If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again. If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.
“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”
Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength. In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.
It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.
While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.
Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law? Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?
What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,
The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.
The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance. There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser – from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?
The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to
use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.
A tribute to vajira
By Uditha Devapriya
The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.
A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.
In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.
One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.
Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.
In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.
In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.
Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.
Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.
Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.
At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”
If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.
Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.
These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.
Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.
As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.
As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.
Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.
That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
It’s all about France in Kandy !
This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.
A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.
All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.
Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.
Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.
To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.
Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar
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