Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Move to declare open season on wild boar despite warnings

October 7, 2018
The collateral damage of increased wild boar hunting would be high.
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The Agriculture Ministry will seek Cabinet approval to lift the ban on the transport and sale of wild boar meat in the face of opposition from wildlife activists, citing the need to prevent the protected animal’s raids on cropland. Agriculture Ministry media director W.M.D. Wanninayake said wild animals caused about Rs. 18 billion damage of crops annually, with wild boar the major culprit as well as elephants, monkeys, porcupines and peafowl.

A wild boar caght in a snare in Nuwara Eliya

“Apparently natural predators of wild boar such as leopards and jackals have decreased, so we feel there is an increase in boars, which are being found in small forest patches even in Kandy and Colombo,” Mr. Wanninayake said.

He added that the ministry had carried out a random and rapid survey and reached the conclusion that crop damage by wild boar had increased.
The wild boar consumes ground vegetation, soil-dwelling creatures and carrion, also often raiding crops if their habitat is close to crop fields. Feeding in small groups, wild boar are active at night.

At present, a farmer can kill a wild boar if it trespasses onto his property but the meat cannot be transported or sold. “Last year, 15,000 guns were issued to farmers along with two lakhs of bullets with the main aim of protecting their crops, but only a handful of bullets had been used,” Mr. Wanninayake said.

Wild boar are, however, already being killed in large numbers and sold under cover as there is demand for the flesh. The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) warns that the legalisation and thereby liberalisation of the sale and trade of wild boar meat will result in unsustainable slaughter. It fears that increased demand for wild boar meat will make inroads into populations in national parks and sanctuaries.

“From an eco-system perspective, the wild boar is an important species,” the WNPS stated. “Free-ranging wild boar feed on animal carcasses, a scavenging role that significantly reduces the disease risk from rotting carcasses … They also feed on eggs, grubs and larvae of many agricultural pests, as well as weeds like sedges.”

Conservationists also point out the difficulties of regulating the wild boar meat trade if the law is relaxed. Although wild boar meat is traded widely undercover in the countryside only on 38 occasions last year did raids result in the seizure of meat offered for sale, according to Department of Wildlife Conservation sources.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane confirms that Wild boar is not a protected species under Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), so a farmer can shoot a trespassing wild pig without issue. But if transport and sale is legalized, DWC will has practical logistical, man power and other issues in regulating any trade of wild boar meat. “There is no way someone distinguish whether the flesh belong to a wild boar killed in a farm land or a from a protected area. The meat will be transport after packetted, so meat of other animals too would be freely transported” Mr.Gunawardane pointed out.

Change of social attitude due to legalization of wild boar meat would also be a negative impact. “First the move will change mindset of farmers to become hunters as they can now earn money by selling meat. Secondly, when wild boar meat can reach cities, people that had never tasted wild board will develop an appetite for venison which will create more demand”. Mr.Gunawardane stressed, that This is against the spirit of wildlife conservation.

Activists also fear a major problem would be caused by the methods of killing wild boar if their meat became a profitable big seller. Already, illegal methods such as trap guns, snares and “hakka patas” (explosives hidden in fruit and other food sources that blow off an animal’s jaws when bitten on) are being used to kill wild boar, and they also kill numbers of non-target species.

Elephant died eating Hakka Patas at Rambewa, A’pura – Oct, 02nd (c) DWC ape pituwa

Leading wildlife experts, elephant researcher Dr. Prithviraj Fernando and the former director-general of the Department of Wildlife, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, said current laws were more than adequate to prevent wild boars grazing on crops.

“The sale and transport of wild boar meat will legalise bush meat trade which goes against today’s world opinion. We are also due to host the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) next year where bush meat trade will be one of the important issues. If laws are relaxed, Sri Lanka’s move to legalise bush meat trade will no doubt be a topic of discussion bringing shame to the host country,” Dr. Fernando added.

“A farmer can kill a wild boar that destroys his crops,” Dr. Pilapitiya said. “But the new law looks like Sri Lanka is promoting the commercialisation of ‘bush meat’.” Other experts were also forceful in their opposition to the government’s plan.

“Where is the scientific evidence of an ‘exploding’ wild boar population?” leopard experts Dr. Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson demanded.
They raised the possibility that forest loss and increased human encroachment into wilderness areas might be resulting in wild boars feeding in cropland.

Dr. Kittle and Ms Watson added: “Opening up a legal market for wild boar meat – which is essentially what is being proposed – requires a long-term and concerted effort to manage properly …. there would need to be regulations in terms of hunting seasons, annual quotas, licences and monitoring.”
Dr. Kittle and Ms. Watson revealed that data collected by the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust showed that in the past 10 years at least 38 leopards had been killed by snares set mostly for wild boar, with the actual toll probably “far higher”.

Leopard killed by Snares – Sept, 26 Nawalapitiya (c) DWC

“Snaring is an extremely unpleasant way to kill an animal as it results in extensive suffering and can drag on for a long time. We know of a young female leopard that was caught in a snare in December of 2017 or January of 2018 and only died from the wound in May.”

One of India’s leading conservationists, Ajay Desai, warned against kneejerk solutions. He said India too had wildlife conflict involving wild herbivores that grew more abundant in certain areas, with nothing been done about the consequences until local people put political pressure on authorities.
“So action was initiated when there were too many complaints and too much pressure, which meant quick action had to be taken and that meant no proper planning process and only quick kneejerk reactions to the crisis,” Mr. Desai said.

Trunk injury from snare -kalawewa (c) Dr.Prithviraj Fernando

19m Lankans face financial hit from climate change by 2050

October 7, 2018

Living standards in the Northern and North-Western provinces will be badly affected by changing climate and the economic engine of the Western Province will also falter, according to a World Bank study that links GDP to the impact of climate change. Published on SundayTimes on 07.10.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181007/news/19m-lankans-face-financial-hit-from-climate-change-by-2050-314779.html

Going in search of water: Women are more affected, but female-headed households are more resilient to impacts

The Jaffna and Puttalam districts will be the top hotspots – areas where changes in average weather will adversely affect living standards – while the second most populous district in the country, Gampaha, is among the top 10 most vulnerable districts.

Gampaha has been heavily affected by recent droughts, and the World Bank report points out that western Sri Lanka, along with south-eastern India, northern Pakistan and eastern Nepal, have experienced “unambiguous” temperature rises of 1C to 1.5C (1.8F to 2.7F) from 1950-2010.

The report, South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards, combines average temperature and rainfall information with household survey data to recognise looming changes to the human condition.

Such changes inevitably affect the national economy. “In Sri Lanka, living standards could go down by around 5 percent, and in the worst-case scenario may decline by around 7 percent,” said Professor Muthukumara Mani, a leading economist in the World Bank South Asia Region and author of the report.
“Under the worst-case scenario, GDP will decline by 7.7 percent, an estimated loss of $US50 billion.”

According to the report, about 19 million people in Sri Lanka today live in locations that could become moderate or severe hotspots by 2050 under the carbon-intensive scenario. This is equivalent to more than 90 percent of the country’s population.

Stress was laid on the importance of coping with the changes of average temperature as much as the increase of severe weather events. “Global warming is proven, and the climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier. We are not doing enough, heading toward a 3C increase by 2100, and the poor will suffer most,” said Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, former vice chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“We also tend to forget long-term effects as more focus is on the short term. In case of extreme events, we at least know kind of action that can be taken such as relocation, evacuation etc. and can have a robust mechanism to deal with natural disasters. But we don’t know much about gradual changes in temperature and how to face them,” Prof. Munasinghe said.

“Even a change of one week or two weeks of monsoon can have an impact on farmers. We still do not know what to do with the gradual changes.”
On current trends, humans would need the resources of two planets to satisfy our needs by 2030, Prof. Munasinghe said, stressing the need to take a sustainable path.

People employed in agriculture will bear the brunt of climate-change-caused hardship and many will face extreme poverty, the report states.
They have already begun moving toward other day jobs as they cannot rely totally on agriculture, according to figures shown at the study’s launch ceremony.

While less developed and agriculture-based households are more prone to livelihood upset, hardship will not be limited to rural areas: in Pakistan, the most vulnerable exist in urban areas. The report also states that female-run households are more resilient.

Dr. Herath Manthrithilake, head of the International Water Management Institute (IMWI)’s country programme, said the highlight of the study is its linking of weather changes to the effects on GDP, which allows policymakers to easily understand the consequences of climate change.

Dr. Manthrithilake said water will be an important resource and we would not be able to look as lightly on water management as we did in the last century. “We need to think about all the water resources and how to use them constructively — how we can combine usage. At the moment, once we use water for agriculture, we discard it. We need to find out how waste water can be reused,” he said.

Kusum Athukorala of Netwater Partnership pointed out that women are foot soldiers of climate change adaptation. “Often, women looking for water in parched land has been the tell-tale picture of drought. So they are more affected, but female-headed households are more resilient to impacts,” Ms. Athukorala said.

Given that five of the top 10 vulnerable districts of Sri Lanka are in Northern Province – with Jaffna, Mannar and Kilinochchi the worst affected – it is important that changes in average temperature and precipitation be considered for planning and development activities in that province.

The urbanised west of the country will not escape a financial hit from climate change. The report states: “The highly-urbanised and densely-populated Western Province, which includes Colombo, is also predicted to experience a living standards decline of 7.5 percent by 2050, compared with a situation without changes in average weather. This is a substantial drop, with potentially large implications for the country, given that the province contributes more than 40 per cent of Sri Lanka’s GDP.”

The report states that as more people move from agricultural areas to urban areas to cope better with the economic effects of climate change these shifts will in turn create new climate impacts, particularly with risks to health.

The World Bank report suggests ways in which Sri Lanka could limit the problems caused by climate change. Increasing the share of the non-agricultural sector by a third could limit the deterioration in living standards from -7 percent to 0.1 percent. Reducing travel time to markets and increasing average educational levels would also help the country.

Link to the World Bank Report https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/28723/9781464811555.pdf

Brutal harvesting of gal siyambala treat leaves sour taste

September 2, 2018

With the gal siyambala season at its height experts are warning that unsustainable harvesting methods are pushing the fruit tree towards extinction while prices for the product have soared. Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180902/news/brutal-harvesting-of-gal-siyambala-treat-leaves-sour-taste-309655.html

Gal Siyambala tree laden with fruit (c) Ashan Geeganage 

With its velvet coat and sweetish acidic taste the gal siyambala or velvet tamarind has been a delicacy for generations.

The velvet tamarind tree (Dialium ovoideum) grows in evergreen monsoon forests and near rivers, especially in dry and semi-arid zones. It is not cultivated, so the fruit is harvested directly from the trees in the forests.

Increasingly, the harvesting is greedy and brutal, with little regard for conserving the health of the tree. Organised gangs from nearby villages go into the forest and chop down entire branches of the trees in order to pluck the fruit off them. It is common to find the remnants of these cut branches left under the trees.

Last week, 50g of gal siyambala fetched Rs. 80 at Dehiwala, with vendors lamenting that the fruit’s rarity increased the price.

Decades ago, gal siyambala could be found in large heaps at roadside fruit stalls and markets from August, when its season begins. Blooms appear on the trees from February to April and the fruits come on the market from August to November.

“At the end of August we visited a forest patch in Siyambalanduwa,” said Dr. Ashan Geeganage, who lives in Moneragala and has been lucky enough to taste the fruit directly from the tree.

“We found several gal siyambala trees, but only two of them had fruit. The fruits on the other trees had been plucked and some of the trees were chopped up very badly,” he said.

The head of the Department of Crop Science at the University of Peradeniya, Professor D K N G Pushpakumara, said this kind of harvesting was destructive and affected the fruiting of the following year’s crop.

Velvet tamarind trees are also cut down for the value of their timber as they can grow 30m high.

The species is now classified as “vulnerable” to extinction. The National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka: Conservation Status of the Fauna and Flora, published by the Department of the Environment, lists 177 plants as “possible extinct” while a third of 3,154 species of Sri Lanka’s flora are listed as “threatened”.\

While the global IUCN status remain ‘Least Concern’; the tree had been pushed to ‘Vulnerable’ in National RedLIst 2012

Who needs glyphosate when friendly weeds can fight for you?

August 6, 2018

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180722/news/who-needs-glyphosate-when-friendly-weeds-can-fight-for-you-303543.html published on SundayTimes on 22.07.2018

The government last week lifted the ban on glyphosate, in deference to complaints that the tea and rubber industries find it difficult to control weeds without the popular weedkiller – but a project successfully proves that weeds among tea bushes can be controlled without chemicals.

Good plants that grow under tea to make a carpet that deters growth of bad weeds

“You do not need agro-chemicals to control weeds in tea plantations as you can ecologically control the plants that are harmful,” Giri Kadurugamuwa of Rainforest Alliance, which has successfully experimented with an ecological method to control weeds, said.

“We must first understand that not all plants that grow in the underlayer are harmful: only about 25 per cent of the plants are weeds that suppress the growth of the tea bush, resulting in a drop in harvest,” Mr. Kadurugamuwa said.

The other plants are “good”, some enriching nitrogen in the soil, others being edible or having medicinal value.

“So, by assisting these friendly herbs to dominate the undergrowth we can control the growth of bad weeds,” Mr. Kadurugamuwa explained.

Initially, noxious or troublesome weeds must be removed manually before the weeds flower. This process need to be repeated periodically in the initial stages.

After a few cycles, a thick mat of good weeds that have been allowed to grow under the tea bushes will prevent the bad weeds from regrowing.

Once this natural control of weeds is established, growers do not need to put in intensive labour to uproot bad weeds frequently, and the money spent previously on weedkiller is also saved, Mr. Kadurugamuwa said.

There are more benefits to this process, the agriculture expert points out. The plants in the undergrowth protect the soil and enrich biomass, adding compost to the tea bush soil. “Many of the good leguminous plants have a root system that can add atmospheric nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is a good fertiliser, so, now, the tea bush gets an additional supplement of fertiliser.

During first few months, the bad weeds has to be uprooted

“Besides, it is known that the roots of some friendly plants add ‘friendly chemicals’ that can, in fact, assist the growth of the tea bush.

“It is like we provided a natural ecosystem of ‘friends’ to live with the tea bush. One feels good to be among friends than be alone, and now the tea bushes will be growing happily,” Mr. Kadurugamuwa said jocularly. “But jokes apart, the productivity of the tea goes up under the new method without herbicides,” he said.

Tea planters usually follow a ‘clean floor policy’ where no plant is allowed underneath the tea bushes – but this exposes the soil to erosion when it rains heavily.

With the new methodology, however, the soil is covered with a carpet of friendly plants so the soil is conserved. Some of these friendly plants, such as goku kola and mukunuwenna, are popular foods for humans, and there are herbs such as undupiyaliya that are used as medicine, so these are added advantages to growers.

Weedkillers do not kill tea bushes but can weaken them: they are, to an extent, poisonous to the tea bush. Mr. Kadurugamuwa showed us a tea bush that had decayed sections of bark as a result of exposure to weedicide.

The methodology explained by the Rainforest Alliance was first experimented on about two years ago in a pilot project at the Hapugasthenna Plantations in Hatton. Mahendra Peiris, who conducted the research from inception, showed us his thriving tea plot now after several cycles of this method.

In doing so, Mr. Peiris also pointed out that popular weedkillers are not effective against some weeds so that in any case manual labour has to be employed for weeding. Thus the new method is also cost-effective, he said.

The project was also supported by Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s project for mainstream sustainable tea production in India, China, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

A tea bush decayed due to the use of too much weedkiller

Armed with knowledge of the trial, the Rainforest Alliance, with the help of GEF funds, trained farmers to use the methods in their plots. They also established a training centre at an abandoned tea factory and made some of the farmers “trainers” in order to spread the message to the others.

During a previous field study visit, The Sunday Times met several farmers from the Ratnapura area who practise this method. According to a Tea Smallholder Development Authority (TSHDA) official, the Ratnapura range has the highest number of tea smallholders, about 100,000. Of these, about 5,000 are using this weed management system and gaining benefits.

Karunawathi, one small-scale tea grower in Kahawatte, Ratnapura, who owns an estate of one acre and 20 perches in extent, said her income had increased after turning to the new weed management system. Another grower, Sumanawathi, said now she harvests 500kg per acre whereas earlier it was only 400kg, so the new system has helped to increase yield.

The manager of another tea estate, Sanath Gamage, said his estate has become more environmentally friendly under the new system. Mr. Gamage maintains a log that shows hare, lizards, land monitors and birds frequent these areas more than they previously did.

Birds can be monitored to show signs of potential pests, said Mr. Kadurugamuwa. For example, if a group of babblers spend a deal of time feeding in one area, that could be a sign that this portion of ground has been infected by a pest. The birds while reducing the number of pests, also gives an early warning to the farmer.

The Rainforest Alliance project is not without its challenges. It is not always easy to turn farmers away from weedkillers. Manual labour is required to remove bad weeds, and this is challenging on slopes. Large plantations are reluctant to practise the method.

Experts point out, nevertheless, that tea bush productivity in Sri Lanka is in constant decline and that given this situation it is indeed wise to promote this alternative method of de-weeding tea, especially given its many benefits.

“Let’s all hope that growers will start adopting these kinds of environmentally friendly practices to break the dependency on agro-chemicals,” Mr. Kadurugamuwa said.

Cash crop or villain? Palm oil expansion debate rages

August 2, 2018

Published on SundayTimes on 08.07.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180708/news/cash-crop-or-villain-palm-oil-expansion-debate-rages-301636.html

“The establishment of new oil palm plantations, expansion and re-plantation should be discontinued in Sri Lanka,” the Central Environment Authority (CEA) has recommended, asking for time to study claimed critical side-effects such as high water usage, soil erosion, high agro-chemical usage and potential destruction of biodiversity.

The protest at Deraniyagala against the expansion of palm oil cultivation 

Palm oil, locally known as katupol (“katu” meaning thorny and “pol” meaning palm nut), is in high demand over its popularity as a cooking oil and for a myriad other uses such as the manufacture of soaps, cosmetics, candles, lubricating greases and edible products such as margarine, ice cream, chocolate and bread.

CEA Chairman Chandrarathna Pallegama said measures would be taken to study the impact of established oil palm plantations. “We continue to receive many public complaints related to oil palm cultivation,” he said. “The CEA has been unable to find justifiable reasons for the complaints so a committee of stakeholders has been set up to seek answers to public concerns.”

Depletion of groundwater is the main issue raised with the CEA, and as a result of protests the District Coordinating Committees (DCC) of Galle, Kegalle and Kalutara have decided to temporarily halt new oil palm plantations in their areas. The latest protest, by villagers at Sapumalkanda, Deraniyagala on June 20, led to tense situations with the protest leaders being assaulted by other factions.

Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis), which is of African origin, was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1967 by the Nakiyadeniya Estate in the Galle District.

A policy decision was taken in 2014 to expand oil palm cultivation on grounds of crop diversification. The plan stipulated that the maximum allowable extent of plantings would be 20,000 ha in marginal, abandoned land and economically unviable land (rubber estates that were more than 30 years old) and that only 20 per cent of such land could be converted to palm oil plantation. This plan is still in operation.

Environmentalist Jayantha Wijesingha fears palm oil could soon replace comparatively eco-friendly rubber. “Sri Lanka has more than 10 plantation companies involved in oil palm planting to date. Rubber is one of the relatively beneficial plantation crops established in Sri Lanka and any success by the plantation companies to replace rubber, including plans to plant oil palm in more than 10,000 acres of land in the central hills, means imminent destruction [of the environment],” Mr. Wijesingha said.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, the leaders in palm oil cultivation, large areas of primary forest have been cut down to make way for the oil cash crop, causing a huge outcry.

Environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform stressed that Sri Lanka should focus on crops that have local use rather than cash crops aimed at exports. Mr. Chamikara also pointed out that no proper study of the environmental impact of palm oil was carried out before its introduction to Sri Lanka.

Minister of Plantation Industries Navin Dissanayake calls such criticism unscientific and emotional, saying palm oil production would be profitable and save foreign exchange.

Professor Asoka Nugawela of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Wayamba also said palm oil has the potential to become a key export and that research was required to stop it being regarded as an enemy. He said many arguments against the crop were baseless and that even justified fears could be effectively mitigated.

A Palm tree plantation

Pointing to the concerns that palm oil cultivation led to severe depletion of water resources, Prof. Nugawela pointed out that the Nakiyadeniya plantation was now more than 50 years old and that no water shortage in the area had been reported.

He also pointed out that global outrage against palm oil was caused by palm oil companies cutting down natural forests and causing biodiversity crises in countries such as Indonesia, whereas in Sri Lanka it was only unproductive and aged rubber land that was being converted to palm oil plantings.

“Most of our plantation crops are naturally found in tropical rainforests. We have domesticated them and established commercial plantations for the benefit of mankind.

“If we select land with suitable climatic and soil conditions and then establish and manage them using good agricultural practices I doubt that these will do harm to the environment. If it is otherwise, that would be the fault of management and not the crop,” Prof. Nugawela said.

Drones – a handy tool in trained, trusted hands

January 29, 2017

A drone being prepared for a habitat mapping operation.

When police seized a drone that recorded the Hambantota port protests last week, it renewed the debate on whether to welcome this ‘new kid on the block’ or to ‘rope him tightly’.

While few view drones as a menace, their applications in different fields can open up new opportunities that had not been previously thought of. Professionals in different fields welcome this new kid on the block while recognizing the need to ‘discipline’ it.

Dr Eric Wickremanayake, a conservation scientist of the World Wildlife Fund, points out that drones can be used in protected areas to map habitat, monitor traffic, and track illegal activities.

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can be remotely operated and transmits video and images. Infrared sensors can be used for different applications.Drones have been used over decades specially for military applications, but now they are used for commercial, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and other purposes.

Dr Wickremanayake said mapping habitat is essential for wildlife park management and previously it was done using satellite imagery. But satellite imagery is expensive, difficult to process and can’t be obtained immediately. “But now we can send a drone on a pre-programmed grid, photograph the terrain and using specific software, prepare the map.”

Dr Wickremanayake is the chairperson of Environmental Foundation Limited and also conservation scientist of WWF. He is assisting conservation work in Nepal.

“We got down drones also with the aim of tracking poachers, but found that habitat mapping is a better application,” he said.

Drones can be used to track Sri Lanka’s illegal cultivations of ganja for example.

In Africa, drones have been used in anti-poaching operations, but this is a difficult proposition in Sri Lanka, he said, especially because of closed canopy forests.

“However, opportunities to use drones in conservation are enormous. For example, we may use drones to control traffic in parks. Take Yala, for example, where adrone can easily detect areas that has problematic congestion and take action,” Dr Wickremanayake suggests.

Drones can be used to address the conflict between humans and elephants.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society under guidance of Ravi Corea in Wasgamuwa has begun research on how drones can be used in the conflict. WCSG research scientist Chandima Fernando said he noted elephants can be deterred by drones, but that the drawback is elephants raid farms at night, when operating a drone is a challenge.

Dr Wickremanayake suggests that a network of pre-programmed drones be set up on the perimeter of villages. These can then be automatically activated in response to infra-sounds made by elephants. The drones can then help scare the elephants. “It is, of course, a futuristic project, but technology is available and it is a matter for an engineer to piece them together to present a practical solution” Dr Wickremanayake said.

Fernando also worked closely with a research team in New Zealand’s Auckland University using drones for conservation and even locate injured elephants.

In 2014, there was an attempt to introduce drones to wildlife applications. This was done by Tropical Ecosystem Research Network together with the University of Singapore. They mapped sections of protected areas such as the Horton Plains, Udawalawe, and Lunugamwehera.

These experts say the Wildlife Department should explore the use of drones in their work. They also accept drones need to be operated based on rules and regulations. Fernando said that in New Zealand, permission is needed to operate drones.

Drone- ' new kid on block' - can also be used for conservation and many other applications

Drone- ‘ new kid on block’ that can be used for many different applications

Drone can be used effectively in responding to natural disasters, as well. “During the floods, we used drones to find out paths of the floodwater. Dronescould be used in rescue missions. They can be particularly used for precision agriculture, or what is called smart farming,” points out Manju Gunawardana, a research scientist who studies use of drones in agriculture.

Gunawardana and the team last year introduced a way to spray weedkillers in farmlands by first identifying where it is needed.

“What is happening now is spraying agrochemicals evenly across a field irrespective of need. The use of drones can cut down agrochemical use,” Gunawardana said.

The International Water Management Institute, too, has been experimenting with drones for a number of applications in Sri Lanka. The data management unit’s Salman Siddiqui told the Sunday Times that the institute studied how drones can be used to give farmers early warning of problems. “Using infrared sensors we can identify stress in a plant 10 days before the effects are visible to the eye. It could be water shortage, lack of fertilizer, or due to a pest attack,” he said.

The institute also assisted the survey department to map Badulla town, which is prone to landslides. Drones have been used to map location of wells suspected to be linked to chronic kidney disease.

Sri Lanka should be ready to use drones for various purposes with proper regulation, experts agree.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170122/news/drones-a-handy-tool-in-trained-trusted-hands-225710.html

Forest adjoining Yala saved from Gliricidia treat

November 30, 2015
Right of animals to roam free in forest restored 

Environmentalists often have to fight losing battles but they have recently won a battle against a company clearing a forest where elephant, leopard and bear roam in order to grow gliricidia, a biofuel crop.

The land being cleared in Amarawewa

The problem emerged in 2012, when environmentalists noted a large area of forest being cleared in Amarawewa, part of the Tissamaharama Forest Range adjoining the Yala National Park.

The Amarawewa scrub forest, which is under the Forest Department, is a diverse habitat used by a number of animals. As it is close to Yala National Park Block I its disruption has also had an impact on Sri Lanka’s most popular national park.

The Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) which fights legal battles to stop environmental damage, was shocked when its investigators found that as much as 1500 hectares of forest were being cleared.

The work was being carried out by United Dendro Energy Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of Lanka Orix Leasing Company (LOLC). The company planned to bring gliricidia stakes to be processed at the Dendro Power Plant being set up at Biyagama.

Further investigations by environmentalists revealed the existence of two agreements now found by the courts to be unlawful.

One was the grant of an annual permit by the Divisional Forest Office of Hambantota releasing 500ha of the Amarawewa forest to an organisation called Magampura Cattle Owned Farmers Association to develop as pasture land.

The other was a tripartite agreement with the Forest Department, United Dendro Energy Pvt Ltd and the Magampura Cattle Owned Farmers Association according to which 1500ha were to be developed as pasture land while the annual permit granted to the Magampura Cattle Owned Farmers Association only allowed for 500ha.

The 2012 investigations also revealed that several areas approximating 100ha had already been cleared and planted with gliricidia and that access roads were being cut through the buffer zone for the Yala National Park.

The EFL went quickly into action to stop further destruction.

Along with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) and Wilderness and Protected Areas Foundation (WPAF) the EFL went to court seeking justice. The organisations filed a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court.

They claimed the project violated the National Environment Act (NEA), the Forest Ordinance (FO) and the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO).

The NEA states that any project that involves the clearing of more than 1ha of forest, and plantation of any type exceeding 5ha, needed an Environmental Impact Assessment to be conducted priorto any approvals.

The FO clearly specifies that “no person shall cut or clear any forest for the purpose of cultivation and/or pasture land” without a permit that cannot be granted absent due process.

Part of the land that was cleared falls within a mile of the border of the Ruhuna National Park, which is declared as a Protected Area under the provisions of the FFPO.

Any development project falling within one mile of a national park boundary requires the approval of the wildlife department.

Furthermore, the FFPO also makes it mandatory for a party seeking such approval to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment and submit the report to the wildlife department as a project approving agency.

In Amarawewa, the Dendro project cleared a large extent of forest lands inviolation of all these covenants, lawyers fighting the case pointed out.

In August, United Dendro agreed to settle the case by abandoning the project and also removing the gliricidia that had been cultivated. According to the settlement terms, the related permits too will be cancelled.

The agreement further states that the area should not be released for a similar project in the future.

Published on SundayTimes on 15.11.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151115/news/green-groups-celebrate-rare-win-against-commerce-171701.html

Pluses for farmers, big minus for wildlifeThe plan to annex forest habitat for commercial cultivation was shrewd and, on its face, reasonable.

The agreement granting villagers the right to run cattle on 500ha of forest was the foot in the door. A provision that allowed them to grow and cut fodder for the animals was the enabling factor that allowed United Dendro Energy Pvt. Ltd to plant its biofuel cash crop, gliricidia.

Gliricidia, a fast-growing medium-sized tree, apart from its commercial value as biofuel, is useful to farmers because its leaves provide food for grazing animals, generate powerful natural fertiliser and “green manure” and can also be used as insect repellent.

With its quick growth, gliricidia can be cut back frequently, and at Amarawewa the leaves could have been used by local farmers with the branches and trunk trimmings being harvested for biofuel.

All this would have come at a heavy cost for wildlife, which would have seen their diverse habitat freely providing a variety of foods and needs transformed into monocultural habitat locked for human use, and the forest corridors that allow them to move around in search of food severely constricted.

Enter the Banana Skipper butterfly; bad news for banana farmers

September 27, 2015

(note: This article has been published on SundayTimes on 27.09.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150927/news/enter-the-banana-skipper-butterfly-bad-news-for-banana-farmers-165681.html. Please note that the online edition has not included some of the final corrections done for the writeup. While apologizing for this, I invite you to read this blog post or the printed version of SundayTimes for the complete article.) 

Butterflies are beautiful, innocent creatures loved by all. But the larvae of the latest addition to Sri Lanka’s list of butterflies could become a pest to banana plants, warns the young butterfly enthusiast who discovered it.

Female of Banana Skipper

Female of Banana Skipper

Male of Banana Skipper

Male of Banana Skipper

Tharindu Ranasinghe had observed the larvae of this butterfly, identified as Banana Skipper, for the first time, on September 6, in his home garden in Kandumulla in Yakkala. He observed a tube-like formation in the Banana leaves. A closer inspection revealed a worm-like caterpillar taking refuge in these tubes. A single banana leaf had about 3-4 larvae and the entire plant had as many as 22-25 such creatures. A subsequent study revealed many other banana plants had been infested by these caterpillars.

Tharindu identified that the ‘tube maker’ belonged to a group of butterflies known as Skippers. Tharindu also alerted Himesh Jayasinghe – the president of the Butterfly Conservation Society of Sri Lanka of this discovery. Himesh who lived in Yatihena in Malwana, also observed similar larvae on banana plants in his area.

Since it was important to verify what would emerge from these larvae the young enthusiasts collected a few samples and put them in glass containers. They took good care of the caterpillars by cleaning the excrement and giving them banana leaves regularly. After a few days, a butterfly with unique red eyes emerged from the pupa (inactive immature form between larva and adult).

A Skipper or the Skipper butterfly belongs to the family of Hesperiidae. They are named after their quick, darting flight habits. The butterfly enthusiasts soon realised that the butterfly was different from the other three species of ‘red eyed’ butterflies already recorded in Sri Lanka namely Common Red-eye, Giant Red-eye and Banded Red-eye. The Common Red-eye caterpillars are found on Bamboo varieties while the other two lay eggs on cane plants.

When the two enthusiasts studied the feeding patterns, the technique of rolling banana leaves and other features of the new red-eye they were found to be similar to the behavior of the species that belong to Erionota torus or Erionota thrax which are called the Banana Skippers. Since over the years there has been confusion over the identification of these two species even in its adult stage, further studies and bar coding should be carried out to clarify the exact species, the young researchers say.

Consumed banana leaves with leaf shelters of larvae

Consumed banana leaves with leaf shelters of larvae

Until now this butterfly species was not known to farmers here nor found in the literature, so it is believed that the Banana Skipper could be a fairly new arrival to Sri Lanka. The Banana Skipper is found in India and in some East-Asian counties. Researchers believe the species could have come here with imported banana varieties. Ornamental Banana plants too are imported to Sri Lanka as a garden plant, and the eggs or larvae of this butterfly could easily have come into the country this way too, they say.

The adult butterflies may also be crossing over from India to Sri Lanka on fishing boats as butterflies are attracted to the light from the lamps of these boats.

The young enthusiasts later found larvae infected banana trees in areas including Kaduwela and Soragune. So although they are not yet commonly found, the Banana Skipper may not be good news for banana farmers as they could easily turn into an invasive species.

An immediate study should be done on the distribution of this butterfly in Sri Lanka and agriculture specialists should annalyse whether it was becoming a pest. The two young butterfly enthusisasts plan to carry out research on the Banana Skipper and have asked the public to alert them if they find the leaf rolling larvae on banana plants. They can be contacted on 0718181225 / 0779914227 or through email butterflycssl@gmail.com.

The Culprit on its last stage before transforming to butterfly

The Culprit on its last stage before transforming to butterfly

Beware of ornamental plants

In addition to the Banana Skipper, two other exotic butterfly species are here to stay through the importation of ornamental plants. They include the Orange Migrant (Catopsilia Scylla) and the Yellow Palm-dart (Cephrenes trichopepla).

It is feared that many other unknown insects and micro-organisms that could become invasive species, could come via the exchange of plants. Experts warn that these plants should be quarantined before they are introduced to the native soil as they could pose a threat to our wildlife.

It is important that the Sri Lanka Customs continues to raid plant materials that are imported without proper quarantine procedures. In the past few months Customs had made such detentions.

Butterfly diplomacy 

India’s Maharashtra state recently selected the Blue Mormon (Papilio polymnestor) found in India and Sri Lanka as their state butterfly. The Blue Mormon is a large and beautiful butterfly that sports velvet black wings with bright blue spots. In Sri Lanka, they are second only to the Sri Lanka Birdwing –Sri Lanka’s National Butterfly. 

India’s media reported that Maharashtra State’s Forest Minister Sudhir Mungatiwar announced that his department would be collaborating with the Sri Lankan government to study the species in detail. The report claims Mahashastra’s forest minister Mungantiwar and Sri Lankan ambassador Saroja Sirisena have requested this country’s assistance for the study. The report quoting a forest ministry official said, “Once complete, papers will be published and measures will be implemented to promote the butterfly in the state as well as in Sri Lanka,”

Last year Sri Lanka, too, named a butterfly for each of the 9 provinces to raise awareness of these beautiful insects.

IMG_9049

Blue Mormon (C) Himesh Jayasinghe

SundayTimes - 27.09.2015

Down to earth in soil fertility with bio-fertilisers

October 7, 2013
Imported destructive agrochemicals make way for home grown solutions that are eco friendly and harmless – by Malaka Rodrigo 

The harmful impact of misuse and overuse of agrochemicals have been highlighted in articles published in the Sunday Times in the past few weeks. As an alternative, use of bio-fertilisers which is a method of directly applying living microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to fertilise the soil is becoming popular among farmers, even though these too have to be used with care, point out experts.

Research activites pertaining to vermiwash being carried out at the IFS, Kandy

“Bio-fertilisers are a good nature-friendly way of enriching soil with nutrients by establishing natural nutrient cycles. However, as many foreign bio-fertiliser products are being introduced to farmers, without being tested, there is a risk of introducing harmful organisms too into the country,” warns Prof. Gamini Seneviratne of the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS), Kandy. “These harmful micro-organisms can be invasive, spreading fast and causing enough damage,” he added.

Numerous species of soil bacteria which grow on or around roots, stimulate plant growth. Some of these microorganisms such as Rhizobium bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil and Pseudomonas Bacteria makes Phosphorus soluble, so plants can easily absorb them. Strains of these beneficial soil micro-organisms cultured in laboratories, come into the market as a bottled liquid. These bio-fertilisers can be mixed with compost and used in organic farming or as a supplement for chemical fertilisers. This can reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by at least by 25%.

In Sri Lanka, already there are companies producing bio-fertilisers. However, companies that import bio-fertilisers need to be closely supervised, as they cannot guarantee that imported bio-fertilisers are harmless. Hence, there should be a mechanism to monitor the quality and safety of the imported bio-fertilisers, emphasizes Prof. Seneviratne.

The IFS researcher stresses that the country can benefit from bio-fertilisers, because they are low cost, renewable sources of plant nutrients which can reduce use of chemical fertilisers. Prof. Seneviratne also revealed that an IFS project conducted in collaboration with the Tea Research Institute (TRI) is on the verge of introducing a new, patented formula of bio-fertiliser known as “Biofilmed bio-fertilisers” (BFBF), which has been rigorously tested for more than eight years.

Trials with tea revealed that the new fertiliser can actually reduce use of chemical fertiliser by 50%. It is to be introduced for commercial development by the end of the year. Developing BFBFs for other crops is under way. There are bio-pesticides too, which use similar techniques, but Dr Anura Wijesekara of the Pesticide Registrar’s office confirmed that Sri Lanka does not import bio-pesticides.

‘Vermiwash’ is a solution that contains extracts of earthworm enriched soil. The ‘Green Revolution’ initiated in the 1960s had promoted agrochemicals usage which Sri Lanka embraced. But once convinced of the ill-effects of agrochemicals, agro experts are returning to nature’s way. Earthworms to return fertiliser to the soil

At school we are taught that earthworms are a part of soil biodiversity that help enrich soil fertility. But, to promote the green revolution, we continue to use agrochemicals which kill these friendly creatures. Realising the important services earthworms provide to the soil, agricultural experts have experimented in getting the services rendered by these earthworms, into a specific fertiliser.

“Vermiwash’ is a liquid extract from soil worked on by earthworms. This contains friendly microbes and enzymes that stimulate plant growth,” Dr Gamini Hitinayake of Peradeniya University said.

A microbiological study of vermiwash has revealed that it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria too. It is therefore an effective way of getting the nutrients back into the soil.

It contains enzymes- secretions of earthworms, which would stimulate the growth and yield of crops, and even develop resistance in crops.

Pointing out that vermiwash was not difficult to make and could be used for home gardens, Dr. Hitinayake gave the following steps:

  • Make small holes at the bottom of a barrel or large container mounted on a little platform.
  • Introduce soil containing earthworms into the container.
  • Introduce drips of water from the top onto the earthworm-rich soil, while collecting the runoff water from the bottom.
  • Mix this with water and apply to the crops.

Published on SundayTimes on 29.09.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130929/news/down-to-earth-in-soil-fertility-with-bio-fertilisers-64260.html

Severe water shortage looms in Jaffna

September 27, 2013
Climate change, over-extraction of groundwater due to resettlement and with no rivers flowing through the peninsula, its aquifers are fast depleting 

The first elections in Jaffna since the war ended was held yesterday with many political promises. However, experts point out a water shortage silently looming in Jaffna, that will affect the people beyond these political promises.  The fact that Jaffna will face a severe water shortage in the future, if water extraction is not managed, has been revealed by a study done by Jaffna University’s Department of Agricultural Engineering. No river flows across the Jaffna peninsula.

Hence, the groundwater in the limestone aquifer is the main source of water for the area. Aquifers are underground layers of rock that are saturated with water that can be brought to the surface through natural springs or by pumping. The extracted water must be replaced by new water to replenish or recharge the aquifer. But in Jaffna, this recharge rate is 0.57 million cubic metres (MCM) of water, while the extraction rate is 0.66 MCM, according to research done by M. Thushyanthy and C.S. De Silva. So, Jaffna’s limestone aquifer will become depleted over the years, these water experts fear.

Rapid development of agriculture, economy and increase of population due to resettlement, creates greater withdrawal of water. Especially, water extraction for agricultural purposes will impact Jaffna’s water resources, according to this study.
However, this situation is not only restricted to Jaffna. Sri Lanka’s aquifers located in other areas will also face similar issues, says Water Resources Board (WRB) Director General R.S. Wijesekare.

He fears the changing rainfall patterns due to Climate Change will impact Sri Lanka’s groundwater aquifers. Not only the drought, but intense rain during a short period of time, will also disturb groundwater recharging cycles, as it will not allow rain water to leach down, but runoff quickly into rivers. The presence of buildings prevents rainwater from leaching, hence leaching in urban areas is severely reduced, which slows down groundwater recharge, while groundwater extraction for commercial purposes is increasing. Hence, a solution needs to be found for the future, point out water experts.

At least for the Jaffna aquifer, the Jaffna University researchers recommend the establishment of an institution for a groundwater regulatory framework, to optimise its usage by controlling its overuse.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.09.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130922/news/severe-water-shortage-looms-in-jaffna-63294.html

Not only milk powder; mind about hidden poison in vegetables too..!!

August 26, 2013
Study shows farmers overuse pesticides; calls for speedy action and monitoring scheme Some cultivators grow pesticide-free vegetable for their consumption – by Malaka Rodrigo 

Reports of dicyandiamide (DCD) and whey protein allegedly found in milk powder have sparked widespread panic among consumers, but little do they know that vegetables they consume are equally if not more contaminated, according to a recent study on the use of agrochemicals by farmers.

The report based on an extensive survey in the upcountry says that although it has been advised that farmers should not use any chemicals 14 days prior to the harvesting of vegetables, some farmers do not follow this safety rule. Some 30% of upcountry farmers apply pesticides until 7-10 days before harvesting although some of them knew the harmful effects of agrochemicals, the report prepared by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) says.

Fit for human consumption? Vegetable plots in Nuwara Eliya

In a shocking revelation, the report also says that about a quarter of the famers surveyed maintain agrochemical-free vegetable plots for their own consumption.  This dual approach adopted by these farmers, the report says, raises the question whether they are knowingly poisoning the consumers.

The report emphasises the urgent need to monitor pesticide residues in vegetables in the market.  The report titled “HARTI Policy Brief on Minimising the Damages of Pesticides” is based on a field research conducted in the Badulla and Nuwara Eliya Districts among 240 randomly selected vegetable and potato farmers.

Only the main hill country crops potato, bean, leeks and cabbage were handpicked for the investigation by the HARTI researchers; but the outcome has been scary.  Drawing attention to recent findings that linked the excessive use of agrochemicals by paddy farmers to the mystery Chronic Kidney Disease in the North Central Province, the report notes that vegetable also could contain arsenic and other harmful residues of agrochemicals.

The research also highlights the ignorance of farmers who overuse or misuse agrochemicals. According to the survey, nearly half of the upcountry famers apply pesticide as a precautionary measure even before any appearance of symptoms of pests or disease.
“The upcountry’s misty wet environment makes vegetable plants prone to pest attacks and fungal diseases. Farmers take their own decisions as to what pesticide to use and how frequently it should be used. Usually they end up in spraying an overdose,” said M.M.M. Abeeyar who led the team of researchers and authored the report together with M.T. Padmajani and M.A.C.S. Bandara.
Farmers who spoke to the Sunday Times said pesticides had lost their strength and often the instructions given on the label of the bottle were not useful.

Cabbage farmer Chamly complained that his crop was being attacked by a pest these days, but the pesticide he used was not answering. “The instructions on the label asked us to mix 28 units. We even doubled this dose – but the problem still persists,” he complained.
Pesticides Registrar Anura Wijesekera said they were testing on the quality of pesticides at the point of import. He advised the farmers to stick to the dose mentioned on the label.

He said pesticides varied and some took time to act and this was probably why some farmers question their strength and overuse them. With the correct dosage, the pest problem could be effectively dealt with.  Dr. Wijesekera, however, noted that the quality of pesticides in the market should also be monitored.

Sarath Fernando, an official of the advocacy group, Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), said the dearth of agriculture officers to advise farmers had aggravated the problem.  “Farmers just get advice from pesticide dealers or decide on a pesticide by following their neighbours. Earlier, there were enough agricultural officers to instruct farmers,” he said.

Mr. Fernando said vegetable could be grown successfully and profitably without any use of agrochemicals.  The activist said agrochemicals killed both useful and harmful insects and the long term use would enable the pests to develop resistance to them.
Besides these direct harmful effects, agrochemicals also pollute waterways and groundwater sources.

The HARTI report recommends the setting up of pest clinics to advise farmers on the correct use of pesticides and alternatives methods.  Following the Sunday Times report last week, several experts welcomed the Agriculture Minister’s move to authorise state officials including those in the health sector and Grama Niladharis to take legal action against those resorting to the indiscriminate use of pesticides and those who encourage this practice.

They also say there should be a mechanism to monitor and stop the sale of vegetable with pesticide residues. Until such steps are taken, consumers are advised to wash vegetables properly to minimise the harm.  Pesticides are more harmful than DCD in milk powder, the experts say. They ask why the government is not taking prompt action in the same way it acted on the milk powder case.

Promote ‘Green Band’ pesticides 

The Government banned the sale of some pesticides a few months ago. But upcountry farmers say the other pesticides are not as effective as the banned products.

Pesticides are colour coded based on their hazard levels and Class I pesticides or “Red band” pesticides are banned in Sri Lanka. Although Class II and Class III pesticides are largely used in Sri Lanka, farmers are advised to use the Class IV or ‘Green Band’ pesticides which are considered ‘least harmful’.

Green Band pesticides are effective as other class of pesticides but they take more time to attack the pests and are expensive. Therefore, farmers usually go for pesticides that give instant results.

Will overuse of agrochemicals bring another ‘Silent Spring’?

The impact of agrochemicals to biodiversity has long been established.  Rachel Carson’s study – which came out as a famous book ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 — showed how the use of DDT affected birds. She found out that the DDT that passed onto birds through the food chain made the shells of the eggs thin. Thus they broke prematurely due to the weight of the mother bird and this was identified as the cause for the decrease in the bird population.

But there can be lots of unknown impacts. The ‘National Red List 2012 on Conservation Status of the Fauna and Flora’ launched last year explains the possible impact of agrochemicals on animals and plants in Sri Lanka. The species associate in freshwater are the most vulnerable, according to the Red List.

It says the heavy use of agrochemicals has contributed to the population decline of at least two species of endemic fish, pethiya bandula and aplocheilus dayi (uda handaya) and several species of other fish. Even the washing to the pesticide tanks in waterways also affects these fish.

The excessive use of agrochemicals also poses a threat to the orchid populations, the Red List’s chapter on Orchids states. Pesticides’ impact on orchid pollinators in turn affects many other plant species. Amphibians, freshwater crabs, freshwater plants, dragonflies, reptiles, spiders, dung beetles are some of the other species that are affected by agrochemicals, according to the Red List.

Application of insecticides and weedicides should be carried out in a manner that would have the least effect, especially on pollinators such as bees – the Red List says. Measures such as application of insecticides prior to flowering and at a time of the day when bees are less active on flowers would minimize their exposure to such chemicals, it says.

All pesticides approved for release in Sri Lanka should be assessed for impact on non-target organisms and the environment in general, and the labelling of such products should include information on environmental safeguards, it recommends.

Published on SundayTimes on 25.08.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130825/news/hidden-poison-in-vegetable-agrochemicals-59490.html 

Desperate farmers seek help as climate hits back

October 7, 2012
230,000 cultivators apply for drought compensation, more such events feared in future writes Malaka Rodrigo 

The crippling drought that has ruined thousands of cultivated acres across the country has driven more than 230,000 farmers to seek compensation from the Government. Scientists warn that extreme weather could become a pattern and that agriculture could be a repeat victim.

Touching scene: Kindly souls provide some drinking water to cattle in drought-stricken Puttalam. Pic by Hiran Priyankara Jayasinghe

The Agrarian Services Department has been approached by farmers in 13 districts, including Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Ampara, seeking compensation for failed or destroyed crops. The highest number of applications, about 130,000, have come from the Kurunegala district. The drought has flattened up to 2,45,000 acres of paddy land, according to Agrarian Services Commissioner-General Sunil Weerasinghe.

He said Agrarian Services officers were in discussions with the Treasury to work out compensation deals. For a start, there will be a cash-flow work system under which farmers will be paid for community work, such as cleaning and repairing the irrigation network. Dry rations will also be handed out.

As a result of the drought and depleted food supplies, prices of food stuffs and some vegetables, including lime, have gone up. Fortunately, Sri Lanka had a bumper rice harvest last season, and extra stocks are being used to stabilize the price of the rice.
Compared to this time last year, prices for one kilo of vegetables have increased dramatically, according to the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute.

Leeks have gone up 87 per cent; beetroot 65 per cent; carrots 61 per cent; capsicum chillies 77 per; pumpkin 48 per cent, and lime 60 per cent. The research institute’s Dr. L. Rupasena said vegetable prices usually drop at this time of year, but this year was different because of the unprecedented drought. “This extended drought should be a warning to have clear policies in place in case of such of extreme weather conditions in future,” he told the Sunday Times.

Bowsers to the rescue in Polonnaruwa. Pic by K.G. Karunaratne

In the past few weeks, rainfall has been recorded in many parts of the country, One expert – Dr. W. M. A. D. B. Wicremasinghe, director of the Natural Resources Management Centre (NRMC) of the Agriculture Department – changing weather patterns make it difficult to store water for irrigation. Excess water from heavy rains overflow the reservoirs and is wasted. He said recent weather patterns result in flood conditions during the rainy months and prolonged dry periods.

It is clearly evident that the current drought has impacted the whole of Sri Lanka though many parts of Sri Lanka received rains during past few weeks. Vegetables from upcountry are now being brought to the city markets, which will soon have a positive impact on prices. However, we should not forget the bitter experience and learn from it, the importance of clear policies to adapt to this kind of extreme weather as Climate Change clearly threatens to increase the frequency of such extreme events in the future too.

Dr.W.M.A.D.B.Wicremasinghe, director of Natural Resources Management Centre (NRMC) of the Agriculture Department said “Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector will be one of the areas badly impacted by the changes in climate which will increase the frequency of droughts such as the present one. Though annual rainfall is relatively unchanged, it is found out that Sri Lanka is already facing changing rainfall patterns where we experience heavy rain falls and lengthier dry periods in between.” Dr Wickremasinghe went on to say “This will even impact the irrigation water, as heavy rain within short periods of time is difficult to retain in the reservoirs, when the  tendency will be for them to spill over.”

Many crops in Sri Lanka have particular climatic requirements; where they need dry periods at times of flowering and then rain at other times. But the rainfall patterns are changing and the traditional agricultural seasons are getting disturbed. “Last year we didn’t have a good harvest of some of the tree fruits such as Rambutan, Duriyan or Mango. This is mainly due to rain experienced in February which coincides with the flowering season of these fruits. But this year the climatic conditions were right, so we got lots of harvest in these fruits” said Dr.Wicremasinghe pointing out that if Climate Change impacts the general weather cycle, there could be more price fluctuations of foods. These kind of bad seasons were there previously too, but the frequencies of “bad seasons” are increasing indicating that climate change is already making its impact felt.

Dr.Wicremasinghe also pointed out that the increase in temperature too will impact agriculture adversely and noted that the night time temperature particularly has increased in many parts of Sri Lanka with sudden cooler days. This type of weather will impact the yield of crop plants. The experts say that there was an evaporation of 7mm water per day in the present climatic conditions. With the increased temperature, the evaporation rates too will increase exhausting the remaining water quickly. According to the NRMC director, it is also reported that increased atmospheric temperature will trigger more decease and the prevalence of pests, which too, will damage crops. To face these, the farmers spray lots of pesticides and fungicides, which will increase the cost of production resulting in higher prices.

The HARTI’s additional director, Dr.Rupasena points out that proper production planning is the way to control food prices. In the meantime, it is also reported that the Agriculture department, Power and Energy ministry, Irrigation department together with Meteorology Department are planning on a proactive coordinated effort to manage irrigational water, to face future threats of droughts. Dr.Wicremasinghe also mentioned that they are planning to issue predictions every 2 weeks on future forecasts, to enable farmers to make informed decisions.

Apart from that, the Agriculture department is doing research on introducing new hybrid paddy varieties which are drought tolerant.  They are also working on Drought Escape paddy varieties, which have shorter crop cycles of two and a half months, where in instances of predicted drought, farmers can grow and harvest these, before the drought takes them unawares. New micro irrigation techniques which save water too are being introduced to farmers and the need to learn water management is also emphasized.

Housewives sour-faced over price of lime

Housewives are stunned by the current price of lime. A single lime cost a record Rs. 18 at certain supermarkets this week – and these were not even top quality limes.

“I’ve stopped stocking lime in my store,” said one retailer. “People are going for citrus fruit alternatives, such as the jama naran or mandarin.”

The wholesale price of lime ranged from Rs. 230 to 240 a kilo, compared with Rs.31 a kilo the previous week. Retail prices ranged from Rs.280 to even Rs. 500 a kilo.

The lime plant, scientifically known as citrus aurantifolia, needs the right climatic conditions to bloom and produce fruit.

Too much rain and prolonged droughts can disturb the natural cycle of the lime tree. Lime is mainly cultivated in the dry zone, in the Moneragala and Ampara districts. These areas have been badly hit by the drought.Curry leaves have also become scarce in the market.

Farmers’ plight worsens; banks want loans paid back

with Hansani Bandara

The woes of drought-hit farmers in the North Central Province (NCP) increase with banks that have given them loans adding pressure on them while their appeal for relief falls by the wayside. The Sunday Times learns that some farmers are taking up menial jobs to feed their families since they have pawned jewellery, vehicles and other valuables.

R. P. Dharmathilake, treasurer of the Progressive Farmers’ Collective in Polonnaruwa said it was only by pawning or obtaining bank loans that farmers found money for cultivation and they settled the loans by selling the harvest. But this time much of the harvest was destroyed by the drought and they could not pay back their loans.

He said they had made several pleas to authorities and politicians seeking relief, but the response was poor.
“We had discussions with the politicians in the area on August 27. We submitted our request in writing. We also warned them that we will be organising a protest. But nothing happened,” he said.

M. Dharmathilake said only those farmers who had insured their crops in obtaining bank loans obtained some compensation.
Adding to their woes were bank notices demanding that the farmers pay back their loans.

Agrarian Services and Wildlife Minister S. M. Chandrasena said compensation would be paid under agriculture insurance and the process had already been started. But Mr. Dharmathilake said the amount to be paid to those who had insured the land was hardly enough to cover the loss.

Agrarian Commissioner, Sunil Weerasinghe said the process of paying compensation would start immediately and would be concluded before the next season.

He said that as part of a relief package, farmers would be given seedpaddy and the bank loan interests would be waived. He said the Ministry of Finance and Planning would instruct the state banks to waive the interests due from drought-hit farmers.
He explained that programmes were being implemented district wise to provide relief to 132,000 farmers affected by the drought.

Regardless of the assurances, farmers say they are still in depths of despair.Kapilrathna Banda, a farmer from Giritale, Polonnaruwa said that they would not believe the promises of the government anymore. He said the authorities promise that seedpaddy would be distributed free in the next season but there was little guarantee that they would do it.

“Nothing has been done so far on paying compensation. Officials came to the village to collect information on crop damage, but provided little relief. We are now doing odd jobs at the reservoir renovation projects and earn 500 rupees a day,” he said. Nandasena Gunathilake, another farmer whose crops were destroyed by the drought, said this drought was a result of improper water management.

“We have come to the point where we have to sell our possession to find money. We can’t rely on politicians’ promises. What we need is compensation for damaged crop and funds to cultivate in the next season,” he said.

According to latest statistics, more than 250,000 acres of crop have been damaged by the drought in the Northern, North Central and Eastern Provinces.

“During the last few weeks, several protests erupted asking to release water to save their paddy. Some of these protests have gone violent even blocking the roads and farmers locking horns with the officials. At least in one instance in Devahuwa, a clash between fishermen and farmers were averted only by the intervention of the police. The fishermen wanted to keep the remaining water for the fish, while farmers were desperate to get at least a bit of water in their attempt to protect their fast drying paddy farms. As the frequency of extreme weather events increase, there can be many such incidents”, warn the experts

Published on 16.09.2012 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/120916/news/desperate-farmers-seek-help-12684.html

Hakgala in harm’s way

April 26, 2012

Hakgala is Sri Lanka’s only highland Strict Nature Reserve. But this important ecosystem has been encroached and Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) has gone to courts against this illegal encroachment. The authorities agreed to take steps to take action against the encroachment and the case has been settled in 2008. But the action promised by authorities has not been taken so far, so EFL has opened the court case again. Herewith I’m posting the article I’ve written on 2008 about the Hakkagala issue www.sundaytimes.lk/080907/Plus/sundaytimesplus_01.html 

 

Legend has it that Hakgala was King Ravana’s pleasure garden where he kept the beautiful princess Sita whom he had abducted from India. Today, visitors to the hill country rarely miss out on a visit to Hakgala and while walking around many wonder what lies behind the fences of the Botanical Gardens.
Only few realize that it is the Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve (SNR), a montane cloud forest, as important as the rainforests of Sinharaja or Knuckles in terms of biodiversity and watershed capacity.

Like any other SNR, Hakgala is restricted to all but those who are involved in scientific research and even they can enter only with a special permit obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC).

Even amidst all this protection, the Hakgala SNR (declared in 1938, Hakgala is one of three Strict Nature Reserves and is the only one in the wet zone, the other two, Ritigala and Yala Block II, being in the dry zone) is under serious threat due to land-grabs and encroachment, problems that have dogged it for decades.

Picture showing the extent of the encroachment- Courtesy- Nuwara Eliya Nature Protection Society

These were some of the shocking disclosures at a recent forum organized by the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) to launch ‘Hakgala Under Threat – A Review of Conservation Status and Management Needs’.

As much as 25% of the Hakgala SNR has been encroached on, a survey by EFL has revealed. This is indeed an alarming trend considering the fact that Hakgala is also protected by another law which prohibits the granting, leasing or otherwise disposal of state lands over 5,000 ft in altitude. Hakgala being above 5400 ft, therefore, also comes under this protection.

However, encroachers at Hakgala include the Ambewela cattle farm, Warwick tea estate and other small-scale cultivators who have occupied sections of it.

According to the Management Plan drawn up in 1999 by the DWLC, 16% or 182.88 ha of the Hakgala SNR, were claimed to be under encroachment. A 2006 survey has found that there are 152 encroachments, excluding the Ambewela farm, covering about 50 hectares.

“But the boundaries considered in this survey are not those of the original survey plan. They include a much smaller area for Hakgala,” EFL officials point out. EFL claims that the figures cited by DWLC are massive underestimates of the current encroachment problem which its own survey has indicated as covering 150 ha and involving at least 200 households. This together with the encroachments by the Ambewela farm doubles the DWLC figure.

Encroachment by the Ambewela farm had begun a few decades ago, with even a survey plan of 1945 by the Survey Department including sections of the Hakgala SNR as part of the farm. This error had been the starting point of the large scale encroachment of Hakgala, states the report issued by the EFL.
Hakgala, environmentalists point out, is part of the Central Highlands Forest Complex which has been identified as being of the highest national importance for watershed protection by the National Conservation Review. It plays a particularly significant role in maintaining stream-flow over the year, especially dry season flows while also acting as a ‘water tower’ for the Uva Basin and the Uma Oya. Therefore, degradation of Hakgala will affect the whole country.

Soil erosion will cripple large-scale hydro projects like Uma Oya and Rantambe by reducing water inflow. The sediments which will be deposited in the waterways due to soil erosion will flow down to the reservoirs causing problems.

Meanwhile, environmentalists explain that the area currently used as grazing lands have pastures with imported grass seeds that are alien to the area.

The threat of these grasses spreading in the SNR as invasive species is enormous, in the light of most national parks battling with invasive species. The close presence of cattle to wild animals could result in wild animals being vulnerable to pandemics like the hoof and mouth disease.

Concerned over the degradation of the Hakgala SNR and no action by the DWLC, the Environmental Foundation had stepped in, filing legal action against the DWLC in 1988 over illegal encroachments. While recognizing the 1938 boundaries, the court had ruled that attempts to bypass the legal provisions that afford the Hakgala SNR the highest protection should be disregarded and ordered the DWLC to remove all encroachers. Despite the DWLC giving an undertaking to court, no action had been taken to remove the encroachers.

Once again in March 2006, EFL had filed another case to halt further encroachment immediately and remove the present encroachers. The respondents – DWLC, Divisional Secretaries and other government institutions – had agreed to act but once again nothing had happened.

DWLC Director-General Ananda Wijesooriya told the forum that the department is working to remove illegal encroachers. However, the largest encroacher – the Ambewela farm — is not considered at this stage.

World Bank representative Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya emphasized the need for other government departments that are more powerful to support the DWLC. “It should be a collective effort, otherwise the DWLC will get isolated. We have seen this happen in the past.”

“Hakgala is an important ecosystem and it is important to protect it before irretrievable damage is done to the Strict Nature Reserve,” said environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene.

Adopt farming methods that make best use of water

April 1, 2012
Some 85 per cent of water collected and extracted used for agriculture, but a lot of it goes waste – By Malaka Rodrigo
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Unless we start managing our water resources properly, we could be contributing to a world food crisis, warns the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).“About 85 per cent of the fresh water extracted and stored is used for agriculture, and only the balance 15 per cent is used for drinking and household and industrial use,” Dr. Herath Manthrithilake, head of the IWMI’s Sri Lanka Development Initiative, told the Sunday Times. “If water is not wisely used, Sri Lanka will be among the countries that will face a food crisis linked to water shortages.

”Many of us take water for granted and think our water needs are limited to the water we drink and use for cooking, bathing and washing clothes. The fact is that each of us needs daily between two and five litres of drinking water, but up to 3,000 litres of water for growing and producing the food we consume daily.

One slice of bread represents an investment of 40 litres of water, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Vegetable products such as a potato, an apple and a tomato take up to 25, 70 and 13 litres of waters respectively, while animal-based products, such as a cup of milk and an egg, take 200 and 135 litres respectively. Beef tops the list in water consumption: a single slice of beef for a steak requires 7,000 litres.

Paddy farming is an exceptionally heavy consumer of water: up to 3,000 litres go into the production of one kilogram of rice. Rice is the staple food in Asian countries, and most of the water used for agriculture in Sri Lanka goes into rice cultivation. Unfortunately, inefficient water usage means that a lot of the water goes waste. Sixty per cent of the water pumped into paddy farms goes waste, say experts.
“We desperately need farming methods that are low on water usage,” said Dr. Herath Manthrithilake. “Our ancestors knew how to manage water. Look at the ancient cascading tank system.”

A cascade of tanks would collect rainwater, and this water would be released for paddy farming from a “wewa” on high ground; excess water flowing through the paddy fields ended up in tanks built on lower ground. The cascading tank system was introduced in the time of King Parâkramabâhu the Great (1123-1186) who is remembered for saying that not one drop of water should flow into the sea without serving the community.

Under modern irrigation systems, collected rainwater is directed into paddy fields through canals, but much of the water goes waste. The need of the hour is to maximise on available water by adopting sustainable agricultural practices, Dr. Manthrithilake said.

Ground water may be used for agriculture, but this too should be done in a sustainable way and in the knowledge that ground water is not an unlimited resource. In the ’90s, agro-wells were dug for agricultural purposes without proper evaluation of ground conditions. Many of these agro-wells have since dried up. It takes time for ground water to be replaced, and the rate of replacement varies from place to place.

Climate change is the latest challenge to water conservation, said Professor Champa Navaratne of the Agriculture Faculty of the University of Ruhuna. Quality water is required for agriculture and daily living purposes, but quality water is becoming a limited source as rain patterns change all over the country. “When it rains, it pours, while droughts last for longer and longer periods,” Professor Navaratne told the Sunday Times. “With dwindling forest cover, rain water runs off instead of staying and soaking into the earth. And when the soil fails to absorb sufficient water, the ground water resources shrink.”

Conservationists hope that this year’s World Water Day will provide a platform for serious thinking about water conservation and food security.

Lanka-based institute wins top honour in water research

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which is based in Sri Lanka, was named the 2012 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate on World Water Day, observed on March 22. The Stockholm Water Prize is the “world’s most prestigious prize for outstanding achievements in water-related research activities.”
“I am absolutely delighted that the International Water Management Institute has been awarded this year’s Stockholm Water Prize,” said IWMI Director General, Dr Colin Chartres.

The honour goes to individuals, institutions and organisations that make a significant contribution to water conservation and protection, which in turn improves the health of the planet’s ecosystems. The Stockholm citation said the IWMI was chosen for its pioneering research to improve agriculture water management, enhance food security, protect environmental health and alleviate poverty in developing countries. The IWMI has also developed a water policy that has yet to be adopted.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.04.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/120401/News/nws_042.html

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Thanking the gods for the spice of their lives

March 11, 2012
A special perahera down Hikkaduwa last week featured not just the traditional drummers and dancers but freshly harvested cinnamon, to remember local cinnamon growers lost to the 2004 tsunami – Malaka Rodrigo reports
Seven years ago, the tsunami destroyed the Southern coastline killing thousands and destroying homes and livelihoods. The salt water that swept as far as three km inland also killed the cinnamon plantations destroying the local cinnamon industry.

Going back in time: A man participating in the perahera wheels the model of a ship that had docked at the Galle harbour in 1680 for cinnamon trade

Now, these small scale cinnamon farmers, some of whom lost their family members are back on their feet again. They believe the divine powers of ‘Devol Deviyo’ of Seenigama Temple also helped them rebuild their livelihood and the “Navum Kurundu Mangallaya” ( Cinnamon Thanksgiving Festival) is their way of paying tribute and seeking blessings for a better crop and protection from natural disasters.

The sixth such ‘Navum Kurundu Mangallaya’ was held on December 17 in Hikkaduwa with traditional dancers and drummers, along with the cinnamon farmers bringing their first yield from the harvest to offer to the Seenigama Devol Devalaya. Unprocessed cinnamon bark as well as virgin quills from their harvest were brought in different ways. Those who process cinnamon also brought their equipment to get it blessed at the temple. A cinnamon grower dressed in a nilame costume carrying a bunch of Cinnamon quills atop an elephant symbolized the ‘tax collector’ known in ancient times as ‘Maha Badde’ .

Many private companies in the cinnamon industry too were seen participating in the perahera.
For many in the “Kurundu Mangallaya” there were painful memories of 2004. K.P. Mahinda, now 56, who owns a four-acre cinnamon plantation in Peraliya had to run for his life on that terrible day.

His home was just about 500m away from the spot where the ill-fated train was caught up in the tsunami, but luckily he managed to flee with his family as the first wave hit. He lost his house and all his belongings. “Over 50 bodies were found in my own garden,” he says, adding that 27 unidentified bodies were cremated there.

Act of faith: Cinnamon growers carrying their first yield from the harvest to offer to the gods. Pic by Sajeewanie Kodippili

Mahinda also lost his plantation. The land was full of debris and the remaining plants too died subsequently due to the salt water in the soil. “Gahen watuna miniha ta gona anna wage,” said Mahinda recalling that losing his cinnamon plants meant losing his livelihood in addition to the personal losses.

“The cinnamon trees in my garden were fully matured – some of them over 40-50 years old planted by my grandparents and producing a good harvest. We had to start everything from scratch,” he says.

Before replanting, the contaminated soil had to be treated. The Spanish Red Cross and Department of Export Agriculture helped the farmers to prepare their lands. New cinnamon plants were distributed and planting started soon after. Mahinda’s cinnamon plot is still on the way to recovery. Before the disaster, he would get 600 kg of cinnamon from his plot, now only about quarter of this harvest, but he is positive that things will improve.

The “Navum Kurundu Mangallaya” was organized by the Galle Cinnamon Cultivators’ Association (CinCA) and the Galle office of the Department of Export Agriculture. CinCA is an umbrella organization for over a hundred small scale village level cinnamon groups or ‘Kurundu samithi’ established by the Department of Export Agriculture. CinCA’s president Geethal Wijeratne says the ‘Kurundu Mangallaya’ is organized annually to pay tribute to the divine powers while it also acts as a gathering of all those involved in the cinnamon industry.

Maha badda - the tax collector on top of elephant

Cinnamon puja to Devol Temple

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/120101/Plus/plus_02.html