A farmer places a lit oil lamp into a little shelter, intricately woven out of tender coconut fronds and placed on a little pedestal. The lamp joins carefully plucked flowers and fragrant incense sticks within the little, makeshift altar. He steps back and the little group gathered bow their heads in reverence. It is a solemn ritual, one that has stood the test of time, to invoke the blessings of the gods and the Buddha for timely rains and a bountiful harvest of paddy. It is the beginning of an historic cycle but for this farming community in Wellawaya, this season brings something slightly different.
Sanctioned by the great monarchs of the island in centuries gone by, paddy forms the backbone of Sri Lankan cuisine. One only needs to journey to the outskirts of Colombo to see the beginnings of the verdant fields that swathe vast tracts of the country, and a road trip to Polonnaruwa, Ampara, or Hambantota will showcase the enormity of the agricultural industry that once fed Asia and earned Sri Lanka the moniker granary of the East.
Ancient customs and traditions governed paddy farming for hundreds of years, however, with rising demand and the allure of chemical fertilizers and pesticides bearing down on the paddy industry these traditions fell by the wayside to replaced by the vulgarities of commercialization. Unregulated to a great extent, these chemicals ran rampant as farmers added ever increasing quantities to their fields in a bid to increase their harvest. Rain washed the saturated fields of the excess and poured it into the streams and rivers. Eutrophication spread rapidly and beneficial insects and pollinators disappeared and by the time the realization of the extent of the catastrophe dawned, it was already too late.
The prayer complete, Tikiri Banda picks up a sickle and steps into the golden field. He is one of the 35 families who farm the 50 acres of paddy land that adjoin Jetwing Kaduruketha. His plot is next to a little canal that gurgles its way around the field – a location specifically selected. He grasps a handful of the ripe stalks, bends them in half and cuts them with a deft pull of the sickle. He hands them to me with a smile.
“This is kahawanu, a traditional variety of rice in Sri Lanka,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I never expected such a bountiful harvest.”
What makes Tikiri Banda stand out among the thousands of farming families in Sri Lanka? His field has been sown, grown, and harvested via traditional means, eschewing the carrot dangled by commercial fertilizer and pesticide. Hearteningly, Tikiri Banda is not alone. Him and several other families are at the helm of a drive to return Sri Lanka’s paddy to its former glory and breathe life into the traditional techniques that craft a delicate harmony between harvest and the environment – spearheaded in Wellawaya by Jetwing Kaduruketha.
“The process of convincing the village to give up commercial fertilizer and throw their lot with a traditional approach began at the temple,” says Ishanda Senevirathna, Environmentalist at the stunning agro-luxury resort. “It was not a simple task to break the cycle of chemicals that they had followed for generations, the advice meted out by the chief monk hardened their resolve to take the plunge.”
The hotel then organized monthly training and awareness programs to educate the farmers about the traditional farming methods and techniques, how to make natural fertilizer and pesticide, and the dangers and hidden costs of using chemical fertilizer such as health related expenditure and the degradation of soil nutrients which lead to more and more fertilizer needed.
“Each season Jetwing Kaduruketha provides the farmers with a fixed amount of money with which to buy seeds, labor, and necessary machinery. We doubled the amount for the families who agreed to switch to traditional methods and give up commercial fertilizer as an incentive for them, and to help buffer any fluctuations in harvest until the severely degraded soil returns to normal,” explains Naminda Rathnayake, the General Manager who joins us on the panoramic restaurant. “Initially, we did a trial run with 9.5 acres and it was a resounding success. This season we have dedicated 25 acres for traditional farming.”
The traditional farming push proved a learning experience for Jetwing Kaduruketha as well. While scattered plots of paddy land were utilized to make up the acreage in the initial seasons, Jetwing Kaduruketha now allocate plots closest to the water source to those who pursue non-toxic farming, ensuring that their fields are watered first and mitigating the chance of chemicals added to other fields washing into the traditional plots.
Understanding and respecting the deep-rooted connection between the paddy farmers of Wellawaya and Buddhism, the associates of Jetwing Kaduruketha planted a bo sapling (Ficus religiosa) amidst the paddy field. It stands not only as a representation of the religious beliefs of the villagers, but as a symbol of the health of the paddy where the natural host of insects, birds, and amphibians are welcomed and protected rather than indiscriminately destroyed by dangerous pesticides.
Despite a measure of early hesitance, a growing number of farming families have been won over by Jetwing Kaduruketha’s drive to create a healthier future. The hotel now conducts programs to spread the knowledge and experience gained among government institutions, schools, and other farming communities, promoting and advocating chemical-free farming and its innumerable benefits.
Tikiri Banda and his brethren are at the forefront of a revolution to turn back the clock on the unscrupulous practices of one of the island’s great industries and, in borrowing from the past, mold a sustainable and healthy future.
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