Does Agriculture Justify Deforestation?

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 16 2021
Echo Does Agriculture Justify Deforestation?

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage 

In what may possibly become an even larger ecological disaster than that which has occurred in Wilpattu, the current regime had decided to assign what are identified as ‘Other State Forests’ in the care of District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries in each region the previous year. By doing so, a massive amount of local forests are now being encroached and exploited with very little care for the guidelines which instructed the authorities to utilise these forests ‘without harming environment, wildlife resources, and forests’. Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage informed Ceylon Today of the state of destruction that is ongoing within these forests as we speak. 

Unprecedented destruction 

“I’ve been getting calls from across the country of even Grama Niladharis instructing people to encroach on these forest areas. At the moment, there is news of ongoing massive destruction in Moneragala,” he said. 

Ceylon Today inquired of the legitimacy of the authority given by Government representatives to encroach these forest lands. 

Withanage informed us that according to the Circular which gave local authorities this power, they are instructed that the Forest Conservation Department must first research on an array of ecological factors such as existing elephant populations in the forest, fresh water, and location before giving the green light if that forest are can be used for development purposes. 

“However, before any of this research can be done, people are invading forests and clearing them with most of these invading parties being people with political influence and exposure,” he said. 

He added that there is an existing argument that many of these forest lands had been inhabited by humans before, but had been abandoned during the period of civil war. 

“While that may be true for some of these areas, that argument is false,” said Withanage. 

Hands tied 

Withanage informed us that, while all this exploitation continues, the relevant authorities have remained with their hands tied behind their backs. 

“Because politicians have nothing else to give in order to satisfy their voters, they instead allow them to exploit the forests, leaving the authorities in charge of protecting forests with no way to take action,” he said. 

The reason? 

You might be wondering as to why these people have been allowed to invade forests and create such wonton destruction, clearing out acres of forest lands that would take centuries to restore. Withange revealed that a vast majority of these invaders do so, on the basis of agriculture. 

Whether it be to escape poverty, to exploit or to follow the trend which was created during the season of lockdowns experienced the previous year, people have taken the call to use their green thumbs at the expense of critically important forest land, ignorant to the fact that by doing so they’re soaking their hands red. 

Valid reason or meaningless destruction? 

There exists a popular argument that the increased farmlands would benefit the country and its population, that it will help those in poverty to have a better quality of life. 

However, is destroying acres of forestland critically important for protecting the country’s biodiversity truly the only option we have in order to increase our capacity to produce food? Is there a way to increase crop yields with only the farmland we have today? Is the destruction being dealt to the environment really helping rural families to escape poverty? 

Ceylon Today reached out to Prof. Buddhi Marambe, from the Department of Crop Science in the University of Peradeniya to learn more. 

Productivity times two 

“If you want to increase crop yields without increasing farming area, there are two main aspects we use to achieve this,” explained Prof. Marambe. “The first is to increase the productivity of the land, or how much crops you can harvest from one square metre of land. The other is to increase the productivity of the plant, or the amount of crops produced by one plant.” 

Needless to say, in order to maximise the amount of crops produced with a limited amount of farmland, you would need to utilise both these two aspects to their highest potential. 

Myths busted, points proven 

Sri Lanka is a country where rice is a staple food that has been ingrained within our food and culture for many centuries. Needless to say, because of that, vast amounts of research and data has been gathered regarding this crop over the past few decades, making it a great example to discuss the potential of increasing crop yields with only limited farmland. 

In our discussion with Prof. Marambe, he provided valuable insight in busting one of the biggest myths related to agriculture and public opinion towards our agriculture today. He also shared a tale of tremendous Sri Lankan ingenuity, providing substantial proof that there is absolutely no need to clear out forestland to create more opportunity for farmers as well as increasing crop yields each year. 

Sri Lankan Rice: a story of ingenuity ahead of its time 

“I’m very sure there almost no other crop in Sri Lanka that has been given the extent of attention by researchers towards than rice,” he said. “If we consider records from the year 1940 on rice while compared to the population that existed at the time, we’ve had to import up to 60 per cent of the nation’s requirement for rice in order to feed our people that year due to various circumstances. In that day and age, our statistics reveal that farmers in that age harvested 0.65 tonnes of rice grains per hectare on average,” he said. 

Prof. Marambe pointed out various other reasons that possibly led to such a situation. However, this statistic is sufficient to prove that local agriculture is not at its weakest in the modern day, regardless of what the general public claims to be true. 

He noted that we were able to harvest such a yield using traditional methods and crops that have been raised and harvested for generations on end.

However, the need for producing more food to fill the bellies of a growing population is something that was felt throughout the world, which led to what is called a ‘green revolution’ in industrial agriculture. 

“The green revolution was mainly focused on wheat and corn,” explained Prof. Marambe. “However, before the green revolution overseas turned its eyes towards the cultivation of rice, Sri Lankan scientists realised the importance of finding ways to feed the hungry mouths of our country’s growing population and began researching on finding ways to improve crop yields since around 1953. The result was that in 1958, they were able to create a new hybrid variety of paddy to the farmers of Sri Lanka called ‘H4’. By doing so, we were able to increase our average yield of crops from 0.65 tonnes per hectare, up to 2.5 tonnes, which was a massive increase.” He shared. 

From then on, scientists have continued to research new varieties of paddy, creating new varieties to meet different environmental conditions in Sri Lanka. 

“The result of all these continuous efforts is that since 2011, we have always been able meet our national need for rice each year.” 

While this doesn’t mean that we are self-sufficient in rice, it is still a massive success for farming and agriculture in Sri Lanka nevertheless, with statistics saying that Sri Lankan farmlands harvest an average 4.8 tonnes of rice per hectare in 2019. 

Embracing technology the right way 

Prof. Marambe chalks this stellar achievement to the adoption of technology and new practices among the Sri Lankan farming community as well. With the increased use of machinery that drastically increase effectiveness and productivity, paired with modern agricultural science and research on higher yielding varieties in crops, Sri Lanka has managed to drastically increase its production of rice with very little increase in area of farmland, according to statistics mentioned by the Professor. 

“When comparing the area of farmland utilised in 1940 and 2019, we’ve managed to increase our average yield sevenfold without even doubling the area of farmland used,” he said. 

He believes that by embracing new technology and science without baseless exploitation while paying homage to our cultural practices, Sri Lanka can easily increase the production of food greatly without the cost of increasing the area of farmland. 

Avoiding misuse 

However, Prof. Marambe points out that ignorance and misuse has led to more harm than good within the agricultural sector of the country. Farmers, ignorantly hoping to get more yield by adding more than the necessary fertiliser, poison the land. The same can possibly be said about the ignorant use of insecticides, which has led to the destruction of crucial pollinators, harming the yield more than increasing it. 

There is much to be done 

Although there has been extensive research and action taken in regards to boosting rice production, Prof. Marambe noted that research on other vital crops have only been initiated recently, meaning that there is a lot more to be done. 

However, it’s not only research and technology that the professor pointed out to be crucial in making the best of the available farmland in Sri Lanka. He also pointed out the various systematic issues that impede efficiency in the agricultural system in the country today. 

He pointed out that the many Government organisations that exist in handling our agricultural capacities, are heavily fragmented and suffer from a severe lack of coordination. “Without proper communication between all organisations, it would be nigh impossible to provide practical solutions to the farmers who need the correct technology at the correct moment,” he said. 

“I believe that the country’s agricultural services should all function and be managed as one cohesive organisation,” he proposed. 

“A Government should be able to step forward and provide direction for farmers to gain accessibility to technology and the necessary resources such as fertiliser at the correct instances above all things.” 

What should be done? 

Prof. Marambe finds the current trend in agriculture that emerged as a result of the lockdowns as a positive concept, but a near-sighted and shallow one. 

“We can only expect a temporary result from such actions,” he said. “If such actions aren’t done with proper administration, planning, and foresight, we cannot continue in the long term.” 

He pointed out the importance of having proper channels of distributing information such as rainfall predictions and State announcements throughout the network of farmers in the country. 

“A farmer doesn’t have the network of connections that a businessman has, even though they both are working in search of profit,” shared Prof. Marambe. “It’s this lack of organised, cohesive back-end support which has discouraged people from engaging in farming as a profession.” 

Of course, lack of organised, cohesive support isn’t the only reason that farmers are facing hardship today. The Professor believes that there is much more that can be done in improving the human element within the agriculture industry. 

“The Government should give special attention to alleviating poverty. However, it was when the Government started considering and using farming as a supposed solution for poverty, that the farmer became stigmatised as ‘poor’,” he said. 

Prof. Marambe believes that using agriculture as a de facto solution in lifting up families stricken by poverty has helped neither the people, nor the industry. 

“You won’t get the yield you expect when you engage in agriculture without knowing the technology and proper expertise,” he said. “As a nation, we should promote agriculture only among those who have the knowledge, capacity and passion for agriculture,” is his view. 

The forests and the people 

Ceylon Today inquired of Prof. Marambe’s view on encroaching forest habitats in hopes of boosting agriculture. 

“Even if these regions are being used for agriculture, not every region and place is suitable to be used as farmland,” he pointed out. 

“Increasing your area of farmland alone cannot assist in promoting or increasing agricultural yield. By reducing the amount of forest land in search of more land to grow crops, you are dealing more damage to the land through the destruction of the forest. It is a better idea to use the land we have and are using and maximise our capacity to produce crops. 

“A politician may be persuaded by the people in a village when they ask for more farming land, to find a way to earn an income. But these lands should be given to people with the proper capacity to engage in agriculture and with a proper vision on the future of a country’s agriculture. It shouldn’t be done recklessly or on a whim, because by doing so, we would be left with only barren land in the end. The technology is there, we only have to utilise it with practicality and make these technologies accessible for the farmers,” he concluded. 

The technology is there 

“The Department of Agriculture is doing an amazing job with the very limited resources it has,” said the Professor. “I believe there will be a lot of change and advancements we can expect from the results of the past years of research conducted by scientists. We are currently conducting research on creating new variants of various crops and have succeeded in doing so that provide substantially higher yields with no need for added farmland . The technology, knowledge, and resources are already here. All what Government needs to do is have proper management and provide the right resources to the right people at the correct time. They must build the agricultural knowledge and capacity within the existing farmers while improving the Government bodies’ capability in management” 

The solution 

“Instead of increasing the number of farmers and farmland, we should be increasing the yield of each farmer with the land and resources they already have,” said the Professor. 

He also pointed out the possibility in exploring ventures in urban agriculture; something that is already being planned within the Colombo Municipal Council, Prof. Marambe informed us. Making supply chains that transport food from the farm to the households in Sri Lanka more efficient will also greatly reduce wastage of harvested crops and significantly reduce the need for more farming. 

After our discussion with Prof. Marambe, the evidence is obvious and overwhelming. 

By using modern technology and science to maximise productivity of crops with every square space we have and creating more efficient supply chains, cutting down forests to create more farming space is not needed. The technology is here and has been proven to be effective. Decades of statistics from rice farming has proven so. 

All this information is readily available for the Government to utilise, and yet, the destruction of forests to increase farmland continues. The tools to prevent the meaningless destruction of local forests are already in Sri Lanka and created by local scientists. We only have to make use of it.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 16 2021

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