Business Times

Passionate champion of small farmers and big ideas

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardena looks back at the amazing life of inventor and scientist Ray Wijewardene

When scientist, engineer and inventor Ray Wijewardene passed away on August 18, aged 86, small farmers worldwide lost an ardent champion who spoke out on their behalf for half a century. His death also deprived Sri Lanka of a passionate and outspoken public intellectual who stood for rational debate on matters related to natural resources and energy.

Ray Wijewardene

Educated at Cambridge and Harvard universities, Ray had a multi-faceted career. He was trained in three branches of engineering -- aeronautical, mechanical and agricultural -- and later received higher degrees in business administration and science from three countries. But he introduced himself simply as a farmer and mechanic ‘who got his hands dirty’. He had strong opinions on tropical farming in which he was a world authority.

In 1955, Ray designed the world’s first two-wheeled, hand tractor, which was soon mass produced by Landmaster Ltd in Nottingham, UK. It was powered by a custom-built 4.5 horse power engine that used either petrol or kerosene as fuel. Maintenance was made simple, its producers claimed, so that an ordinary farmer could overhaul it without specialist tools. For the next few years, Ray travelled widely in tropical Asia, Africa and Latin America promoting the Landmaster to farmers.

Those were the early years of the ‘Green Revolution’ when new seeds, chemicals and tools were being mobilised to boost agricultural productivity. Having ridden the early wave, Ray was one of the first to question it. A turning point was in 1964, when he presented his Landmaster experience to a class in agri-business at the Harvard Business School. Buckminster Fuller, the noted American architect, designer and inventor, asked him from the audience: “Did your tractor mechanise tropical farming - or just the buffalo?”

That simple question left Ray speechless, but triggered a complete reorientation of his thinking. “Ultimately, the tractor only mechanised the buffalo, and that too, not very well,” he later acknowledged. “It didn’t have the reproductive capability of the buffalo! Nor could it produce milk as the buffalo did, or fertilise our fields! So our initial attempt to introduce tractors was indeed a big mistake.”

Ray soon recognised the limitations of certain new farming methods being promoted by development agencies and agro-chemical companies. “All along in the Green Revolution, its promoters focused on maximising yields through massive (external) inputs. But they forgot that what the farmer wants is to maximize profits, not necessarily yields!”

Optimise, not maximise

With his training in engineering and business management, Ray looked for practical solutions to the developing world’s interlinked problems of agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. He neither demonised modern technology nor romanticised traditional practices. Instead, he looked for ways to optimise – not maximise - the available land area to produce more food to feed growing human numbers. Ray worked for many years for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in South East Asia, and was later the principal scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria. In all his postings, he was known for assessing policies and technologies from the small farmer’s perspective.

He was concerned that agricultural research often did not involve or consult the beneficiary farmers. The problem, he used to say, was that researchers who engaged in studies and experimentation did not earn their living from farming. In other words, there was insufficient self interest to get things right and keep them affordable.

To enhance productivity in farming, he encouraged a return to the first principles. According to him, two basic problems that farmers everywhere grappled with were managing weeds and maintaining soil fertility. After studying how Nature tackled these twin challenges, he advised: mimic the tropical forest as much as possible in the farm yard.

To do this in tropical hilly terrain, he promoted a technique called Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), originally developed in the Philippines. It involved terracing of land, heavy use of leaf mulch, and re-introducing perennial trees into rain-fed farming, as was done traditionally.

He worried that many types of "bare-soil" and open-field farming, suitable for temperate countries, had been indiscriminately adopted in the tropics. In reality, the climate and soils in tropical countries required a different approach – one that mixed multi-year tree crops with short-term cereal plants in the same field. He supported this argument with historical evidence that our tropical forefathers had less cereal and more tree crops in their diet.

“Even rice was (originally) a temperate crop, but it has now adapted well to the swampy valleys where water serves ideally to control weeds,” he said. He was concerned with the profligate use of water in tropical rice farming: on average, 20 tons of water was used to produce one kilogram of rice. Three quarters of this was for suppressing weeds in the paddy fields, and not for any physiological needs of the rice plant. In the 1990s he cautioned, “Water is rapidly becoming the most expensive herbicide in the world — and freshwater is increasingly scarce!”

Ray wasn’t fundamentally opposed to external inputs to farming to boost soil fertility and yields. But he frowned upon heavy reliance on agro-chemicals that indebted farmers and created environmental problems with runoffs. He once asked in a media interview: “We have multinational companies supporting…the extensive use of chemical fertilisers. But who supports cow-dung? Who extols the virtues of the humble earthworm?”

He continued: “For us in Asia, these elements are far more important. Indians have recognized this, but we still haven’t. As long as our agricultural scientists are trained in the western mould of high external input agriculture, this (mindset) won’t change. Cow-dung and earthworms won’t stand a chance – until some western academic suddenly ‘rediscovers’ them…“

Ray returned to Sri Lanka in the 1970s, but retirement was never an option. On his estate in Kakkapalliya in the North-Western Province, he experimented with new ways of rain-fed farming, agro-forestry and bio fuels. He did field tests for dendro thermal power that burns fast-growing trees like Gliricidia and Tithonia to generate electricity. He also achieved the country’s highest coconut yields (thrice the national average) without using any chemical fertilisers: inter-cropping with nitrogen-fixing Gliricidia provided all the nutrients for his coconut palms.

Bird’s eye view

At various times, he headed statutory bodies such as Sri Lanka’s Tea Research Board and Inventors Commission, and was a board member of public and corporate sector institutions concerned with agriculture, science and technology. He served a full term as chancellor of Sri Lanka’s technological University of Moratuwa. While he stayed clear of politics in these high profile positions, he always spoke his mind – which sometimes landed him in controversy.

Environmentalists once faulted him for working with Ceylon Tobacco Company in promoting SALT in the hill country (which work won an international award in 1997 from the UK). He asked his critics to go beyond just complaining: “If you don't want farmers to grow tobacco, come up with equally attractive packages of extension and marketing for farmers to grow other crops!”

Ray’s uncommon thinking partly stemmed from his ability to combine the ground truth with the bird’s eye view he enjoyed as a pilot. In the 1980s, for example, he was the first to detect a haze building up over urban centres of Sri Lanka due to rising levels of vehicle exhaust emissions.

In the last decade of his life, he was preoccupied both climate mitigation and adaptation. He built a small dendro Power plant to show how dependence on imported oil could be reduced by literally ‘growing our energy’. The national dendro plan that he drew up with P G Joseph would not affect food production (uses only marginal land), can generate many rural jobs, and is carbon neutral.

Ray grasped the magnitude of the climate crisis, but also saw it as an opportunity. As he summed up in our last media interview in mid 2008: “Climate change challenges us to rethink all our energy and land use practices – something we should have done years ago." Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene first met Ray Wijewardene in the mid 1980s, and later collaborated in various science communication projects.

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