Member of Parliament Ven. Aturaliye Ratana Thera who represents the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a constituent partner of the UPFA, has taken a hard line against agro-chemical companies in the wake of the controversial claim by a group of researchers that the weedicides and pesticides used by local farmers contain arsenic. His position contradicts that of the Government which has dismissed the “arsenic theory’.
Aturaliye Ratana Thera
Speaking to the Sunday Times on his campaign he described the damage caused by excessive use of agro-chemicals as more dangerous than LTTE terrorism and vowed to continue his fight despite obstacles. Excerpts:-
While being a constituent partner of the UPFA, you have taken a position contrary to the government on the “arsenic” issue? Why have you done that?
This is a common problem facing people irrespective of political differences. We have no right to be partisan on this issue nor ignore it. It’s true we came to Parliament representing a political party but as members of the Buddhist clergy we represent all the people. We cannot shy away from our responsibilities. That is why we have been in the forefront of taking this issue before the people.
This is a controversial issue and there are many powerful detractors who dismiss the arsenic claim?
Many stories have been spread to undermine this campaign. They say divine intervention has been used as the basis for the research but in reality the presence of arsenic has been proved in a scientific manner. Stories are being spread by companies who are in the agro chemical business that the scientific community is split over these findings. This is not correct. .
These companies have good organizational strategies. When we highlighted the issue of the arsenic content in paddy we were accused of being part of “wheat flour terrorism.” (pan piti thrasthawadaya) while they portrayed themselves as patriots. We introduced this phrase and now thy are using it on us. What we want to do is put pressure on the government. We did this by first speaking to the President, relevant officials and ministers. But since these attempts have not yielded results we have decided to go before the people. We will not stop our campaign.
You must be under various pressures as you yourself said the companies you are taking on are powerful?
We are not afraid. We have nothing to lose, nothing to hide. When terrorism raged we were not frightened. We stuck to our position whatever the threats were. The people sent us to Parliament to speak up on their behalf.
Isn’t the agrochemical influence on the farming community also a form of terrorism?
Actually that is real terrorism. Agro chemical terrorism has already done more harm to this country than LTTE terrorism did. This earth that belongs to our future generations has been poisoned, our water has been polluted, and the people are falling sick. Around 20,000 have died and another 20,000 are dying. It is not even instantaneous death like death by a terrorist bullet. The farmer has been made dependent on these agrochemicals.
|Part of the campaign launched by Ven.
Aturaliye Ratana Thera.
Pic by Sanka Vidanagama
These companies have taken control over the entire agriculture sector in the country in a subtle manner. The Agriculture Minister is helpless. They control almost the entirety of the seed market.
No political party has spoken out about the harm this has done to the country. It’s an unfortunate situation.
They speak of situational issues such as the cost of living or corruption but no one talks about policy changes.
The people have embraced us since our campaign began. They know we are not lying.
What kind of action do you expect from the government?
We have to agree on one policy for agriculture putting aside political differences. That policy has to be directed to stop over-dependency on agro chemicals.
What are your comments on the stand of the government and the opposition on the campaign?
I have asked for a debate for an adjournment motion in Parliament on this issue but it has not been granted. Any party can bring up such a motion but despite the fact that this issue has been talked about so widely in the country, neither the JVP nor the UNP have brought it up. The reason is that they want these companies to fund their future election campaigns. Then they use that money to fool the people by way of advertisements and propaganda work. We did not come using advertisements. We did not take money from companies.
Isn’t breaking the grip of these big companies easier said than done?
It is difficult but not impossible. We were told terrorism could not be defeated but we did it. We can succeed in this too.
What has been the reaction of the farmers who are the main victims of the over use of agro chemicals?
They don’t understand that there are viable alternatives to agro-chemicals available to them. It is especially the duty of the state media to assist these people to learn about the alternative forms of farming. I have asked that one hour of TV time be dedicated each week to educate the farmer on how to move away from agro chemical use but it has been ignored. This is because the companies are powerful. But we will soon show that the people are more powerful.
Can you cultivate successfully without using agro-chemicals?
Yes it is possible. There are natural forms of controlling weeds. These have been experimented in an 80 acre extent of land in Giri Damana in the Welikanda area. We have also introduced a natural and simple method to control pests. Crushed “kohomba” seeds scattered on the fields act as an effective pest repellent.
How will you curb the heavy dependency on fertilizer use?
One way is to use compost fertilizer but there is an alternative to that as well. It is necessary to create good bacteria in the soil to keep it fertile. A professor at the Peradeniya University is now working to create these bacteria. The farmers can do it themselves by using a simple method which is used in India. This requires ten kilos of cow dung which is the usual amount of droppings of the animal for a day, two litres of the cow’s urine, two litres coconut water and some soil. These are mixed and allowed to ferment for three days by which time the good bacteria is formed.
This mixture is enough to fertilize one acre of land. What the government should do is start some farms using these natural practices and propagate them via state media. There are farmers who use these methods. They must be interviewed and their experiences shared with the entire country. What the government is doing instead is giving them subsidized fertilizers which costs the state coffers Rs. 50 billion annually. That money too is going to big companies. Before the fertilizer subsidy was introduced the farmers were slowly moving towards natural methods of pest and weed control. Why can’t that Rs. 50 billion be given to the farmers?
You say the seed market has been taken over by big companies? Can you elaborate?
Earlier we had a system where seeds were distributed through co-operative societies. We need to re-introduce this system. We also need to improve the efficiency of the Paddy Research Institute in Bathalagoda. The import of seeds is a waste of foreign exchange. We can create hybrid forms of seeds in Sri Lanka. Our seed farms have been sold almost entirely to the privet sector.
You have founded the National Movement for Dharmic Agriculture to wean farmers away from the use of agrochemicals and in addition you visited the “Seenigama Devalaya” on Thursday as part of your campiagn. Are you invoking the help of Gods to assist you in your campaign?
When people feel helpless, it is natural for them to invoke the blessings of Gods. There is a belief that divine intervention can impact earthly happenings. We are going to experiment with that too. People believe that there is a God who resides in Seenigama who punishes wrong doers. If there is such a power, we want to join with those forces. Those who ridiculed the researchers for having sought the assistance of the Gods have now become frightened because of our visit to Seenigama.
You met the President and Prime Minister. What do they think of your campaign?
To them I am just another individual. When we started the march to Mavil Aru, we were accused of putting the government in difficulty. After the war was won, there was no mention of us. This is a historic struggle. The world is watching us. This battle is not only for Sri Lanka but for countries such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. If I have to face death in this quest for the good of the people, I would consider it fortunate.