Waiting for the Pitta bird

By Ranil Senanayake
Traditional farmers in Sri Lanka would never prepare their fields until they heard the cry of the migratory Pitta bird (Pitta brachyura). The Pitta bird is a weak flyer that arrives in Sri Lanka in September, taking advantage of the northeast monsoon winds to aid its flight. The monsoon brings rain for the major rice cropping season in Sri Lanka, which explains why the farmer awaits the Pitta bird's signal to begin work. This tale illustrates how traditional farming methods relate to larger ecological phenomena. So do modern farming systems, whether we recognize this or not.

2500 years of water storage
Sri Lankan agriculture likely had its start around 543 B.C. By 200 B.C., after a century of Buddhist influence, many Sri Lankans had changed their eating habits to reflect their religious philosophy. As meat and fish were excluded from the Buddhist diet, the cultivation of fruits, nuts, and legumes became prevalent. The water storage system helped to ensure the productivity of these crops.

In the early 19th century, coffee plantations began to appear. Thus began the era of modern Sri Lankan agriculture, modelled after commercial plantations. The primary goal of the modern system, the generation of financial profit from the world market economy, differed from the goal of the traditional system, food sufficiency for the island's inhabitants. Tractors took on the energy role of water buffalo as a principal production input on plantations, and many defunct irrigation water tanks were refurbished for commercial use.

Of tractors and buffalo
The tractor is synonymous with modern agriculture. Animal traction symbolizes traditional farming methods. Indeed, the water buffalo has been part of the agricultural landscape in Sri Lanka for more than 1,400 years. Tractors and animal power are intended to reduce the demand for human labour to produce crops. Yet tractors have been criticized because they can depress local labour markets, reduce employment options for landless labourers, increase farm-level energy costs, and adversely affect soil structure. Moreover, when farmers substitute tractors for water buffalo, farm communities lose a source of milk, curd, and manure.

The water buffalo is also valued by Sri Lankan farmers because it is adapted to marsh conditions. Many Sri Lankan farmers deepen swamps or excavate portions of rice fields to create buffalo wallows. When the rice fields dry out during the harvest season, temporarily eliminating a habitat for various forms of aquatic life, the wallows remain moist all year. Wallows serve as "drought sanctuaries" for aquatic life forms that recolonize rice fields via annual floods. Sri Lankan farming communities benefit significantly from the fish that survive the dry season in rivers, lakes, and wallows. When the rains resume, the surviving fish migrate up waterways to breed and mature in rice fields during the growing season. When the water recedes at rice harvest, many fish remain trapped in the pools and are handily caught. The lizard Varanus salavator requires a similar breeding habitat, which is provided by well-maintained drought sanctuaries. The lizard eats poisonous snakes and crabs that inhabit lowland rice fields and burrow into rice bunds, weakening them. Furthermore, roof thatch in Sri Lanka is often made from woven coconut leaves. Green coconut leaves are pliable and easy to weave, but removing them reduces nut production. So, farmers soak the dry and brittle leaves, often in buffalo wallows. For people who cannot readily purchase roofing materials, the presence of buffalo wallows in which to soak coconut leaves is an asset.

When tractors replace water buffaloes in Sri Lanka, the need for farmers to maintain buffalo wallows is decreased, and the beneficial effects of the wallows are lost. Is this the necessary tradeoff in the course of agricultural modernization?

Don't blame tractors
The historical and practical aspects of Sri Lankan agriculture are ecologically complex. As modern technological innovations like tractors, fertilizers, and pesticides become available to traditional farmers, the criteria for their adoption ought to be sensitive to this complexity. Tractors are not to blame for this insensitivity, people are.
If the people involved in decision-making about agricultural development, value sustainable food production systems, they should consider how modern farming practices relate to larger ecological phenomena. Issues such as crop yield, soil quality, energy costs, biological diversity, economic viability, and the interrelationships of these and other issues are equally important.

When a water buffalo is removed from its wallow, does the wallow become just another pool of water? What then happens to the fish, snakes, and lizards, not to mention the people who sleep beneath coconut leaf thatch? Perhaps the Pitta bird knows.

- The ecological, energetic, and agronomic systems of ancient and modern Sri Lanka

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