the Pitta bird
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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