de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Seeds of Doom. LMD. November 2007. Page 130.Volume 14, Issue 04. ISSN 1391-135X.
Our poisoned land, and what can be done to turn the tide.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne comments on our poisoned land- and what must be done to turn the tide.
In August of this year I attended a lecture by Dr Ranil Senanayake, one of a series held at the Barefoot Gallery in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Natural History Society. Senanayake is a man of may parts- in fact, so many parts that he is a scientist and environmentalist that evades being pigeon holed into a label. This particular lecture by him was one with serious environmental over-tones and, predictably, it drew a small audience. I cannot chide anyone for the poor attendance. People don’t like to listen to serious issues. They would rather have a touch of entertainment with a lecture on glamorous animals like leopards. There is also the other factor of fatigue- too many warnings being issued each day of how we will fry and die a slow death with global warming…
Listening to Senanayake, it became clear that Sri Lankans will suffer an earlier death from poisoning. He opened his lecture with a series of stark, graphic images of what Sri Lankans have been doing to the ‘roof’ of our island. Hill tops which were once verdant and lush have now been reduced to earth colored exposures of soil. There is precious little organic matter left in the soil. The fertile topsoil has been lost to wind and water, following the vegetative cover being removed. This was initially done to plant cash crops such as coffee and tea- and more recently, for crops such as potatoes. Tea was not very good for our highlands and its wildlife, but the final nail in the coffin seems to be new crops such as potatoes. Each year the soil has to be tilled and fertilizer poured in. Each time the soil is loosened by tilling, it is made even more vulnerable to being washed away after every monsoon. With the organic matter depleted, the only way the land can be cultivated is by adding fertilizer.
The poisoning begins, in an ever-increasing vicious circle. We add more fertiliser than is really needed. I read a statistic which claimed that the average framer applies seven times more fertilizer than what is actually needed. Rather than granting subsidies for fertilizer, the economic burden on them could be reduced much more by educating them on the appropriate use of feritilizer. But with the quantum of the subsidy being a deciding factor at elections, it is unlike that sound advice- rather than subsidies- will be offered.
So the poisoning will continue. One the new crops takes root, it will need insecticides and herbicides. More poison, more toxic run off. These will percolate through the soil poisoning the water table. Some will flow to the sea leading to an accumulation of organic pollutants in the tissues of fish we eat. The largest animal that has ever lived on the earth, the Blue Whale, will also accumulate these poisons in its tissues, assimilated through the food chain.
The wave of destruction on the roof of the island is twin pronged: First there is the liberal application of toxins; secondly, the removal of the physical structure of the forest cover. Clouds need to be seeded using Di Methyl Sulphides (DMS) to act as nuclei. The DMS in the atmosphere comes from bacteria which live in the stomata of plants or from plankton in the oceans. With the forests cut down, the mechanism for seeding rain is broken. The remaining patches of forest now receive less rain. What rain does fall flows rapidly to the seas carrying the top-soil, unearthing the sub-stratum beneath, peeled back a monsoon layer at a time.
Listening to Senanayake, I could not help being struck by the parallel between former US Vice-President Al Gores’ campaign to awaken a planet to the dangers of its destructive habits and Senanayake’s own warning of an island in trouble. The two issues converged. Our loss of the forest cover results in less and less sequestration of carbon. The less Carbon which is sequestered, the higher temperatures will rise. Poisoning our roof (and water table) fuses with the planetary issues of global warming.
All is not lost, though. Senanayake offered a suite of pragmatic solutions. Analog forestry allows farming whilst creating the architecture and ecological functions analogous to a forest. Perhaps before it is too late, subsidies- if any- should be channeled to encourage practices such as analogue forestry which can turn the tide back. For fertilizer subsidies are helping to accelerate our own doom.
Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.