Ray Wijewardene: Passionate voice for small farmers and earthworms

Ray Wijewardene on the set of 'Sri Lanka 2048' TV show, June 2008: Cautiously optimistic about the future...

The small farmers, buffaloes and earthworms all over the world lost a true friend and spokesman this week when Lankan scientist Ray Wijewardene passed away.

Ray packed multiple interests and pursuits into his 86 years of life – including engineering, building and flying light aircraft, and Olympic-level competitive sailing. But he was happiest being a farmer and mechanic, and had strong opinions on the subject. He was vocal about misguided priorities in tropical farming his native Sri Lanka – and across the developing world.

He was especially passionate when speaking about small farmers in the developing world, with whom he worked many years of his international career as an expert on tropical farming systems.

Educated at Cambridge and Harvard universities, and with impeccable technical credentials, he was no stranger to the ways of academia. But he remained a sceptic about the efficacy and benefits of agricultural research — on which hundreds of millions of development funding is invested every year.

The main problem with agricultural research, he used to say, is that those who engaged in such studies and experimentation didn’t have to rely on farming for their sustenance. There was not enough self interest. In contrast, the small farmer had to eke out a meagre existence from whatever land, water and seeds or livestock she had. In her case — and a majority of small farmers around the world today are indeed women — it’s a stark choice of innovate or perish.

Thai researchers and farmers looking for field solutions (from Living Labs TV series)

The heroic efforts of small farmers were rarely recognised by the rest of humanity who consume their produce — and the farmers themselves are too busy planting crops or raising animals to speak on their own behalf. This is where Ray Wijewardene came in: with his education, exposure and talent, he made an outstanding spokesman for small farmers all over the tropics.

In the 1960s, as the inventor and promoter of the world’s first two-wheeled (Land Master) tractor, Ray travelled all over Asia, Africa and Latin America working with tropical farmers.

For half a century, Ray has championed the lot of the small farmer at national, regional and global levels with UN agencies, academic and research groups, corporate sector and governments. But in later years, he questioned the wisdom of trying to mechanise tropical farming, and considered that phase of his career a ‘big mistake’. He dedicated the rest of his life to researching and promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture, on which he co-wrote an authoritative book in 1984.

Ray had the rare ability to ask piercing questions without antagonizing his audiences. He was an activist in the true sense of the word, but one whose opinions were well informed and grounded in reality, not rhetoric.

This comes through very powerfully in an extensive media interview I did with Ray in 1995, which I released online this week as a tribute to Ray — who has been my mentor and friend for almost 25 years.

At the outset, Ray points out where the Green Revolutionists went astray: “All along in the Green Revolution, its promoters focused on maximizing yields through massive inputs. But they forgot that what the farmer wants is to maximize profits, not necessarily yields!”

We then talked about the particular challenges faced in tropical farming, and the mismatch of temperate farming systems promoted widely in the tropics where climatic and soil conditions are different. One of Ray’s main concerns was agriculture’s profligate use of water – more for weed control than to meet the strict biological needs of crop plants themselves!

Ray, a grandmaster in summing up complex technical issues in colourful terms, said at the time: “Water is rapidly becoming the most expensive herbicide in the world — and freshwater is increasingly scarce!” [A decade later, I would go on to script and executive produce a global TV series called Living Labs on just this issue: how to grow more food with less water, or get more crop per drop.]

Ray wasn’t fundamentally opposed to external, chemical inputs to boost soil fertility but he advocated a mix of natural and synthetic options. In our interview, he asked: “We have multinational companies supporting — directly or indirectly — the extensive use of chemical fertilizers. But who supports cow-dung? Who extols the virtues of the humble earthworm?”

He then added: “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 ‘re-discovers’ them…

It was Indian science writer and environmentalist Anil Agarwal who asked me, sometime in mid 1995, to interview Ray for Down to Earth, the science and environmental fortnightly magazine published by his Centre for Science and Environment. As Anil told me, “In Ray, you have not only one of the topmost agricultural experts in the developing world but one of its most original thinkers.”

By this time, I’d known Ray for almost a decade, and been exposed to several of his multiple facets. But each encounter with Ray was enriching for me, so I immediately seized the opportunity. The usually media-shy Ray already knew of and respected Anil, which helped.

Down to Earth is part of Anil Agarwal's legacy

The interview was audio taped over two long sessions, and I remember spending many hours transcribing it. I had to check some references with Ray, who cooperated wonderfully. I’ve been trained to observe the word limit set by editors, but in this instance, I sent in the full length Q&A, for it was so interesting. Down to Earth issue for 31 October 1995 carried a compact version, skillfully distilling the essence of that long exchange between Ray and myself — one of the most memorable interviews among hundreds I’ve done during 25 years of work in print and broadcast media.

How I wish the exchange was also preserved on audio tape! Indeed, it’s a small miracle that the original transcript survived for 15 years. The soft copy was lost in a hard drive crash of 1998, but fortunately I’d taken a full print-out. I’m grateful to a former colleague, Buddhini Ekanayake, for retyping the entire interview in mid 2008 when I considered releasing it in the wake of the global food crisis. That somehow didn’t work out, but the soft copy was ready at hand for me to rush to the editor of Groundviews on the day of Ray’s funeral. All I added was a new, 500-word introduction which tried to sum up the Ray Wijewardene phenomenon.

Read the full length interview with Ray Wijewardene, published for the first time, on Groundviews.org:
Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung?

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One Response to “Ray Wijewardene: Passionate voice for small farmers and earthworms”

  1. BigAgri Says:

    Who cares for small farmers or earthworms? Both are endangered already and soon they will only be found in a few remote corners of the world and in text books or history books. Look at what has happened to small farmers and family farms in the US and UK. They have been bought up by big farming companies. As the Third world develops the economies would no longer be able to support or justify so many small farmers and they will be driven out. It is only a matter of time before this happens, so get your romanticized eulogies ready for the small farmer’s demise!


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