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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All You Need is Love: When the world sang one song for HIV…

We must love one another or die...


Our planet is one, but our world speaks and sings in a myriad tongues — and that’s part of our cherished cultural diversity. Once in a while, however, it’s good to see that cacophony morph into a symphony when the world shares a few moments — in awe, horror, love or happiness.

It happened last week when the world sang for an extremely good cause. On 7 December 2009 at 1:30pm GMT, Starbucks invited musicians from all over the world to sing together at the same time to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS in Africa. In one breathtaking moment, musicians from 156 countries played “All You Need is Love” together. The live participation of most nations together to sing this song became a Guinness world record.

Watch now, as musicians from all around the world come together and share a song.

My former colleague Buddhini Ekanayake joined this global production by coordinating the input from Sri Lanka. “Personally, I am really glad to take part in this event together with my team, on behalf of Watermelon Creatives,” she says on her blog, where she shares some info and images.

You can still join in by lending your own voice to the Starbucks Love Project.. Watch streaming video from countries around the world and then join in by singing All You Need is Love yourself. For each video submitted, Starbucks will make a contribution to the Global Fund to help fight against AIDS in Africa. You can also help increase the Starbucks contribution to the Global Fund by submitting a drawing to the Love Gallery.

The global sing-along is part of our continuing efforts to help fight AIDS in Africa. In just one year in partnership with (RED), Starbucks has generated money equivalent to more than 7 million days of medicine to help those living with HIV in Africa.

“All You Need Is Love” is a song written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon/McCartney. It has been associated with path-breaking initiatives before. It was first performed by The Beatles on Our World, the first live global television link. Watched by 400 million in 26 countries, the programme was broadcast via satellite on 25 June 1967.

Passing the buck or passing the planet? Saving the Planet is everybody’s business!

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma

This was one of the most memorable cartoons drawn by W.R. Wijesoma, Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent political cartoonist (and my one-time colleague). If I remember right, it first appeared sometime in the late 1980s in ‘Mihikatha’, Sri Lanka’s first all-environmental newspaper.

Alas, both Mihikatha and Wijesoma are no more among us. But the message in this cartoon is more timely than ever before.

“Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!” was the emphatic message from Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl who addressed over 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters on 22 September 2009 for the historic Summit on Climate Change.

Passing the ball – or buck – is something that governments are good at. Most governments are so narrowly focused on the now and here, and sometimes rightfully so, that they have neither the time nor interest for medium to long term scenarios. As I wrote earlier this week, “it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.”

This is where citizen action comes in. Governments are not going to save this planet from environmental catastrophes; if at all, it would be the ordinary people. This is the premise of TVE Asia Pacific’s latest Asian TV series, Saving the Planet.

Where does the buck stop?

Where does the buck stop?

Governments, experts and big corporations alone cannot solve all these problems. Real change requires changing how each and every human being lives and works. Education becomes the biggest key to achieving environmentally sustainable development at local and global levels.

Filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia, Saving the Planet profiles groups working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action that will help humans to live in harmony with the planet. They often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

We tried out a creative idea for the series opening sequence (20 seconds), an extended version of which became the series trailer (see below). It was planned and filmed in all the six countries where the stories came from — Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. In each country, our roving director-producers filmed different individuals – young and old, men and women, in all their Asian diversity – passing around an inflated ball made to look like planet Earth.

I know my colleagues had fun filming these sequences, and back in our studio, it was also great fun to mix and match these various shots to create the apparently seamless passing around of our planet in peril. (Who said planet saving cannot be fun?)

Watch Saving the Planet trailer (1 minute):

Now it can be revealed: our original inspiration came from an unexpected source: the world’s largest media corporation, Google! In one brainstorming, our then production coordinator Buddhini Ekanayake remembered an open challenge that Google had made online just before introducing their email service, GMail. Google asked people to “imagine how an email message travels around the world” using a video camera.

In all, Google received over 1,100 clips from fans in more than 65 countries around the world — each one of them a different creative idea, playing with the iconic Gmail M-velope.

“The clips you submitted were amazing and it was hard to choose selections for the final video,” Google said when releasing the outcome of this collaborative video project.

See Gmail: Behind the Scenes (Final Cut)

Read more about the GMail collaborative video on Google’s blog

Watch all submissions Google received for its GMail promo video.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Talent borrows. Genius steals.” You can decide which of these we have done!