By Emil van der Poorten –
While listening to the explosions that are a constant part of life in the Kandyan foothills as are the depletion of our springs, and the and complete degradation of a once-lush environment, one cannot but hark back to a time when residents of Sri Lanka took for granted the steady food supply off the land.
Jak (Artocarpus integrifolia) in the form of polos, kos, vela and waraka was simply a part of the day-to-day reality of the diet of everyone beginning from the poorest peasant to the richest member of the “gentry”(radala). Its cousin, breadfruit as well as its more exotic kinsman, wild breadfruit, were only marginally less common as a part of a peasant diet.
The variety of root crops such as sweet potato, manioc, the various alocasias (ala-kola) that grew in a mid country garden were only limited by the amount of moisture in any part of that ground at any given time.
The now-fashionable leaf vegetables were there, literally, for the picking.
The list was endless.
And today? Even those with jak trees in their home gardens are reduced to buying what is sometimes touted as the answer to the problem of hunger in the tropics, off the roadside vendors in some small country town or off the pavement reserved for pedestrian traffic in an urban centre. And that is simply a statement of bald fact, not some exaggeration in technicolour by a city-dweller to whom rural Sri Lanka is some kind of romantic fantasy.
The macaque monkeys, the population of which has, without exaggeration, exploded, defy the old belief that when the food supply of a species diminishes, their fecundity declines to an equivalent extent. I never tire of telling the story of how, as the pre-teen son of a land-owner, I would leave home early enough to be under the trees in the single patch of jungle on the family land-holding, before day-break. Me and my trusty little .22 rifle were on what amounted to a monkey-safari in Central Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then). However, I do not recall one instance when one of these excursions was successful! Today, the macaques will, literally, husk coconuts while sitting in the crown of a palm, and throwing firecrackers at them only works on the first couple of occasions! And I’ve heard, times without number, how much more aggressive troops of macaques are to unaccompanied women than they are to men. In fact, many women rubber-tappers in this area will not go out in the gloom of daybreak without a male companion.
Not only is the breadfruit targeted, the simians absolutely relish the tender shoots (“dhel ballo”) of this wonderful source of nutrition. The resulting defoliation causes die-back of the branches and, ultimately, the death of the tree. This is a simple statement of fact and, except where there are human beings on duty throughout the daylight hours, shooing these pests away or throwing sticks or stones at them, the breadfruit trees die. Our original population of a dozen trees has now been reduced to a couple, off which, if we are lucky, we get a few fruit that can be curried or chipped and fried.
The only fruit that appeared to be safe from pest-depredation was that of Lunumidella (Melia dubia). That olive-resembling fruit has a thin pulp covering that is bitter as gall. Recently however, I saw a few of these fruit completely shredded and was informed that this was the work of a hungry porcupine. Take a nibble on a lunumidella seed sometime and you’ll know what “bitter” really means!
Recent examination of why some of our most luxuriant pepper vines were dead revealed that the earlier-mentioned porcupines had been in the process of eating the roots of and ring-barking the gliricidia on which the pepper vines were growing, inadvertently or otherwise, biting right through the vines in the process. Not a good outcome for someone trying to make a few rupees off one of our few remaining spice assets!
The bases of the Gliricidia poles on which we grow our vanilla and pepper not only attract porcupines seeking sustenance from the bark and the roots, but the leaf mold and dry leaves we place at the base of these uprights for the benefit of our vanilla and pepper vines acts like a magnet for the wild pigs looking for grubs as well as edible bark.
The pig population has grown beyond belief in this area and the explanation I was given for this made eminent sense.
During the time of Sri Lanka’s last agricultural “revolution” there was an exponential growth in the use of insecticides and weedicides, without any attention being paid to the downside of their misuse.
The fresh-water crab population has not only pretty near disappeared, it has taken the jackal population with it because these crustaceans comprised one of their favourite foods and a (dead) crab population lying around, literally, for the picking, was too good to resist. Result? Not only the decimation of the freshwater crab population but that of Sri Lanka’s only wild canine! In the better than dozen years I’ve been back in the Kandyan foothills I haven’t heard what used to be the familiar howl of a jackal even once. It’s hard to discount that kind of circumstantial evidence.
The connection between what I’ve just described and the explosion in the porcine population is that, simply put, the only natural predator that our wild pigs had was the jackal and once our nariyas disappeared it didn’t take long for our ooras to take over the countryside, particularly when they were offered endless grass cover as the trees disappeared and that most invasive of (exotic) grasses took over, the ubiquitous Guinea “A,” better known as “maana.”
The destruction of trees providing a dense enough canopy to break some of the erosive qualities of the often-times deluge-like rainfall has resulted in what little topsoil there was originally being washed away, the springs drying up to the point that a neighbourhood squatter colony was recently reduced to drawing their drinking water supply from our meager, though carefully-husbanded, spring supply of water. This is part of the land that supported several hundred resident workers with each set of “lines” having its own separate supply of water adequate for consumption and for the daily bath, which is almost a religious observance in these parts!
As a constant reminder of where national priorities lie we hear the explosions of better than half a dozen granite quarries that supply aggregate for highway construction and larger rocks for that ecological abomination, the Port City of Colombo. If ever that old rural chestnut was appropriate it is as one observes this obscenity. It certainly is “Colombata kiri, apata kekiri!”
What price “progress?”
Granite is not going to grow back. The sand that is being mined from our streams is not going to be replenished from a supply from the heavens above. The springs that have disappeared thanks to abuse of the land surface, hugely aggravated by the incessant blasting that makes the very controversial fracking that is a part of oil exploration in some parts of the world pale into insignificance, are not going to miraculously begin gushing H2O again.
What is being done amounts to permanent damage that is not going to be alleviated, leave alone repaired, in eons.
That is “progress?”
We might still be able to salvage something out of this corruption-driven mess and even a little bit saved is better than nothing.
Stop this megapolis-mania even now. The only people it benefits are the “commission-kaakkaas” attached to the underbelly of this nation.
Start saving what little there is to save before it is too late, not forgetting that Sri Lanka’s hinterland is home to the vast majority of its population
Let me end this piece with what I hope you will consider an appropriate anecdote.
A veterinarian with international experience gathered colleagues of similar background and laid out a project for monkey control (chemical sterilization?) which in no way contravened Buddhist precepts. The document was handed to the Minister of the Environment on whose desk it has sat for lo these many years, unacknowledged, leave alone acted on.
And who, you might well ask was and is the Minister of the Environment? Two-word answer: Maithripala Sirisena.