25 July, 2021

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Not Rocket Science: Improving Basic Nutrition In Rural Sri Lanka

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

What follows has no pretense in the matter of bringing rural Sri Lankans into the First World overnight. However, the few elements of their lives that I intend referring to in this piece can be improved immeasurably without some revolutionary change in local administration or miraculous transformation of corrupt and venal officials who are the epitome of parasites on the helpless.
When I returned some years ago to the land of my birth and that part of Sri Lanka in which I grew up, what struck me most forcibly was the continuing poverty and deprivation that had worsened in the 30+ years I had been away from my home turf.

I kept hearing about and seeing underweight little children and a variety of poverty-related ailments that ended up in some local medic’s clinic where those attending departed with what is now the three-packet response: one packet of an analgesic medication, another antibiotic and the third that did (or did not) relate to whatever ailed the patient. Without exception, the little envelopes did not have the name of the drug on them but simply indicated the dosage and the time of administration. The patient went home and religiously took the medications and after a few days had elapsed, if the ailment had not gone away and the effects of the analgesics had worn off and the pain or discomfort returned, went to another doctor where the same process was repeated. While this sequence of events might not be the case in every instance, it certainly appeared to be in a majority of them. Not right and potentially dangerous? Darned right! The gross underfunding of our medical system is at the root of this problem and the solution obvious enough. When, on one occasion, I accompanied a patient to a hospital and he was sent to a bed in a ward and given some pills to swallow, the nurse in charge expressed surprise that we wanted some water from her to help him get the pills down the hatch and we had to “borrow” some bottled water from another warded patient to get this done! That kind of conduct, I would submit, is the direct result of the callousness that ensues from over-worked staff operating in grossly under-funded circumstances. Neither time nor space permit of the recounting of more instances of this kind of thing.

At the same time, in what might seem like a contradiction of the point made in the previous paragraph, I have seen staff in government hospitals displaying great patience and caring under the most intolerable of working conditions. But let’s not make any mistake: this situation is inexcusable and the fact that anybody who is “somebody” traipses off to Singapore or some other exotic (and expensive) location for so much as an in-growing toe-nail, often at state expense, only serves to further expose the enormity of the injustice perpetrated on the vast majority of our people.

Education for the rural folk of Sri Lanka provides another example of “them that have, get and them that don’t, go without.” Parents have either to come up with cash or provide labour in kind to repair school furniture, build retaining walls to stop buildings from sliding away to goodness knows where and, in general, maintain the physical infrastructure for the education of rural children who, obviously, cannot afford the luxury of being limousine-ferried by paid chauffeurs to euphemistically-titled “International schools.” I know, the new MR2 dispensation has increased funding to the education sector substantially, but that is hardly enough to play “catch-up” for years of what can accurately be described as neglect of criminal proportions of the sector. The short term solution to the straitened circumstances from which this sector has to recover would be at least to stop teachers acting as “education mudalalis” with their tutories and other money-spinning ventures. Unfortunately, the writing on our post-MR1 wall leaves little room for optimism with one of these very “education mudalalis” being recruited into Ministerial rank, of all things!

In terms of basic nutrition, the fact that villagers no longer are able to harvest what they took for granted around their homes puts a very real dent in their grocery budget. No one in our neighbourhood ever had to buy a tender jak (polos), the more mature fruit (Kos) or the ripe fruit in the form of waraka or vela in the market or the Sunday fair even if they didn’t have a tree growing in their home garden. There was enough and to spare for everyone. Today? Short of having a guard under every jak tree, it is an impossibility to protect this “fruit of life” from the hordes of monkeys which are being protected for quasi-religious reasons by the powers-that-be. This state of affairs is particularly interesting given the fact that recent research suggests that the jak tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) could be the answer to hunger in the tropical regions. Over two years ago the Guardian newspaper ran an article, proving very conclusively the potential for this easily-grown tree providing, in addition, very valuable timber, to make a huge difference in the nutrition of those who were significantly malnourished.

To add to the travails of those living around Kandy, it is a documented fact that some of the hordes of monkeys in the vicinity of the Dalada Maligawa are periodically baited with rotten fruit into the backs of lorries, the gates of those vehicles shut and the live cargo deposited, under cover of darkness, in communities outside that occupied by the (recently-re-elected) custodian of the Tooth Relic. When I first heard this narrative, I had suspicions that it was some kind of “urban fable.” However, the local constabulary disabused me of any such illusion, confirming that there were “city monkeys,” completely devoid of any fear of humans in our neighbourhoods!

Giant squirrels, dandu leynas? I would submit that they do even more damage than monkeys do to King Coconut crops in particular. They seem to love the sweet tender husk adjacent to the stems of the very immature nuts. As they gnaw away at the tender husk adjacent to the stem attaching the nut to the tree, they sever the stem and the tiny, immature coconuts fall to the ground. On they go to the next, and the next and the next…Soon the ground below the tree is littered with this debris and there are, literally, no coconuts to even reach a stage of maturity when their water might be consumed. I am aware of groves of a couple of dozen King Coconut trees from which not one “thambili” has been harvested in better than a year. In case, some coconut-tree owner has a means of “dissuading” this conduct by the Giant Squirrels, the farmer has to remember that they (the squirrels) have blanket protection under the law and cannot be harmed!

On the ground? What the monkeys don’t descend to consume and destroy, the wild pigs and porcupine take care of! One local wag suggested that we should seriously consider a chena-type cultivation of paddy because when the ground is moist after rain, the wild pigs, almost literally, plough it up and one could well sow some seed paddy there! Except that, in such an event, both the monkeys and the pigs themselves would probably devastate the succulent new growth as well!

The extent of wild pig damage is exemplified by the fact that they will even attack and destroy plantain trees and I hope that the staff of this publication will print a photograph that I shall send along with this piece as well as one showing what giant squirrels can do to a potential King Coconut crop.

Plantains? Forget it! Covering the bunches with flour sacks didn’t work so we covered the flour sacks with chicken wire-netting. Still no go because the monkeys ate every plantain on the stalk, ripping off both the chicken wire and the flour sack!

There is no edible substance that is safe from the depredations of the simian and other pests that are taking over the mid-country (at least) of Sri Lanka and while the results thereof seem insidious, at best, to city-dwellers, they are of enormous importance to the majority of Sri Lankans who live outside the urban centres, though even the urban centres, in many instances, are not spared the attention of our simian friends.

As someone receiving a pension from another part of the world, I am not totally dependent on the crops I have described for my survival. However, the produce of their home gardens is extremely important to my neighbours both for their nutrition and that of their families and as a means of supplementing their meagre incomes. The fact that those driving in, out and around urban Sri Lanka in their limos, treat this state of affairs as some form of exotic diversion from their day-to-day pursuit of “the better things in life” is hardly surprising. The challenge for the rest of us is to exert enough pressure on these parasites to at least begin to recognize the problem and, mirabile dictu, begin to start doing something about this state of affairs.

It is only the totally-blinkered who choose not to see what is happening in rural Sri Lanka and their pieties in response to animal damage of “they were here first” hardly deserve anything resembling credibility and need, as a first step, to be challenged with historical fact. That is certainly a fact on which our legions of very vocal conservationists need to pick up and do more than simply “voice concern” from time to time. The destruction being wrought by animal pests can and must be stopped without delay as a significant part of the economic recovery of the poor living in the countryside.

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Dear Mr van der Poorten

    The lot, of those of us fortunate to cross seas deep and wide, that run high and lonely, and to traverse lands rich and varied, and have our eyes opened, to find enlightenment, return only to despair. We have amongst us many with an inbred affliction to look and not see, to listen and not hear. To be led by the nose, by devious political leaders with cunning and chutzpah. New ideas pass them by in a rosy-pink haze of godayate magic.

    ‘Free’ education, and ‘free’ health, once upon a time, had value. Now the mantra is touted, but the investment that is needed to make these twin foundations of our well-being is as low as the powers that be can get away with. IF only we could have a Presidential diktat that those of the ruling party, and their hangers-on, needed to have their children educated at our state schools, and all get treated in our state hospitals, we will end under investment in these essential services overnight. IF only!

    As for the pests, they now enjoy the same status that our sacred cows do. Brave will be the politician who will come out and speak up for doing the right thing. The bleeding hearts in yellow will play to the gallery and denounce any initiative as a ‘foreign’ concept that has no place in our culture and religion. Meanwhile, WE the people, and our blessed isle, will continue to be a backdrop for the next ‘planet of the apes’.

    Meanwhile, those who despair, and can, will emigrate, those who are on the take will stay, and our wily politicians will carry on leading the blind in circles, stopping every now and then to throw them a crumb or two.

    If you have tears left for our blessed Eden, continue to shed them.

    • 0
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      Well said Emil! There should be selective culling of monkeys in Kandy where they are pests, but why do the villages whose crops are attacked not dispose of these pests?

      Also, talking of nutrition people should be EDUCATED by doctors and health practitioners on eating right and avoiding junk food like Maggi Noodles which is much advertized and sold in large volumes at every street fair in Sri Lanka by multi nationals. In the long run white wheat flour products are very bad for one’s health, are high in GLUTEN which blocks blood flow and causes diabetes, stroke, etc.

      The Sri Lanka health ministry should issue a warning with fast food advertisements, just as on cigarette pacs, that fast food is injurious to health, and should have a PUBLIC EDUCATION CAMPAIGN on this, especially given the advertising hype that the fast food chains use.

      Maggi noodles and white wheat flour products have little nutrition and are high in GLUTEN which blocks the arteries and causes many on the non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cholestrol.

      Rice – based products, particularly red rice are far more nutritious
      In fact people should be educated to avoid eating white flour bread, cakes pastries etc. which are the principle cause of diabetes and high cholestrol epidemic.

    • 0
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      This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 1
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    Emile,

    “I kept hearing about and seeing underweight little children and a variety of poverty-related ailments that ended up in some local medic’s clinic where those attending departed with what is now the three-packet response: one packet of an analgesic medication, another antibiotic and the third that did (or did not) relate to whatever ailed the patient.”

    Doctors are tired of trying to prescribe better nutrition for patients who are unable to afford it.

    A large part of the Triposha, soya flour, milk powder etc that the poor masses might receive ends up on the market because the family needs cash.

  • 2
    0

    Well said Emil! There should be selective culling of monkeys in Kandy where they are pests, but why do the villages whose crops are attacked not dispose of these pests?

    Also, talking of nutrition people should be EDUCATED on eating right and avoiding junk food like Maggi Noodles which is much advertized and sold in large volumes at every street fair in Sri Lanka by multi nationals.

    The Sri Lanka health ministry should issue a warning with fast food advertisements, just as on cigarette pacs, that fast food is injurious to health, and should have a PUBLIC EDUCATION CAMPAIGN on this, especailly given the advertizing hype that the fast food chains use.

    Maggi noodles and white wheat flour products have little nutrition and are high in GLUTEN which blocks the arteries and causes many on the non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cholestrol.

    Rice – based products, particularly red rice are far more nutritious
    In fact people should be educated to avoid eating white flour bread, cakes pastries etc. which are the principle cause of diabetes and high cholestrole epidemic.

    • 1
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      Gluten is also bad for the brain and brain health and causes brain fog and lack of concentration..

      White wheat flour is the worst.

      Red Rice flour the best.

  • 1
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    Emil, as one who lives in the hill country and in a rural environment, I absolutely empathize with your sentiments regarding the devastation caused by monkeys, giant squirrels, wild boar, different species of deer, hare and porcupine. And whilst the problems caused by them in my neck of the woods is not nearly as severe as yours is, it still remains a problem.

    As a ‘conservationist’, I also feel for the animals, whose habitat has either disappeared or is shrinking rapidly, so that they have no option but to feed on whatever is available, regardless of the threats posed by humans in the form of traps, guns and whatever else is used against them.

    Therein lies the dilemma!

    My dogs have put paid to several deer and hare and look longingly at the pair (yes, just two of them, thank goodness) of giant squirrels. The monkeys that come around occasionally looking for new habitat are shot at with an air gun that seems to scare them off, so none have taken residency. The boar, that were plentiful in the 80s and 90s have been decimated by traps and guns, so are few and far between. So my current situation seems to be much better than yours.

    The solution seems to be intractable, given the conditions and legal implications, so what do we do is the question!

    • 1
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      Cheers:
      One significant disagreement: the problem in this area has been,in fact, that the available habitat for the animals concerned has INCREASED by virtue of land that was plantation and had significant stands of such as jak has been TOTALLY destroyed and “mana” grass (Guinea A) has proved monstrously invasive and is of no use to man or beast.

      The JACKASSES who dictate agricultural policy and pander to the most irresponsible of Buddhist clerics and Custodians of the Tooth, choose, for reasons best known to them, to ignore what is staring them in the face and which every peasant in the hill country is aware of.

      • 1
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        Pooten

        Why don’t you approach your friends at Monsanto and resort to the use of Glyphosate (Round Up), your “kokatath thaile” (panacea) for rural ills.

        But don’t forget these white monkeys are likely to always come in search of you because “like begets like”.

        • 0
          1

          Jethro Tull:
          Holy mackerel, pretensions to literacy!
          The other (brown?) monkeys had me on their white van visiting list and probably still do and suffice it to say and it would take more than them and you, complete with your vacuous imbecilities, to intimidate me in case you haven’t noticed.
          Since you seem to understand some North American argot, I hope the horse you rode in on has survived your attentions since.
          P.S.
          It really would be interesting to see the likes of you without the abject cowardice of pretentious pseudonyms but then that would be like encountering the hunchback of Notre Dame at the Miss Universe contest, I suppose.

        • 0
          1

          Hey Pala, stop using the name of my band to post your inane comments.

      • 1
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        Emil, unfortunately for you, the destroyed plantations that have given way to Mana grass only means that “the increased habitat” you speak of has no value to wildlife, as there is no food for them. Hence their intrusion into areas such as yours.

        Time for the “jackasses” to get their shite together!

      • 1
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        Emil, I tried posting my response to you this morning, but looks like it hasn’t got through, so here it is again!

        Unfortunately for you, the destruction of those plantations combined with the invasion of Mana grass has created a habitat that is not of much use to the monkeys (in particular) and other species due to the lack of trees and other indigenous species that provide fruit and the ‘natural’ environment for their needs . Hence the intrusion into wherever they can find sustenance – regardless of the consequences to them. My situation, thankfully, is not as adverse.

        The less said about those “jackasses who dictate agricultural policy”, the better!!!

  • 1
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    Will the fake Jethro Tull (aka Mpala, etc, etc) stop using the name of my band to spew his usual venom?

  • 0
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    Mr Poorten,

    Thanks for the effort to force your Elite mates attention to the plight of our Dalits in your Durain plantation, as well the rest which in combination makes the most of our inhabitant population..

    But your penchant to use your shot gun on our wild life makes me a bit uncomfortable.

    Although your mates accuse our Sinhala Buddhists and their fore fathers of doing all sorts of nasties , they never ate Monkeys ..

    They ate Wild Boar , a few Echidnas and Thalayas.

    Other than that there was nothing serious like eating Rats , Dogs and even Alligators..

    Even that made me a little uneasy except the Wild Boar.

    I think you should look at crossing Wild Boar with our country pigs to produce a breed with less fat and more flavour , like the Iberian Black Pigs who make that mouth watering Spanish Ham.

    I don’t mind even putting some seed capital..

    • 1
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      Sumaney:
      When you talk about donating “seed capital” is it in the context of some kind of sperm-bank? If so, I can’t think of a better donor than you.

      • 0
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        Emil [Edited out], you wouldn’t believe the number of donations Sumaney has let slip through his hands.

        • 0
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          You are good at orals.. Aren’t you Paul…

        • 0
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          Paul:
          I am sure you didn’t mean that as a pun. Or did you?!

      • 0
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        No Mr Poorten…I am not advocating sowing oats mate.

        It is purely animal husbandry..

        I am serious , If you can pull a few strings and get a few acres close to Wipattu.it will be a sure thing.

        Even our Greenies will be happy because your Elite mates will be able to taste Wild boar at the local super market although it is only half wild..

        And spare our real Wild Boar which is an endangered species..

  • 0
    0

    Yes, Sri Lanka is becoming a great wildlife destination.
    However the increase in wildlife has become a serious threat to small farmer.

    Peacocks all over and beauty to see. However, they will eat any vegetable including chilli.

    Elephants trample and eat paddy and destroy Coconut and fruit tree.

    Monkey eat fruits and coconuts.

    Of 100 guava trees, we have not eaten one guava for the past two years.

    A neighbor with a large coconut plantation looses over 200 coconuts a day to monkeys. Thats a 1.5 lakh loss per month.

    I guess culling etc needs to be given some serious thought.

    • 0
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      @wilpattuHouse

      I am curious

      Are you (and your neighbor) so close so some National Park or something that you have Elephants, Monkeys and Peacock consuming your crop ?

      If so, however did you manage to get land in such areas because as far as I am aware, it is not easily doable unless one has enough “pull” and friends-in-high-places

      “Culling” is rolling off the tongue so easily !! Very Western fix for a problem that is created by Man encroaching on wildlife habitat

      • 0
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        maalumiris

        I live 4m from the borders of the Park.
        In between me and the park, a historic village with paddy fields.
        I bought it off a villager just after end of the war. I have no “pull” and friends-in-high-places.

        The Elephants etc are not from the Park, but expansion of local wildlife.

        Well I guess some culling either wildlife or humans will need to occur all over rural Sri Lanka. With both wildlife and human populations expanding something has to give.

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