It’s dark and musty. We’ve spent the past hour inside a cool earth abode. Built with mud bricks and braced with bamboo slats, the house is adjacent to the Sinharaja Reserve — a forest reserve and World Heritage Site with a name that literally translates to “Lion King” forest.
We’ve just finished walking a four-acre farm — the largest I’ve visited since arriving in Sri Lanka — and are sitting against the walls of the house. The rest of our group is out in the shade of a lemon tree. We’re enjoying young coconut and sitting in small groups, quietly talking strategies.
The land is old rubber and tea, poorly managed and degraded from decades of agrochemical use. The soil is baked hard, cracked, parched and compacted — much of it has not had the benefit of cover crop or vegetation.
Walking the land is a difficult, slow process. My role on this assignment is part extension officer, part cop, part teacher and trainer. It’s a complicated role that needs to be teased out carefully. Still, when there are problems, we need to begin to address them immediately and talk about them frankly.
We walk onto another farm, noting where erosion can be controlled by terracing. I point out plants that can be used to improve nutrients in the soil. In an effort to make my point clear, I speak loudly and gesticulate, asking the group if they can think of some additional mulching sources to protect the soil. The question remains unanswered. I write it down in my worn field journal and plan to come back to it later on our walk.
We head up river to the farm border, where part of a stream snakes through a rice field that abuts the land. A thick bamboo grove has been burned to expose the rice to sunlight.
I start out by asking the farmer, who owns part of the share of rice, how many farmers live upstream. There are thirty. He talks about the careful system of dams and levees; it turns out that some of these have been opened by wild boars looking for grub. Then we discuss sharing farmland, and the labour and conflicts that sometimes happen at the borders. Ultimately, we come back to the bamboo that has been cleared. This is not sustainable; the structure of the soil and stream near the bamboo cannot withstand heavy burning. The narrow path will erode; the soil simply will not hold together.
“Do you think the bamboo could make a good source of mulching material?” I ask. The group nods, slowly. I’m with a team of young extension officers. Many of them are well trained, but some are just learning. I need to be quiet and patient.
In the shade, I dig into my bag and turn sticky pages of yesterday’s notebook, warm from the sun. This portable plant press is filled with ideas — some well-formed, some rough — and sketches to illustrate these ideas to farmers. Like any good researcher, I’m constantly piecing stories and practices together, and building on knowledge.
At the end of the day, we find ourselves on another farm, one shaded by pepper and fruit trees. Some of our group sits on mahogany planks; I’m perched on a rubber log. I ask the farmer to show us the chemicals he’s using to defend against weeds. From his house, he carries a banned agrochemical. It’s clear by the label (not to mention the root structure of the weeds) that he’s using the banned chemical on this farm. Now, it’s my turn to be a cop. I explain the safety issues related to this chemical – it’s a chemical listed on the Pesticide Action Network’s Dirty Dozen list.
The farmer nods; the extension team I’m working with asks for more information. I try to fill in gaps. We sip more coconut milk and chat quietly. Someone from our team mentions the rice fields, and the fact that the water can contaminate the farms we visit. Looking at my notes, I’m reminded that some gem miners stand in this contaminated water for hours each day. The issues get more complex; it’s clear that we’re in the lion’s den.
I remind the group that we can take things slowly. We finish by walking out through a long series of connected tea gardens. The most majestic garden is bordered by pepper, palm and beetle nut trees. A Frangipani tree shelters an old family grave site. Some of the flower petals fall as we are talking, creating a nice, open atmosphere.
During our long series of goodbyes, we talk about how the young agriculture extension officers might strengthen their farmer groups. At the same time, a small dog settles beneath the shade of my feet. It brings calmness to the scene. The issues are complicated, but by walking and talking and working with the land we can solve them.