Book Review- Indigenous Technology and Sustainability of Peasant Agriculture in Sri Lanka (A Case Study of the Uma Oya Basin)  -S. Godage and Bros. ISBN 978 955 30 7267-2, 339pp. :  By Sudath Gunasekera
Posted on October 15th, 2018

C.M. Madduma Bandara,  Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya, Angampitiya Road, Kandy

The latest publication by Sudath Gunasekara – A well-known writer and administrator on the above title, comes at a critical juncture in our commemorative history. This year – 1818, marks the 200th anniversary of the 1818 Freedom Struggle that was focused on the Uva region, which forms part of  this study. The writer himself drew some attention to this unforgettable historic event that devastated much of the land as well as the people and the fabric of rural society of this now backward region. The Uma Oya Basin which the writer has chosen as his primary area of study, straddles much of the devastated region Uva by the scorched earth policy of British Colonial rulers of that time. The author attempts to delve into the past, present and future prospects of this selected Upper Uva watershed not only from an academic perspective, but also with a certain element of  nationalistic fervour as well a deep-seated commitment  towards the sustainability of the Kandyan peasantry.

The book consists of three parts with 10 Chapters, beginning with indigenous technology knowledge systems, and sustainable agriculture. In the three introductory chapters in part one, author provides a current state of the art from a more theoretical perspective. While probing into a brief comparison of modern and traditional technologies, he outlines the main schools of thought on this subject. He exalts the value of ‘appropriate technology’ as enunciated by eminent thinkers such as Schumacher as a promising path towards sustainable development. The author also highlights the recent writings of Richard Smith who explains it vividly: Agriculture is in crisis…..There is a need to go back ‘to our roots’ for a more sustainable way of agriculture, which will support life of the planet –soil, plant, animal and man- in perpetuity. This line of reasoning followed  the more philosophical thoughts of writers from the East such as Masanobu Fukuoka as enunciated in his famous work on ‘One Straw Revolution’ much earlier in this debate.

It is somewhat disturbing to observe that, modern schools of agriculture seem to carry on regardless of these trends and truisms, often under  some form of blissful ignorance. Hardly any agricultural scientists seem to have dared to venture into the more philosophical aspects agriculture. It is gratifying to note that, the Author seem to have benefitted from the Land Commission (1989) in which I had the privilege to serve some time ago. At that time too,  we had the audacity to report that, a few years ago a visiting scientist from UK (Adam Pain) observed that, ‘our agricultural scientists are some of the best in the world, who could work from the first principles of science; But he also found that they knew little about agriculture’!.

Part two of the book is more descriptive, dealing with the physical setting of the areas of study, evolution of human settlements, and the pre-colonial irrigation works. Some of these descriptions contain rare information not readily available to average readers. Some examples are Welihinda ancient tank and the Bhoo Ela irrigation works. The latter conveyed water through an underground tunneling system, diverting water from  Upper Kotmala Oya watershed to Uma Oya in the eastern slopes. This may sound somewhat strange to average readers; but then the author fortifies his arguments with not only historical sources but also from folklore and folk poetry. In some of my own journeys into the hydrography of the highlands, once I came across a strange discharge record at Dambagastalawa Oya that forms part of the upper Kothmale watershed. It  indicated a water yield higher than the rainfall on the watershed!. At that time, I guessed that it could be either due to an underground source or simply due to an operational error by the gauge readers.

On another occasion, I was trying to determine the upper limit of paddy cultivation on the eastern slopes of Uma Oya as a practical exercise given to Peradeniya students. We found a general correspondence with the 2500 feet contour that demarcated the boundary reasonably well. Similarly, I was often wondering why the British used the 5000 feet limit to declare the highest elevation area as a ‘climatic reserve’ in 1873. Was there are a scientific basis for this decision or was it just arbitrary?

The third part of the book, which is comparatively short, dealt with the impact of plantation agriculture. Among other things the writer demonstrates the dire effects of deforestation and its negative consequences. As the forester Vincent noted, ‘in the drier Uva Country there were no forests left with the exception of small Namunukula reserve of some 600 acres’. With regard to deforestation for plantations some historians were inclined to believe that the forest areas cleared had relatively less human settlements and therefore the negative impacts were over exaggerated. On the contrary, as noted by the Land Commission (1989), many estate properties had their original names with prefixes or suffixes depicting their early  use for chena cultivation that, provided a vital source of food for villagers. In the writings of some benevolent British administrators such as Le Mersieur, starvation of people due to the dispossession of their chena lands in upper Uva had been reported.

Before concluding the book, the author attempt to develop what he refers to as the ‘Uma Oya Model’ showing the potential for wider applicability of lessons learnt from the agricultural vicissitudes of upper Uma Oya. This demonstrate his desire to link the past with the present and the future.  This chapter contains many valuable recommendations for the future obviously based on writers experience and some theoretical reasoning. However, their coherence and practicability need to be verified only through a professional modelling effort that could be used to test its working efficiency at the grass root level.

Finally, it may be observed that, the book is not only of academic value that stimulates thinking among scholars of agrarian studies, but also a guide to practical farming in hilly and sloping terrains.

C.M. Madduma Bandara,
Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya,
Angampitiya Road, Kandy

24th September 2018


One Response to “Book Review- Indigenous Technology and Sustainability of Peasant Agriculture in Sri Lanka (A Case Study of the Uma Oya Basin)  -S. Godage and Bros. ISBN 978 955 30 7267-2, 339pp. :  By Sudath Gunasekera”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Thank you Dr Sudath Gunasekera for your untiring work for the Kandyan peasantry. Hopefully decision makers will learn from the book. Irrigation schemes must be done for the benefit of the people. Sadly, not many schemes fall into that category today. Some are just means to earn a commission.

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