Sowing rice at the proper time

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					Sowing rice at the proper time
Why farmers in Sri Lanka follow the lunar calendar

G.K. Upawansa
During the 2003/2004 north-east monsoon, a group of farmers in north-east Sri Lanka supported by the Compas
partner ECO produced convincing proof that improved traditional rice cultivation can produce higher and more
secure yields than standard farmer practice. The improved traditional practice, also called Nawa Kakulama,
follows the natural rainfall patterns determined by lunar cycles and monsoon winds. This form of rice cultivation
requires only half of the irrigation water normally needed, and can provide an answer to the chronic food security
problem in Sri Lanka.

                                                     dom is based on centuries of observa-      ping. The pests normally build up dur-
                                                     tion of the natural rainfall rhythm,       ing the dry months February to March in
                                                     which follows the monsoon winds and        the north-east monsoon season, and
                                                     lunar cycles.                              August to September in the south-west
                                                                                                monsoon season. When rice is sown
                                                     Traditional sowing practices               according to the traditional sowing cal-
                                                     There are twelve lunar months; the         endar, it can be harvested before the
                                                     first lunar month falls around April.      period of highest pest damage.
                                                     Soon after the full moon of the fifth          Apart from vigorous growth and less
                                                     month, in September, a few showers         pest damage, there are other advan-
                                                     are generally experienced. After these     tages to this system. Farmers indicate
                                                     rains farmers do a very light tillage      that rice which flowers mid-January
                                                     operation. As the rains are expected       will give highest yields. The coldest
                                                     again at the end of the sixth month        nights of the year are from early
                                                     (October) or at the beginning of the       January to mid-February. When nights
                                                     seventh month (November), farmers          are cold or short, there is a more posi-
                                                     sow dry both wetland and upland rice.      tive balance in the plants between pho-
                                                     They sow the 4-month rice varieties        tosynthesis and respiration. This implies
                                                     during the last 7 days of the waning       that crop yield will be higher.
                                                     moon, if this falls around late            Experiments by the Department of
                                                     September or early October. They sow       Agriculture have confirmed this obser-
                                                     3-month rice varieties during the last 7   vation.
                                                     days of the waning moon if this falls at
                                                     the end of October or early November.      Modern rice cultivation
          The climate in Sri Lanka allows for two    At the same time they also sow other       These important elements were not
          cropping seasons. The rainfall pattern     upland crops.                              given due consideration when modern
          in Sri Lanka is influenced by the mon-          There is ample time to complete       agriculture was introduced in Sri Lanka.
          soon winds of the Indian Ocean and Bay     sowing when they sow dry, and the          The area with irrigated agriculture has
          of Bengal, and is marked by four sea-      seeds germinate with the first rains,      expanded as the result of construction
          sons. The summer rainy season from         which last for a few days. After a dry     of new dams and the use of deep wells.
          mid-May to September results from the      period of around two weeks the north-      Rice is the main crop under irrigation.
          south-west monsoon winds, bringing         east maha monsoon rains begin and          The new schemes are controlled by irri-
          moisture from the Indian Ocean. This is    continue till the end of the tenth         gation authorities. To overcome the
          followed by a dry period, or inter-mon-    month, around the end of January. The      uncertainty of the weather, rice sowing
          soonal months, in October and              eleventh month is dry and suitable for     is delayed until sufficient water has
          November. The winter rainy season          harvesting the rice crops. Before the      accumulated in the tanks. This creates
          from December to February is the           first lunar month, around mid April,       the need for an irrigation system to
          result of the north-east or maha mon-      three-month rice varieties are sown for    water the crop during the dry tenth and
          soon winds, bringing moisture from the     the second cropping season.                eleventh months, and harvest is
          Bay of Bengal. Another intermonsoon                                                   delayed until the twelfth and the first
          dry period occurs from March till mid-     Advantages                                 lunar months (March and April).
          May. During intermonsoon periods, spo-     What is described above is the tradi-           During this period, however, occa-
          radic rains lasting two to four days are   tional way of synchronising the planting   sional showers as well as heavy insect
          normal.                                    calendar with the natural climatic         infestations threaten the rice crops.
              Over the centuries rural people con-   rhythm and lunar cycles. The sowing        Moreover, the water collected in the
          structed small water tanks, to harvest     periods fall before the onset of the       reservoirs is not enough to provide for
          water for irrigating their low lands. In   monsoon rains. Rice sown during this       all farmers in the schemes during the
          the uplands they practised a combina-      period will be more vigorous in growth,    whole season. This has made it neces-
          tion of agriculture and forestry.          leading to a higher yield, than rice       sary to drill wells and use ground water
          Traditional farmers say ‘kal yal bala      sown later. Besides, the incidence of      for irrigation and domestic use, which
          govithan karanna’, meaning ‘do sowing      pest and disease will be lower com-        has resulted in dangerous lowering of
          at the proper time’. This farmers’ wis-    pared to that of conventional rice crop-   the ground water table and desertifica-

14                                                          COMPAS Magazine October 2005
                                             Box 1 Comparing Huruluwewa (traditional practice) with Eppawala (standard practice)
tion of the region. This phenomenon
can be observed in the northern parts
of the Anuradhapura district.                Year                           Huruluwewa*          Last date of        Eppawala      Last date of
                                                                                                 sowing                            sowing
Rice is an upland crop
There is another important factor            2002/03 yield                  80 bushels/acre 15 Dec.2002              105 b/acre    15 Dec.2002
explaining the success of Nawa
Kakulama. Modern scientists are con-
vinced that rice is best produced in         2003/04 yield                  100 b/acre           15 Nov.2003         76 b/acre     15 Dec 2003
wetland conditions. But of the approxi-
mately 10,000 different rice varieties       Yield difference               +25%                                     -25%
not a single one is an aquatic plant.        between 1st and 2nd
Rice has the extraordinary capacity to       season
grow under inundated conditions, but           * According to the information available from Dept of Agriculture
this is at the expense of its yield. Under
inundated conditions a large number of
roots die, at the cost of the growth of      have taken place.                                   No doubt the clear skies may also have
the shoots and the grains. But, in order         In this experimental case, however,             contributed to high yield, due to the
to combat weeds, the soil tillage and        the irrigation authorities released the             high intensity of photosynthesis. But
irrigation practices are directed at         small amount of water there was,                    shortage of water caused much more
retaining water in the field during the      which was just sufficient to wet the                damage under standard farmer practice
entire life cycle of the rice plants.        land after sowing. With great difficulty            in Eppawala than in the case of
     In Nawa Kakulama rice is treated as     they managed to keep the crop going                 Huruluwewa.
an upland crop. Soil tillage is minimal      with a minimum amount of water.                         The rice was sold for prices
with only one wetting, and pre-germi-        Farmers also started this cultivation               between Rs. 16.00 and 18.50 per kilo.
nated seeds are sown through a mulch         season with a rain-making ceremony,                 Normally prices are less than the guar-
cover which controls nearly all weeds,       known as wasi piritha. Wasi means rain;             anteed price of Rs 15.00 per kilo. In
and conserves humidity. Irrigation is        piritha is Lord Buddha’s preaching in               this season the farmers could sell their
applied far less than in conventional        verse form. The objective of this ritual            produce at a higher price because of
rice production. In this way the soil        is not merely to get good rains, but it is          the very low national rice production.
stays aerated, roots can grow deep,          also performed for a problem-free har-              The farmers enjoyed the highest yield
and less than half the amount of irriga-     vest. As there was severe drought dur-              of rice since the inception of the
tion water is used.                          ing this 2003/2004 season, on 8 January             scheme, as well as the highest income
                                             2004 the farmers also performed anoth-              ever. Estimated value of the harvest
Large-scale demonstration                    er rain making ceremony, called Bodhi               was more than Rs. 340 million.
Farmers following Nawa Kakulama have         pooja. To their great surprise there
already demonstrated its benefits on a       were heavy showers throughout the day               Conclusion
small scale. The 2003/2004 north-east        on 9 January, which saved the crop.                 If timely sowing is implemented at least
monsoon season provided a good oppor-            As the harvest was uncertain and                in the dry zone, we can expect an aver-
tunity to prove the benefits of this sys-    farmers expected low yields they did                age yield increase of around 25%.
tem, not on small plots but in the           not apply much fertiliser. No insecti-              Moreover, the use of agro-chemical
10,400-acre Huruluwewa irrigation            cides and fungicides were used because              inputs can be reduced, lowering the
scheme. This irrigation scheme experi-       there was no pest or disease incidence.             cost of production. The irrigation water
enced serious problems of water short-       Herbicides were used to some extent.                saved in the process (more than 50%)
age: of the more than 100 seasons since      At harvest, the farmers were surprised              can be used primarily to improve the
1950, only 27 had been fully successful.     to find the yield was 25% higher than               depleting ground water level. Secondly,
Often only a part of the land within the     the year before (see box 1).                        it can be used to support cultivation
scheme could be irrigated.                                                                       done throughout all of the irrigation
    In 2003, ECO conducted 42 local          Comparing the results                               schemes during both seasons. Presently
seminars about Nawa Kakulama for the         In consultation with Professor Thattil,             some 40% of the potentially cultivatable
farmers of the Huruluwewa scheme,            the director of the Post Graduate                   land within the schemes is not used.
stressing the importance of sowing at        Institute of Agriculture, ECO conducted             This would mean another significant
the proper time. For the north-east          a survey, comparing the experiment on               improvement for national rice produc-
monsoon season in 2003, the officers         the Huruluwewa scheme with the                      tion and thus for our food security.
and farmers decided to follow the Nawa       3,000-acre Eppawala Block of the                         These outcomes show the potential
Kakulama approach, and sow the rice          Mahaweli irrigation scheme under the                of Nawa Kakulama and endogenous
before 15 November 2003. This date           standard cropping system. In both                   development in Sri Lanka. We can learn
coincided with the Wap-kaluwa, the           schemes the irrigation pattern was simi-            from our traditional farming methods,
period of about seven days after the         lar due to the lack of irrigation water.            which were developed on the basis of
seventh full moon day in April. At this          The difference between the results              natural rainfall patterns, monsoon
date there was only 14 feet of water in      in Huruluwewa and Eppawala, and                     winds and lunar cycles. By improving
the tank, which is not sufficient to raise   hence between sowing at the proper                  these methods with modern elements,
a crop. Under normal conditions this         time according to the Nawa Kakulama                 we can further enhance their potential
decision would not have been made.           principle and standard farmer practice,             and provide an answer to the chronic
Instead they would have waited for           is very clear. In Huruluwewa there was              food security problem in Sri Lanka.
more rain, and until the reservoir had       an increase in rice production of 25%
become sufficiently full. As hardly any      compared to the 2002/03 season; in                  E-mail:
rain fell in 2003, no cultivation would      Eppawala there was a decrease of 25%.               Address see page 43

                                                                COMPAS Magazine October 2005                                                      15

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