Letters from Sri Lanka: Ranjith de Silva – Bastion of Biological Defense
During my time in Sri Lanka, although concentrating on Sarvodaya’s widespread work and influence in the country, I also took a few hours out to visit Ranjith de Silva, a man whose work I applaud.
In 1995 the European Patent Office in Munich granted patent rights to the US Department of Agriculture and the multinational W. R. Grace and Company for an antifungal product derived from the neem tree — a plant referred to by Indian villagers as ‘the village pharmacy‘. This made it possible for the corporation, one with a rather checkered environmental history, to market their ‘Neemix’ bio-pesticide and to hold monopoly over the substance — one that has been used by traditional farmers for thousands of years….
Ranjith de Silva stands in front of his neem tree — now safe from
corporate clutches with the help of his influence.
All photographs © Craig Mackintosh
For many thousands of farmers in places like India and Sri Lanka, this legal action threatened their farms and livelihoods. More, such a patent, if quietly ignored, promised to usher in an era of subsequent patents on other substances and methods derived from neem, or any other plant or animal for that matter.
In the year 2000, a David and Goliath battle between small scale traditional farmers and the corporation resulted in the patent being revoked. It was deemed that the subject of the patent was not unique or new to the world, so patenting rights for the company were undeserving. The neem tree was once again the property of all of mankind — not just a few of them. Not satisfied with the decision, the multinational appealed, countering with the spurious argument that information on processing and use of the substance had never been published in a scientific journal…. (It seems that fifth century Indian peasant farmers had forgotten to publish their methods in modern journals.) Thankfully the patenting office rejected this shameful argument, and the appeal was quashed in 2005.
At the 2000 hearing in Munich, alongside notable activists like Vandana Shiva, stood Ranjith de Silva. Ranjith, then a director of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), rightly argued the "moral illegitimacy of a patent that disregards centuries of traditional local knowledge".
The victory gained by Ranjith and others set the stage for further patent revocations — like Monsanto’s attempted bio-piracy of an Indian wheat variety with particularly good baking characteristics.
I wanted to meet the man and find out more about his work. Securing an invite to see him was easy; finding his Gami Seva Sevana Ltd.’s 16.5 acre organic research and demonstration site wasn’t quite so. After zigging, zagging and u-turning through a maze of single laned roads in hilly, dense tropical fauna near Kandy in central Sri Lanka, I finally shook hands with a smiling, quiet-spoken Ranjith in his book-strewn office.
With office workers busily coming and going and answering calls, I ask Ranjith what was the primary objective of his work. He responded succinctly: "We are finding and promoting alternatives to agribusiness."
Ranjith’s facility, an NGO, has 29 staff (8 farmers, 4 campaigners, 4 trainers, 1 researcher, 5 office workers and 4 kitchen staff), working to assist Sri Lankan farmers in the practical implementation of low-input, sustainable farming methods.
A biogas installation at the facility. For more on biogas installations in
Sri Lanka, see bottom section of this article.
A former accountant, Ranjith’s disgust with destructive monoculture systems and the predatory nature of the businesses that profit from them led him to form Gami Seva Sevana Ltd. (GSS) — which now experiments with and develops practical solutions that enable Sri Lankan farmers to maintain and increase their land’s productivity whilst keeping them debt free and resilient. GSS gives demonstration and training seminars and encourages farmer networking to share knowledge and seeds.
Downhill composting makes turning the heap easier/faster
Bottom of the hill and process
Over 500 farmers in the immediate surrounds of the facility, and more than 2000 across the country, are directly participating with GSS and benefitting from their work and influence.
Several composting methods were on trial
The lettuce rack at right saves space. Large bamboo is halved to form growing
gutters. Nailed to supports, the rack becomes portable, space-saving, and can
straddle plants that are more sun-intolerant.
Many kinds of growing and mulching systems were on trial
The site demonstrates how maximising diversity dramatically
decreases pest and diseases problems and input requirements
Their research even extends to rather difficult ‘pests’ like monkeys and elephants. It is an anathema in this largely Buddhist nation to kill these animals, so it is important to find non-violent solutions. Ranjith’s team have experimented with certain tree species that elephants appear to be scared of. In the case of monkeys, the team has caught a few and recorded their frightened shrieks to play back through megaphones as a deterrent to further encroachment.
The main source of funding for the team’s work was through international donations. I asked Ranjith if the recession was shrinking contributions. He confirmed it was.
Imagine if we could see research stations like this being funded to work for people and place in every bioregion. If our tax dollars can go up in smoke and blood — being dropped on far away nations in the form of bombs — surely we can use them to rain solutions on a weary planet and its increasingly desperate humanity.