|Joseph Thanapalasingham in his aubergine field which he has cultivated with the help of Oxfam's organic farming training in Kalmunai. Howard Davies|
Joseph Thanapalasingam smiles as he stands amid the 150 aubergines he has planted on his 3-acre garden in Kalmunai, Ampara district. Just beyond are several small manioc plants, and chili seedlings. Further on in the smallholding are long beans, pomegranate and spinach-like leaves.
It is a vision of fertility where less than three years previously there was devastation.
“Since I converted to organic methods, my income is the same, but my outgoings are much lower, so my net income is higher,” Joseph explains. “I no longer have to buy chemicals. The food is healthier and costs the same as inorganic produce. I think there will be a good market for this in future.”
The wiry 52-year-old has become a key figure in Oxfam’s attempt to spread the message about alternative agricultural technology in this part of Ampara district and so improve the incomes of market gardeners.
Joseph is one of 18 ‘lead farmers’ in Kalmunai who have been trained in low-cost alternative agricultural methods so that they can in turn train members of their own groups of producers.
Joseph and the nine other members of his group will use part of his garden as a model farm to teach them about organic methods, from composting to mulching and water conservation, while Oxfam will provide further training, cash grants and tools, thanks to funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.
This tale of productivity and hope is in stark contrast to the scenes of destruction that this garden witnessed in December 2004.
“It was a Sunday and I was working on my plot with my laborers. Suddenly, we heard people shouting and screaming, so I went out onto the road to see what was happening. I saw the wave approaching, so I told my workers to run away. I then went to the school where children were meeting and told them to flee.”
Joseph saved many lives with his quick thinking that day, but his plot was not so fortunate. Of the 150 coconut trees in this smallholding, only 30 survived the onslaught. His crops of manioc, chili, beans and other vegetables were destroyed.
“I relied entirely on agricultural production for my livelihood and everything was gone,” he remembers.
At first it was impossible to grow anything on this ground, badly contaminated with salt water. But gradually, starting with more resilient plants, he began to cultivate the land again.
Now lush greenery has returned in abundance. Joseph shows us the essential tools of his trade: good home-made compost which enriches his sandy soil and his ‘tonics’ – which act as fertilizers and pesticides. The secret ingredient? “Cow dung and cow urine,” he explains “There is a plentiful supply in this area.”
So innovative has been this intervention that Oxfam is now working with the district government to incorporate low-cost alternative methods into its five-year agricultural planning process.
“We expect to see soil fertility enhanced, investment costs come down, a reduction in water usage, increase in yields and a consequent rise in incomes,” explains Krishnaswamy Gopalan, Oxfam program manager in Ampara. “The district government has seen our success and asked us to scale up in partnership with it.”
Roy Probert, Oxfam International, Information dated:December 2007