Bangkok, Thailand, 15 Oct 2012 -- Today Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn presented FAO awards to four Asian farmers from Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Thailand for their outstanding achievements in agriculture and food production.
A model organic farmer and founder of Lanka Farmers Forum, from Sri Lanka, Pathiraja Wijekoon Bandara
Pathiraja Wijekoon Bandara, a 58-year-old from Kandy district in Sri Lanka is a farmer by profession. But he’s a warrior in spirit.
Starting about two decades ago, tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka have been falling ill and dying from kidney disease. In Kandy district alone, Pathiraja says, 45,000 people were suffering from kidney ailments.
Although public health officials were divided over the cause, some attributed the deaths and illnesses to fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture. Pathiraja did not have any doubt that they were correct. “These chemicals are poisons,’’ he says.
While health officials debated, Pathiraja took action. He knew there were alternatives to using chemical fertilizers and pesticides because of the Mahaweli Ganga Development Programme, a government-run integrated rural development effort. In the past, he thought organic farming was an interesting idea. As the kidney disease toll mounted, he realized it could be a life saver.
A former village headman before retiring to concentrate on farming, Pathiraja used his leadership experience to organize those who work the land. With just a few people to start, he founded the Lanka Farmers Forum. Its purpose was to advocate for an end to the use of chemicals in farming, spread knowledge about and promote organic agriculture and to create better opportunities and living standards for farmers.
From a few hundred farmers in one district in 2001, the Lanka Farmers Forum now has 9 000 members in nine districts. And it is still growing. Its members harvest 24 varieties of organically grown traditional Sri Lankan paddy that are brimming with nutritional and medicinal properties.
With technical assistance from FAO’s Telefood programme, the Forum taught women members to parboil rice, adding to its value, and skills for cottage industries. A micro-credit programme has also been established. Had the farmers not been organized, the chances of receiving that kind of aid and technical assistance would have been remote.
Asked why he decided to step forward and fight for his fellow farmers, Pathiraja says simply, “it is who I am.”
But his fight is far from over. Pathiraja says he won’t rest until he can expand the Lanka Farmer’s Forum to include all of Sri Lanka’s 6.5 million farmers.
And he says he won’t rest until chemical fertilizers and pesticides are banned in Sri Lanka. “The government must listen to the voices of farmers,’’ he says. So far, he admits, the authorities have been unresponsive to his call for a ban. But, he says, he will keep fighting for it.
In the meantime, he continues to spread knowledge about organic farming to new districts and more people, because the more farmers that are on his side, the easier the fight will be. It’s a fight to protect their health, their environment and a path to a better life. And in the forum’s cooperative spirit, it can only be won together.
The award ceremony was part of today’s Asia-Pacific observance of World Food Day - the 67th anniversary of FAO’s foundation in Quebec, Canada on 16 October 1945.
HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn presided over the ceremony. The Thai minister of agriculture and cooperatives, other senior Thai government officials, Bangkok-based members of the diplomatic corps, UN organizations and civil society were in attendance.
The observance also included a welcome statement by Mr Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific and a keynote address on Agriculture in a growing economy and the role of agricultural cooperatives: Focusing on Japan’s case, by Dr Hisao Azuma, former Vice Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan and the former Senior Vice President of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and now Senior Advisor, Japan Association for International Collaboration of Agriculture and Forestry (JAICAF).