Thursday, February 13, 2014

Farm Visits

Monsoon season is over, which means I was able to return to the Sinharaja Rainforest to try to do some more research. Of course, even when it’s not monsoon season, the Sinharaja is still a rainforest and precipitation is not uncommon, but the afternoon showers (downpours) were refreshing and cooled everything down quite nicely. (You may notice that I seem to mention the weather fairly often in this blog, which I think is because I’m starting to miss winter. I realize that it’s been unusually cold at home and that many of you who are reading this probably wish you were living on a tropical island, but as someone who has always lived in New England, I appreciate winter and to not have any snow or ice this year is weird and a little bit sad. It’s a struggle to even keep ice in our freezer because we lose power every so often and end up with puddles in the refrigerator.)

During my nine days in the Sinharaja region, I split my time between Nilmini Estates in Morawaka and small tea and mixed crop gardens in Deniyaya, a town close to one of the official entrances to the protected rainforest. I visited many farms, spoke to farmers and villagers, and spent a day hiking in the jungle. I learned about organic tea production, about the work being done to convert smallholder tea fields to organic, and about the flora and fauna of Sinharaja. I also learned that traveling by myself can be very lonely but also rewarding. I enjoyed spending time and staying with people in these rural villages, even if I sometimes felt isolated and a bit out of place. I was also very glad that I had spent some of my time over these past few months improving my Sinhala.

Madushani and Nadeeka, two of the office workers at Nilmini
who spent a lot of time showing me around the estate
Heading back to work in the Nilmini
factory after taking a tea break

A waterfall in the Sinharaja

These fish, endemic to Sinharaja, are known for "massaging" (i.e. nibbling on) people's feet. It's a very strange sensation to have 10-15 fish tickling each foot as you stand in the stream.

My forest department guide, who led me around the
rainforest, showing me a snake (apparently not poisonous).
I’ve also been getting involved with a new organic certification program organized by the Good Market, the large farmers’ market in Colombo. It’s called a participatory guarantee system (PGS), and the idea is that volunteers visit farms around the country and evaluate their practices to determine if they are actually growing food organically. It does not give farmers international certification, but it provides consumers with some reassurance that their produce is organic and eliminates many of the costs farmers have to pay to get export level certification. So far, I’ve been on two trips, one to organic tea farms near Deniyaya and one to small home gardens in the Anuradhapura District in the dry zone. Although I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of work and wasn’t able to contribute very much, I’ve loved seeing the farms and learning from the more experienced evaluators.

Kelsi, another Fulbrighter who's been helping out with the PGS visits, talks to a farmer in his tea field in Deniyaya

Evaluating home gardens in Anuradhapura

Next week, I’m heading back up to Anuradhapura to spend some time at the Sevalanka Islander Center, an organic farm, sustainable development training facility, and retreat center run by the national NGO, Sevalanka. Hopefully, this will be another enjoyable and productive journey!