Sunday, 27 January 2019 08:24

Sena invasion

Anuradhapura: It may be a little brown caterpillar but, it had already held countries to ransom. The latest in the long list of countries which had to suffer under the might of this ‘little brown caterpillar’ is Sri Lanka. The first caterpillar was recorded on Sri Lankan soil in early October last year. In less than four months it had become a national and political problem.

A native species of the Americas, Fall Army Worm (Spodoptera frugiperda) had been identified as a threat to nearly 180 species of commercial crops. In Sri Lanka, the invasion was on one of its ‘favourite’ crops, maize. The maize acreage in Ampara was the first to reveal the effects of the caterpillar last October as the Ministry of Agriculture issued a warning to farmers in the North Western and North Central provinces about the possible Fall Army Worm (FAW) invasion.

By the end of the month, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Galgamuwa, Rajanganaya, Thambuththa and Gampola areas recorded the existence of the caterpillar. As, the maize cultivation fell victim to the bite of the FAW or Sena dalambuwa (Sena catterpillar) as it is commonly called by the farmers, the country went into panic mode with the electronic media extolling the strengths of the caterpillar.

Galenbindunuwewa, in the Anuradhapura district was one of the areas, where the maize cultivation was affected by the caterpillar in early October. Maha is the season where maize is grown in large amounts in the district with nearly 24,000 hectares of maize, compared to around 4,000 hectares during the Yala season, according to Agriculture Department records. Farmers clear the chenas in the areas where there are no irrigation facilities, for this hardy crop is grown in the traditional way taking the benefit of the ample rains that fall during the season.

The harvesting stage comes just after three months, for a few early harvesters. However, most of the farmers keep the crop in the field for one more month, keeping the seeds to mature and dry in the sun. The harvesting time has begun in Galenbindunuwewa.


Sixty two year old P. Piyasena, a resident of Yakalla, Galenbindunuwewa had been a maize cultivator throughout his lifetime. “I have been in this business since I was a small child. Never have I seen such a pest invasion. We spread ash. Used Kurater (trade name of a pesticide containing Carbofuran) twice. Sprayed other chemicals given by different companies, but couldn’t get rid of it,” he says.

Being the President of the local farmers’ collective, the Dimuthu Govi Sanvidhanaya, he shoulders the responsibility of protecting more than his three acres of maize cultivation. According to Piyasena, the Association collectively owns 480 acres of maize, all of which is infected at different levels.

Although about 75 officers from the departments of Agriculture and Agrarian Development had visited his chena using it to experiment on the effectiveness of drones to spray the fields with pesticides, his morale is low. He believes in the destructive ability hyperbole portrayed through media and comments of politicians both in the Government and the opposition.

“When we first found the caterpillar in the field, it wasn’t so famous. But now, it seems nobody can stop this invasion. Even the President had set up a separate task force to tackle the matter. If the President can’t stop it how could we?,” he questions, adding that all the members of his Association had given up on their cultivation for the season.

The veteran farmer also believes that it couldn’t have flown from Tamil Nadu, India or anywhere else. “The seeds would have been contaminated. Some seed varieties are more affected. Jet, is the most affected variety,” said Piyasena.

S. Sarath Wimalasiri, a farmer with three acres of maize agrees with Piyasena and suggests that the sale of seeds need be regulated. “We don’t even know who imports or packs these seeds. We just buy it from the sellers and adhere to their recommendation of the best variety. No agriculture official visited or advises us at that time. But, if the Agriculture Department provides us advice about the seed, we could plant it without fearing any repercussions,” said Wimalasiri. He also questions the dearth of Carbofuran in the market during the time of the pest infestation.

“It seems to be working on (destroying) the caterpillar. There was no reason for the lack of Carbofuran in the market. If it was there, the problem wouldn’t have become so severe. So, naturally it makes us suspect the motives,” he said. Some farmers breaking the practice of collective cropping was another reason for the intensification of the problem points out Wimalasiri. “Traditionally, it was teamwork. We planted the yaya (whole acreage) together and cultivated at the same time. But, it doesn’t happen any more. People plant at different times. Howerver, there’s not much damage on those that were planted on time,” he said.

R. B. Gunathilaka who went back to cultivation after 33 years of service in the police, tells a different story. His, could possibly be the first crop to be infested by FAW, Gunathilaka points out. “I planted three acres on October 3, within 20 days and within seven days from fertilising, the caterpillar was in my chena,” said Gunathilaka. The patches of young crop that were seen infected by the caterpillar, had spread throughout his chena within 10 days. “I started spraying insecticide within the first six days. First I used Marshall 20 but without result. Then the pesticide seller recommended another one so I used that as well without result. Later, I mixed both together and sprayed it on the crop by which I managed to save most of my cultivation,” he said. However, no officer whether from the Department of Agriculture or from the Department of Agrarian Development had met or advised them on the pest invasion. “Nobody visited here and some of us thought that the caterpillar infestation was because of the rain.

If we had known, we could have responded better,” he said. One cause for farmers to give up on their chenas is the high cost of pesticide, he said. “About six tanks of pesticide (a 16-litre spray tank is usually used by farmers) is needed to spray one acre. I had to spend over Rs. 15,000 only for the pesticide to save two acres,” he said.

One acre of maize cultivation would cost a farmer from Rs. 40,000 up to about Rs. 80,000 depending on his or her assets. Farming on their own land using no labour save that of the family would lower the cost.

The seed for one acre costs Rs. 22,200 at Rs. 3,700 a pack. Preparation and fertiliser would cost about Rs.18,000. Farming on leased land with hired labour would inflate it drastically, with the farmers needing to pay Rs. 1,200 for a male and Rs. 1,000 for a female for daily labour.

However, selling the harvest at its best at Rs. 40 to 50 a kilo the income from one acre after four months of labour would range from Rs. 120,000 to 160,000.

And now, as the maize is being harvested, the caterpillar had started infecting other cultivations too. “I cultivated watermelon in a small patch, even that was affected. Now, people are afraid whether this would affect the paddy fields as well,” said Gunathilaka.

S. Indrawathie agrees with him. Her pumpkin cultivation, planted in November and which should have yielded much by January is totally destroyed by the FAW. “They started eating the fruit from the time it was tender. The first crop was totally gone,” said Indrawathie. Though pumpkin cultivation is costlier than that of maize, cultivators prefer pumpkin as the income is higher. “Both my maize and pumpkin cultivations are destroyed by the caterpillar,” lamented Indrawathie.

Though the FAW favours maize, its larvae are able to feed on more than 80 host plant species including paddy, sugarcane, green gram; vegetables including pumpkins, melons, cabbages, turnips, potato and fruit such as oranges. It also could fly up to about 100 kilometres per night and during its ten days of adult life as the Fall Army Moth it could cover a range of 1,000 kilometres and more with favourable winds.

Eradication of this pest is difficult by using only pesticides as the FAW has a strong immune system and develops resistance, points out the Director of Agriculture of the North Central Province, Mrs. M.H.B.P.H. Madana. The Department of Agriculture promotes integrated pest management (IPM) as the only way to eradicate the FAW invasion. Though it had to be dealt with chemicals this season, they were preparing to equip farmers with knowledge and the tools to stop the FAW from infesting the fields next season. Mixed cropping with some pest resistant crops such as gingelly grown along corridors within the crop; cover crops such as mustard; ecological compensation corridors with plants such as sun-hemp for biological predators and other traditional and organic pest control methods are expected to give better results than the use of chemical pesticides.

A participatory approach is taken by the Department, in eradicating this pest. A survey of the actual yield of the crop is taken by the Department along with all other related institutions belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Presidential Task Force, local government officials and ground level officials such as Grama Niladharis and Samurdhi Officers and members of Farmer Organisations, from January 16 to 31.

“As soon as we got to know about the pest, we raised awareness among the farmers through leaflets, visits and announcing it through mobile units. I was gearing for the worst. The total acreage of maize of the North Central Province, is 24,000 hectares of which 23,000 is within the Anuradhapura district,” said Madana. However, as the cultivation is being inspected the total damage level had come down to about 10 to 20 percent.

“Due to early rains in the Maha season, most of the farmers planted their crops on time, a factor which lessened the damage. It was in the fields which were planted late, that the green cob that had to bear the brunt of the damage. Some had been totally destroyed,” she said.

During the Sunday Observer’s visit to the maize fields of Galenbindunuwewa, it was observed that the knowledge and the response of the farmers depended on the efficiency of the field level officers of the responsible department. Speaking to the farmers revealed that though knowledge of the pest and control methods was available at the top level, it had not been conveyed to the farmer at the ground level.

We met hard working and diligent field officers who had provided the farmers with knowledge and tools such as pheromone moth traps. They were regarded highly by farmers. However, sadly there were others leaving their offices around 3.00 p.m. they neither had the data nor knowledge to answer the questions.

(Sunday Observer)

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