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Chena and elephants; age-old co-existence

by Tharuka Dissanaike

A relentless afternoon sun beat down upon the arid scrub. The sky was a cloudless blue. Drought was upon Yodakandiya. All over the southern dry zone of Sri Lanka, life seemed to move in heat-induced slow motion.

But Premadasa was busy. He was clearing land for the next cultivation season. With the onset of the rain he would plant vegetables- chillies, string beans and corn- in the cleared land. Helped by an adult son, Premadasa would nurse the crop through to harvest- weeding when necessary, and protecting it from wild animals, especially wild boar and elephant. Clearing the thorny scrub is no mean task, especially in the afternoon heat.

But Premadasa has big plans for the cultivation season- this year he has cleared extra land to grow a new extent of chillies. Premadasa cannot measure the extent of the field in acres, but his boundaries are clear- at least, they are to him. "Its that tree, the tall one over there- that's the far boundary, and this old stump to the right," he points with his axe.

Technically, Premadasa's livelihood is at odds with the State. The land, lying between Yala National Park and the towns of Kataragama and Tissamaharama, belong to the Forest Department, which does not allow chena clearing. But reality is not so black and white.

For a huge number of people living in the area, chena is their livelihood- their only means of income for the year. Rain-fed chena cultivation is an ageold practice and men like Premadasa, and their parents before them, have known no other livelihood.

However, chena farmers remain among the poorest people in the country. The vegetables they grow are purchased by mudalali's from town at rock bottom prices. All chena vegetables flood the market at the same time-and ironically they are of the same kind-causing prices to plummet.

So the net income for all that hard work is very meagre. Earning Rs. 15,000 to 30,000 out of a several-acre chena plot would be considered a good income. But this has to sustain the farmer family for the rest of the year.

Chena farming, better known as slash-and-burn farming, has always carried with it a certain stigma, a sense of crime and a burden of shame upon the farmer.

But while studying elephant ecology and behaviour in southern Sri Lanka, a group of scientists made an interesting discovery.

Fallow and abandoned chena provides ideal habitat for elephants, and since the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation is ancient, one could assume that elephants and chena farmers have co-existed for many centuries without apparent conflict.

Not that conflict is absent. That would be an over statement. "But the entire pattern of cultivation and the seasonal feeding ranges of elephants complement each other. Crop raiding is low in chena fields, compared with areas that have year-round irrigated cultivation," says Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research and a scientist of international repute.

In the Yodakandiya scrub forests, as in most chena lands in the dry zone, cultivation begins with the rains. The northeast monsoon October to January- is the period when hundreds of chena cultivators move in to the scrub and set out their plots.

Coincidentally during this period, most elephants move into the mature forests of the Yala National Park to feed on the new grasses and shoots inside the park.

Food is plentiful inside the national park at this time. The few lone bulls and herds that roam the chena and scrub forest outside are easily scared off the chena fields by conventional methods like fire, thunder flashes and shouting. Because food is available for the elephants, there does not seem to be a persisting crop-raiding driven by desperation.

During the rainy, cultivation season, the farmers erect temporary huts and live on the land, individually or in clusters. This enables them to protect the land from crop raiding wild animals. Afterwards they move back into their permanent homes in the bordering villages and towns; thus there are no permanent settlements in this 'buffer zone'.

In the dry season, a different drama is enacted. As the seasonal drought sets in, food inside the mature forests of the national park becomes scarce. Large trees and old matured scrub yields very little in the way of edible matter for elephants and they wander off to find more palatable food. This is when chena fields become favoured feeding grounds for elephants.

By the dry season, chena fields have been harvested but still retain a large amount of vegetative matter such as vines of string beans, snake- gourd and water melon, plants of okra, egg-plant, beans and so on.

The elephants now enter the fallow fields in large groups and gorge themselves on the remaining vegetable matter. But because the fields are fallow, there is no conflict with people.

"The elephant is an edge species," says Dr. Eric Wikramanayake, another member of the research team and a conservation scientist with WWF (World Wildlife Fund). "It prefers habitat that consist of secondary forests and open scrub, rather than thick mature forest."

Research in the Yala periphery over the past twelve years has clearly established this pattern of co-existence between chena cultivation and wild elephants.

The traditional pattern of land use in these areas has allowed for what Dr. Wikramanayake calls 'spatial and temporal resource partitioning between humans and elephants.' In everyday parlance this means that the people and elephants share the same resource (i.e. the scrub jungle) by using it at different times and in different areas.

While conducting studies on elephant ecology, these scientists found that elephant presence in chena fields increased hugely during the fallow dry season. In a 50 square km that they are studying, the number of elephants in the wet season was around 30-50, mostly males. During the dry season, 100-150 more elephants moved into this area, from the Park.

"It is not just habitat preference, but we think fallow chena provides a crucial food resource during a stressful period," says Manori Gunawardena, another team member.

Chena fields are only cultivated for a few years at a stretch. After that, they are abandoned due to low productivity and a new site is cleared, creating a matrix of enriched habitat for elephants.

The scrub regenerates quickly, points out H.K Janaka, another member of the research team, who lives in Yodakandiya. "Even with the elephants feeding off it for many months, when the farmers return in the wet season, it has grown 2-3 feet high and needs a lot of hard work to clear." Traditional chena does not use fertilizer hence requires low monetary investment but much labour.

It is not an easy stance to take since it defies conventional thought in Sri Lanka, but the Centre believes that the ancient practice of chena could actually prove to be beneficial to elephant management.

The hugely unpopular practice of slash and burn actually proves to be a much more sustainable system of farming in areas with high elephant populations than irrigated cultivation.

If chena farmers were to convert to permanent agriculture, this would compel them to plough the land, use large amounts of fertilizer and therefore bear a heavy monetary burden, which would become unbearable, if rains and hence the harvest fails.

What is important, however, is to regulate and manage the practice of chena. At present the plots are cleared ad hoc and on the sly. The Forest Department sometimes hauls farmers to Court for burning and clearing new sections of forest, but the practice continues.

There are no extension services available to the farmer. Nor any subsidies or financial assistance offered to other types of agriculture. There is no compensation for crop damage by weather or wild animals. Markets are a continuous problem. Most problems faced by chena farmers are due to the non-recognition of their livelihood as a legal and feasible cultivation practice.

But, chena farmers perform a great conservation service by habitat management, Dr. Fernando points out. They bear a cost from conflict with elephants and receive zero benefit.

"Traditional chena cultivation has been going on in the low land dry zone of Sri Lanka for thousands of years, and the environment and animals have adapted to and taken advantage of this sort of land management. So it is best to set some basic rules and guidelines now and regulate it. Allow it, but manage it, so that the practice is sustained, the chena farmer's lot is improved and the same land can be used as crucial elephant habitat in the dry periods," Dr. Fernando reiterates.

Irrigated Vs Chena cultivation

Irrigated paddy transforms the landscape. It requires vast areas to be cleared permanently. Cultivation occurs in two seasons, Yala and Maha, so there is no fallow period to talk of, and cultivation is continued year after year.

It requires massive investment from the government, continued subsidies, and heavy monetary investment by individual farmers for ploughing, fertilizer, weedicides and pesticides. It takes land away from elephants.

In contrast chena farms do not require such drastic change of landscape. They are occupied only for a brief period every year. The long fallow season allows vegetation to re-grow, and when abandoned, they rapidly revert to natural cover.

There is zero investment or support from the government for chena farming and heavy investment in labour from individual farmers, but as there is no ploughing and little if any use of fertilizer, weedicides and pesticides, monetary investment is low. It creates ideal habitat for elephants.

However irrigated agriculture is considered progressive and is perhaps more productive and profitable than chena. It also has better social acceptance among rural Sri Lankans.

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