Understanding Nature Through Insects
Theeban Gunasekaran considered himself lucky to have received first-hand training from experts in agroecology. The training was followed by more in-depth learning, exploring and sharing, all of which raised him to the position of an organic farming field officer of the Consumers Association of Penang.
He said the learning experiences had helped him immensely to carry out the task assigned with confidence.
“In the initial stages of our agricultural journey, growing, composting, fortifying plants with the right nutrients, planting at the right season, and harvesting the vegetables, all came within our control.
“However, one thing remained unsettled and intriguing at the same time. The pests somehow eluded us and had a good feast on the plants and fruits. Owing to their minute size, we would not notice their presence until the damage was done to the plants,” recalled Theeban.
“Getting rid of pests with pesticides is an absolute no because, in natural farming, one is not allowed to kill the insects with toxic chemicals. That is when we sought the help of integrated pest management expert, N. Selvam, from India. His lectures and direct farm learning enabled us to understand the pest community.
“Studying the connection between different types of insects reveals that insects have their own unique survival mechanism. Spraying pesticides to get rid of them impairs the whole ecosystem. Eventually, we too suffer in the process.
“Mr Selvam pointed out to us how pesticides kill beneficial insects when our target is only the pest. He also explained how insects develop their immune systems against pesticides and increase their population. The invaluable input convinced us that pesticides do not solve, but rather aggravate pest problems.
“We learnt methods of controlling pests along with preparing compost and growth promoters, which is an essential part of farming. Certain plants and plant decoction have proved to be very effective in saving crops from pest attacks.
“With first-hand information garnered, and a holistic understanding of nature and the ecosystem, our training, seminars, and talk programmes for various groups are ever more fruitful. Farmers, teachers, students and housewives, who are mostly our target group, continuously benefit from our input.
“With a simple garlic-ginger solution as a pest repellent, and fish amino acid as growth promoters, many find planting their own vegetables beneficial and not as challenging as they thought it to be.
“My mentor, Kaniappan of Kulai, Johor with his expertise in organic farming methods, has been a source of motivation and support for me to keep enhancing myself in agroecology and related issues. Whatever idea I threw at him, he encouraged it and polished it further, thereby opening up avenues for further discussion and growth.
“Travelling to other countries to learn has been an enriching experience. The trip to one of the institutions in Thailand to learn about their growth promoters was informative. At the same time, I realised it was a system that makes farmers dependent under the guise of good farming practices. Such things hinder one’s progress because each time you want to make the growth promoter recommended by them, you have to depend on them to buy the starter.
“With self-sustainability as a foundation of agroecology, a farmer or anyone that wants to practise good farming should avoid such dependency. Therefore during the study trip, I, together with my mentor Kaniappan, took the opportunity to introduce to the participants some of the indigenous growth promoters and received much applause for our willingness to share.
“Bringing natural farming techniques to the disadvantaged Tamil community in Sri Lanka was a lifetime experience. The trip was arranged by Saumya Vilashini Muthulingam under the sustainable lifestyle programme that she was leading under UNDP at that time.
“It was fulfilling to know some of the farmers and housewives had enhanced their living standards, socially and economically by adopting such healthy farming practices.
“I must mention here that my exposure to nature had a close association with CAP’s late President, S. M. Mohamed Idris. Since the age of 8, my playing ground has been Mr Idris’ garden. He had a big garden dotted with lush vegetation, trees, livestock and the myriad of living things that co-exist with it.
“While the warbling birds in his garden enlivened my soul, the eerie sounds of insects and animals that I could not figure out at that age confounded and frightened me as well. However, with the daily connection with nature, I slowly shed my fear, and soon it was replaced with a sense of anticipation and excitement about those hidden treasures.
“My interest in photography helps immensely to capture the insects of the farm on my camera and further analyse them. Most insects are too small to inspect. I enlarge their images and identify their species based on what I had learned earlier. This way, I could categorise the insects.
“This hands-on farm learning is always exciting, and I pass those joys of direct learning to the students who visit our farm. These moments of learning and sharing revealed to me that nothing can come close to directly learning from nature.
“The combined interest in photography and studying insects has its own advantages. Occasionally, I come across new insects that I have never seen before which I right away capture on my camera. It is like opening up a new dimension, and the ensuing revelation about the myriad creatures that occupy this planet.
“This always reminds me of the limitations of human life and the sheer impossibility of studying and understanding them all within one’s lifetime. I am truly humbled by the whole process,” concluded Theeban.