From blue skies to green pastures | Daily News
SLAF Agro Unit:

From blue skies to green pastures

One of the SLAF operations to drop seed bombs (Pictures courtesy: Air Force Media)
One of the SLAF operations to drop seed bombs (Pictures courtesy: Air Force Media)

Today much emphasis is given on protecting the biodiversity of our island and engaging in sustainability. One of the significant contributors to this noble national responsibility is the Command Agro Unit of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). Operating from the Air Force Headquarters in Colombo it is headed by Air Commodore O.A.N.S. Fernando.

According to the SLAF, there has been small-scale cultivations and farms since the 1980s. However, in 1994, the Command Agro Unit was established by absorbing qualified officers in the relevant fields. The first Commanding Officer of the unit was Air Commodore Dassanayake who served for many years. The unit covers a broad spectrum of operations which includes replanting of forests, cultivation of fruits and vegetables, animal husbandry and dairy production. The major cultivations and farms are located at SLAF Bases in Katunayake and Morawewa. One hundred and twenty acres of paddy are cultivated at Morawewa.

The forest cover of Sri Lanka is expected to increase to 32 percent in 2030

According to Air Commodore Fernando, one of the new projects of the SLAF was to use their air assets to increase the nation’s forest cover. This process is done through ‘seed bombing’- when pilots soar to sow. He explained, “We use our MI-17 helicopters for this task. The helicopter flies at a low level between 200–300 feet, and the crew carefully drops the seeds, which are made into balls weighing about 50–90 grammes. In this method, we can cover a vast area of land and also access some areas which are difficult to access by foot. We do the seed bombing operations right after it rains, as the soil is very conducive for planting.”

Once the planting by air is over field teams will visit the area every month to monitor the progress. It is expected that by 2030 Sri Lanka will increase its forest cover to 32 percent. In the past, our forest cover had been neglected in a pernicious manner. The first seed bombing project was conducted in December 2018 at Ranowewa (on the Nochchiyagama Road) targeting five acres of land. In 2019, working alongside the Forest Department and the Peradeniya University, the SLAF crews began to cover other areas. In October 2019, the team dropped 60,000 seeds in an area of 60 acres followed by another mission in December 2020 covering 25 acres.

During 2019, SLAF crews did extensive seed bombing projects in Udawalawe, Moneragala, Batticaloa and Silawathura areas recreating 12.5 acres of forest cover in each sector.

On January 14 this year, the Command Agri Unit dropped 70,000 seeds to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force. In addition, following the guidelines of Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, a project has been initiated to plant 70,000 saplings at all SLAF bases. The project has already begun at SLAF Base Katunayake. Air Commodore Fernando further added, “We have also worked with the Police Special Task Force to locate, enter and destroy illegal cannabis plantations. During these combined airborne raids we covered large areas, operating safely.”

The fruit and vegetable cultivations yield an assortment of fruits including pineapple, bananas, papaya and dragon fruit. The bountiful vegetable gardens are further supplemented by innovative spice gardens and a separate section for indigenous herbs. In doing this the SLAF can take pride in providing fruits and vegetables to meet their requirements and also share these products with Air Force families living on base. The SLAF operates a number of welfare shops.

The Command Agro Unit also engages in animal husbandry. A large number of cows and buffaloes yield fresh milk which is collected to make yoghurt and curd. It was a delight to sample these products at the Air Force farm. The drinking yoghurt is another new hit in their product range.

The airmen have also adapted to poultry farming. Chicken and eggs are sold at their welfare shops. All SLAF land is put to gainful use as the teams have now engaged in coconut and cashew cultivation. Two of their new innovative projects are rearing bees for honey and freshwater fish breeding. Taking their vision further, the airmen also produce their own fresh tomato sauce and chilli paste. The SLAF Command Agro Unit has grown over the years and reached a new domain of productivity and sustainability.

Seeds are marked for observation purposes