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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Letter from the field

Tsunami reconstruction - helping rural people rebuild their lives: "Dutch salinity expert Neeltje Kielen,33, has just returned from a two week field assignment as a FAO consultant to Sri Lanka 's tsunami-hit areas She wrote down some of her observations in a letter to family and friends back home.

Whilst the devastation and the despair in the south in places like Hambantota was bad, it was only when we travelled along the East and North coast, from Ampara to Jaffna that the true extent of the impact of the tsunami on agriculture came home to me. In every district we were shown damage to home gardens, vegetable fields and paddy areas by local staff from the Department of Agriculture. We had wanted to visit each and every affected area to see for ourselves the extent of the damage but the distances were too great.

Whole villages have been washed away. Standing in the middle of these destroyed villages is a surreal experience. Some feel like ghost towns, since their inhabitants have fled to resettle in camps further inland. Many of the villagers are too scared to return and are so poor they do not have the means to do so even if they wanted to.

Others return regularly to the remains of their homes and gardens in the daytime to clear the rubble and debris, or just to sit. But at night they go back to the camps, where they are given shelter, food and fresh water.

Over the last few days I have travelled in several districts where many were displaced by the civil war and have now been displaced again by the tsunami. The local Agricultural Extension Worker, our guide for a day, stopped the car near an area where hundreds of acres of rain fed paddy fields had been completely destroyed by the salty sea-water. Due to the climate, topography, drainage conditions and soils it will be very difficult to reclaim these fields. Large investments will be needed to make this land suitable for crop production so that the hundreds of families who live here can return to cultivating their staple food.

Occasionally amidst all the destruction we have stumbled on a farmer who has started to plant crops again! Farmers are usually better of than their fellow villagers, or have been hit less hard, but most of all they are eager and keen to rebuild their lives.

My main brief was to look at the problem caused by salt-water intrusion, assess its severity, prepare a strategy for reclamation and train people to help farmers to return to cultivation.

My assessment shows that from a technical point of view salt contamination is not a major obstruction to a return to cultivation, although in many areas it might take a little time to reclaim the soils.

However, by choosing the right crops for the soil and water salinity levels farmers will be able to obtain reasonable to good yields during the coming seasons. The main problem is that the Agricultural Extension Workers and the farmers are totally unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ‘salt'. There is a lot of uncertainty and confusion surrounding the subject.

Farmers are still in a state of shock. Although they are very experienced and knowledgeable they need to be told that it is fine to cultivate certain crops on certain soils with certain types of water. They need to be given the confidence that it will work. The big question is how to reach all the farmers along hundreds of kilometres of coastline and in areas that are sometimes very isolated.

We have now ordered a large number of salinity meters and developed a methodology to test soil and water in the field. In a series of three training workshops we will teach the Agricultural Extension Workers of all affected areas the principles of salt and their impact on agricultural production. Furthermore we will train them to test soil and water and translate the outcome of these tests into practical advice to the farmers.

This is the first step. The second step is to provide the Agricultural Extension Workers with the ways and means to set-up a systematic monitoring programme and organise their own training and awareness-raising sessions with the farmers, on their own land. I would like them to organise these sessions on the land of the farmers who have begun to cultivate again in order to encourage other farmers to follow their example.

A project is needed to strengthen the capacity within the Ministry of Agriculture and to provide them with the means to undertake the monitoring and training sessions. I have been able to work very well with a local counterpart from the ministry. I hope that he and others will be able to carry this proposal further with the support of the FAO.

Thousands of farming families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. They have lost everything. Although their lands are ready for cultivation they do not have the basic inputs and tools to resume farming.

We do not want the people to stay in camps and remain dependent on handouts for longer than is necessary. We would like to give them back their livelihoods and help them to rebuild their lives."


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