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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, October 30, 2005

Dry-zone farming : A success story

Sunday Observer: 16/10/2005" by Jayampathy Jayasinghe

Politicians in different times in the country's political history have used farmers and their grievances as election tools to grab power. After being elected to office, most of them gave least attention to the problems of very powerful voters - farmers while priority was given to other schemes enlisted in their political agendas.

Old slogans have been cited even today through various media especially on television where some politicians pledge that they would enthrone the farmer if the party is elected to office. However, the crocodile tears of such politicians who introduced the open economy haphazardly which allowed cheap imports to invade the entire market and destroy the local farmer no longer will be able to deceive the farmer through these duped propaganda today.

The new generation of farmers including those in the far away dry zone are aware of the new market trends and the forces including the middlemen trying to deceive and exploit their harvest.

They are smart enough to bargain with buyers, look for better prices and fetch the due price for their produce. Thanks to the effort of certain NGOs such as CARE International, reasonable solutions to farmer problems can be found in certain areas and there is no reason for farmers or the members of their families in any part of the country to starve or commit suicide as some election propagandists allege.

With some extra income from cash crops, farmers are claiming reasonable economic benefits to lead a simple life.

Our staff correspondent Jayampathy Jayasinghe met such farmer communities in the dry zone recently. His first-hand information demonstrates a graphical picture of the rural farmer's life today.

Last week we were in the dry-zone of Anuradhapura and Mannar on a fact-finding mission, along with European Commission officials to assess the progress made by the farmer community living in those areas.

We were somewhat lucky to be there just before the North Eastern monsoonal rains began. Passing Dambulla and Chettikulam, it was quite evident the area hadn't experienced rain fall presumably for several months.

Parched paddy fields and chena cultivations were visible stretching several miles on either sides of the road. By this time the farmers and chena cultivators had set ablaze their fields to make the soil fertile before the north eastern monsoon showers arrive. One aspect noticeable were the security checkpoints that remain intact on the main trunk road from Chettikulam to Mannar. These check points are now manned by a few army soldiers and policemen.

However unlike in the past the passengers are not subjected to unnecessarily scrutiny or inconvenienced in any way for security checks. We arrived at a village named Poorwarasankulama about 10 miles from Anuradhapura and met the farmer community who explained to us in vivid detail of their success stories about growing cash crops like Bombay onions etc.

The village is located in a border area. Farmer Sisira told us that the cultivation committee was formed about 10 years ago, but had not functioned until it received assistance from CARE organisation.

He said several farmers in the village have benefited after the cultivation committee was revived.

Referring to Bombay onions, he said villagers previously had no clue as to how they could grow and sell their produce with a profit margin. But farmers today have learnt to collect market information and grow their produce accordingly.

Such information can be collected from centres set up in their village. He said Colombo and Dambulla have been identified as areas where they could sell their produce such as Bombay onions and vegetables. Earlier farmers sold their entire produce only to middlemen for a song. But now they have stopped the practice of selling it to Middlemen who come to their village.

Sisira who related their success story said that during the past three months, two lorry loads containing Bombay onions and vegetables about 10,000 kilos were despatched to Colombo and the Dambulla market almost daily.

Although the price of onions fluctuate it is very much profitable for them to sell a kilo at Rs. 38 at the Manning market in Colombo. Earlier the middle men who came to their village had purchased a kilo at Rs 20 and re-sold in Colombo at a higher price. But the middlemen do not come any more to their village to purchase vegetables, he said.

Market information

The acreage cultivated by the farmer community at Poorwarasankulama is about 60 acres. They all belong to an agrarian committee formed by farmers in the area. When farmers stop harvesting Bombay onions, they cultivate brinjals to supply the Dambulla market. Farmers had choose brinjals because it is easier to cultivate. Farmers today have more access to market information than their forefathers.

The present day farmers grow crops according to supply and demand theory. They have been taught how to react to market forces and act diligently to sell their produce.

Farmers have also been taught to use less chemical fertiliser on crops owing to health hazards. Instead they use more organic fertiliser and less chemicals. Today farmers pool their resources to purchase organic fertiliser to save money.

Asked whether farmers face any problems with regard to selling paddy, Sisira admitted that there was a problem but said the problem can be solved with the intervention of the state. The farmers at Poorwarasankulama have become so prosperous by cultivating cash crops like Bombay onions they were able to purchase motorcycles with the profits. At present there are 155 motorcycles in the village, he said.

Scientific methods

We listened to the success story of another woman farmer named Vinitha, who cultivated a half an acre at Poorwarasankulama by scientific methods. Under the guidance of CARE organisation, she learnt to cultivate by using less water and the method of conserving soil.

Today she works as an animator in the village imparting the knowledge she gained among other farmers and schoolchildren. We then travelled to a border village named Dambirisgama in Horawpathana and met the re- settled farmer community after cessation of hostilities with the LTTE.

The majority of farmers in this village belong to the Muslim community. The President of the farmers community Thajudeen said the CARE organisation helped them to form a committee in their village in 2003 to overcome problems relating to cultivation.

The biggest constrain the farmers had to face was the scarcity of water. After the Helambagaswewa water tank was rehabilitated for the first time farmers were able to grow Indian corn and make a profit. Farmers were initially given a loan of Rs 5000 to grow corn with a low interest.

The farmers were also given a training to rare poultry and grow cash crops like cashew nuts etc, he said. Our next stop was at the resource centre at Horawpathana, at Baladakshana Mawatha. Malani, the woman president of the association said the European combustion helped them to set up a building to house their farmers committee.

The farmers have pooled their resources and have set up their own farm organisation to disburse loans to farmers for cultivation purposes. Their next ambitious plan is to set a rice mill in the area, she said.

The team leader of CARE International Anuradhapura, D. L. Chamila Jayaweera, said the primary problem that affects the farmers in the dry zone is the scarcity of water.

The farmers have to be educated in effective water management systems. The problem has been aggravated due to the collapse of irrigational systems. Already sixteen water tanks in the area have been identified for rehabilitation and the work in four tanks are already in progress.

When all the water tanks are rehabilitated 376 acres could be brought under cultivation. Once the tanks are rehabilitated inland fishing program could be started to supplement the protein needs of farmers.

He said the CARE organisation has trained 327 members of farm organisations to upgrade their entrepreneurial skills.

Of this number 269 farmers are already earning considerable profits.

Farmers are also taught to sell their produce directly to the Manning Market in Colombo bypassing the middlemen to earn higher profits. Twenty two farm organisations now maintain linkages with buyers and cultivate their produce according to market trends and prices.

Assistance for Internally Displaced and Conflict Affected Household (AFIDACAH) is a European Commission-funded project implemented through the government to reintegrate, internally displaced persons and war affected families to their places of origin.

The total cost of the projects was Euros 1.52 million. It covered 1100 conflict affected households in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee, Puttalam and Mannar. Eighty per cent of the members of the project are women.

On the second day of our visit to Anuradhapura we were accompanied to the Baladaksha Mawatha at Horowpathana by CARE officials, Chamila Jayashantha, Chandima Pinsiri, Sathan Bandara, and Roshan Jeevanand when met Veenetha, a woman farmer who explained to us about the prosperity of farmers, now that farmers have taken to poultry farming in a big way and have made profits of Rs. 1500 a month. CARE Sri Lanka had given them Rs. 40,000 to start a poultry farm in the area.

"We felt the need to put up a loan of building to house our own farm society and discussed the matter with CARE officials who gave us Rs 100,000, with which we put up the Foundation. and received an additional sum of Rs 100,000 for the second stage from CARE Sri Lanka.

The villagers too collected Rs. 60,000. and helped them with free labour to put up the building. CARE had also donated farming implements worth around Rs 50,000 and set of books containing valuable information on farming methods.

Today the farmers make use of the building to run a pre-school for their children, to house a library and to conduct their day-to-day businesses, she said.

Their projections for the future is to set up a paddy mill and a computer centre in the village. Renuka, another farmer woman at Baladaksha Mawatha related their success story about how they were able to start a poultry farm with an initial capital of Rs. 40,000 granted by CARE Sri Lanka.

We then came across Mrs. Champika, the Agricultural Officer, who told us that farmers during those days, met only at the village agrarian meetings. But they meet often and discuss problems relating to farming after the farmers society was formed.

Sometime back farmers encountered a lot of problems politically as well as from others in the village. But as a result of training and guidance given by CARE they were able to counter most problems. However she bemoaned that the Pradeshiya Sabha do not respond to their needs. The bureaucratic foul up has made matters worse for them, she said.

According to CARE officials, agricultural extension work in dry zone areas is hampered owing to a dearth of staff in the Agriculture Department. Only one officer is available to attend to the needs of about 300-4000 farmer families.

Having understood this problem CARE had introduced an animator program to train farmers to work as village level extension workers and to serve as coordinators. CARE was able to train Veneetha, a woman in soil conservation methods and crop management. In her home garden she demonstrates low cost agromic practices like pitcher irrigation and organic fertiliser applications.

Veneetha has now become an expert and her services are very much in demand in the neighbouring villages.

Having visited the border villagers of Poowarasankulama, Helambagaswewa, Baladakshemawatha in Horowpathana areas, we left for Mannar after a sumptuous lunch given by the farmer community at the Resource Centre at Baladaksha Mawatha. We reached Isamalaithalu village in Mannar Nanttan DS division around 5.00 p.m. having travelled a distance of almost 160 kilometres.

The road from Anuradhapura to Mannar was not as bad as we expected although it was a bumpy ride. After arriving in Mannar the CARE Project Coordinator Mohan Sundaram explained to us in detail the projects initiated by villagers after the tsunami. Several villages in the Mannar costal belt were ravaged and fishermen lost their livelihood when their fleet of fishing boats were destroyed.

Flushed with cash today their deprivation, despair and misery have been turned into hope. Several villagers have been able to earn their living by growing perennial crops and taking to goat farming. We met the President of the farm organisation, Nesarajah in Karambaikulam. He said their farm organisation has been named as Tsunami.

He said several farmer families hope to settle down in the village after the water tank is rehabilitated. Of the 16 water tanks in the Mannar district, four have already been rehabilitated.

We came across a woman named Margaret, an animator trained in poultry farming by CARE Sri Lanka.

She said along with veterinary surgeon they were able to vaccinate 700 fowls in their area. Another woman animator named Antonia who fled to India 14 years ago during the civil war had returned to Sri Lanka recently. She is actively involved in poultry work after being trained by CARE Sri Lanka.

Karupiah Ponnamma is an another woman from Karambaikulam who have been taught to rear goats in a scientific way. The goat cage is built above the ground to avoid goats being exposed to rain. This prevents goats from contracting pneumonia during the rainy season.

We visited the house of Vinchiyapillai Ponrose, who has been successful in manufacturing and selling Murukku and other sweet-meats to boutiques in the Mannar town. She earns around Rs 6000 a month and hopes to further increase her income.

According to an European Commission (EC) project report, Sri Lanka's dry zone covers almost 75 per cent of the total land area, while water scarcity is a major problem that contribute to low yields and poor returns.

Minor irrigation systems in disrepair, inappropriate farming practices and poor access to farmer support services and networks are the contributory factors.

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