15/10/2005" BY CHANDANI Jayatilleke in Anuradhapura
SISIRA Kumara and his wife sit together in a tiny room in their brick house and sort out big onions, grade and pack them in bags of two different colours - the red bag for the Dambulla market and the white bag for Colombo.
Sisira and a group of other villagers of Poowarasankulama, a tiny hamlet in Anuradhapura district, have harvested a substantial yield of big onions this season.
They have also done away with middlemen and now transport their produce to the main markets by themselves.
During the big onion season, which runs for about two months in a particular kanna, these villagers send two lorries of onions to Colombo and Dambulla on a daily basis.
This is a clear indication of how farmers have gained much by cultivating a new crop, with the help of the Dry Zone Agricultural Development Project (DZADP) funded and implemented by the European Commission (EC) and Care International.
Following the arrival of the EC/Care project, the farmers of Poowarasankulama, a village about 10 kms away from the Anuradhapura town, organised themselves.
Interestingly, many members of the new organisation are women. In addition to their traditional housewives' and mothers' roles, these women are actively engaged in farming and agriculture, thanks to the EC project.
Sisira Kumara, one of the members of the Farmers' Organisation says, "Our farmers were educated on big onion cultivation through this project and we are immensely benefiting from this crop now."
They started in a small way but now they have a large area of about 60 acres.
"We were given training on farming and marketing. Now our focus is on market-oriented agriculture. And we have a fair knowledge of what crop should be cultivated in each season, depending on the water supply and the dry climate which prevails in this area," said a woman farmer.
As fertiliser, they use compost and cowdung. Chemicals are used only if necessary.
A few years ago, the villagers used to sell cowdung to traders for peanuts not realising the value of the organic fertiliser in their own agriculture.
"We used to sell cowdung to the traders, mostly from the North. But now we use it in our own farms," the woman farmer adds. The villagers have also built agri-wells. In addition, they get water from the Malwathu Oya.
The project has helped empower the villagers in many ways. "As we transport the harvest to Colombo and Dambulla on our own, and dispense with the middlemen, we make a reasonable profit," says Sisira.
Three years ago, this village had only about five two-wheel tractors. Now there are 44 and over 100 motor cycles. Because of the profit they made due to the focused farming and marketing concept, they could purchase more tractors and motorcycles.
Transport is a major issue for the villagers. They mostly use motor cycles and tractors.
Renuka Seneviratne - Production Assistant (Agriculture Research) who works closely with these farmers, said that she personally gained much through the project. "I am grateful to this program, I personally learnt a lot in farming and marketing.
This knowledge I have been sharing with the farmers in the village. I would be able to inspire many others in the future too," she adds. R.D. Vinitha, an Animator attached to the project, said she has developed a mango nursery and several other crops in her home garden.
"I got myself trained through this project. I learnt about various techniques in agriculture and remedies to issues such as soil erosion," she says.
Vinitha shares her knowledge with a large community. Even, schools in the area send their students to her nursery for education.
"People benefit a lot from my own experience," a proud Vinitha says.
Womens participation in these programs is much higher than mens in this village. At the same time they also play the role of housewife and mother. Their time management is remarkable indeed.
Under this project, EC and Care have chosen a marginalised and resourceless villages for development. In the implementation process, Care is being supported by various Government and non-governmental organisations.
The project which started in 1999, would be completed at the end of this year, benefiting 16,000 families.
We also visited Helambagaswewa, a remote village about 25 kms from the Anuradhapura town.
"This village was quite underdeveloped and its resources were minimal," says Chamila Jayashantha, Care Team Leader, Anuradhapura, of the DZADP.
The President of the Farmer Organisation in Helambagaswewa, Shaul Hameed, said their village did not have a farmers' organisation till 2003. Under the EC/Care project it got involved in a lot of projects. Eventually a farmers' organisation was formed. The young and the old have got together to fight for one cause, improved farming.
"Our village does not have much facilities for education, and we all ended up being farmers. Our children could not go for higher education as there were no facilities nearby. Agriculture was the only thing that we knew.
But unfortunately, we did not have sufficient water to continue farming," lamented Hameed. Under the EC/Care project, the village tank was renovated at a cost of Rs. 772,206, to which DZADP contributed Rs. 615,453. With the rehabilitation of the tank, the cultivable area was expanded to 45 acres.
During a training program, the farmers in the village developed the Integrated Watershed Management Plan for their tank. They have also started a special fund to be used in future tank maintenance work.
"But, the water is still to come. Although Anuradhapura was flooded after the monsoon last year, this village did not get sufficient rainfall to fill the tank," the villagers say.
At present, the villagers (all Muslims), cultivate corn, pumpkin, big onions, mango and paddy. Interestingly, many youth have taken to farming here, following the encouragement they got from Care officials. There are 38 members in the Farmers' Organisation, from the 35 families in the village.
"We want to develop the Farmers' Organisation into a much larger one by 2010," Hameed says.
There are 40 agri wells in the village now, but water for farming is still a problem.
"If the tank is full, the water can be used to cultivate about 90 acres and used for three months," says Hameed.
The village has no electricity. And people have to walk a few kilometres to get to the nearest bus stop. The dusty roads are in terrible condition. Probably no politician has visited this village except on a 'vote begging' mission.
Interestingly, the villagers speak both Sinhala and Tamil. This is because they learn in Sinhala in the village school and speak Tamil at home. The villagers have no objection to studying in Sinhala, because their children can learn two languages at the same time.
Next we visited a village called Baladakshamawatha, which is rather closer to Anuradhapura town, where women folks have taken the lead in constructing a Resource Centre.
The two storeyed centre has a library with information in agriculture. It has audio and video equipment and a facility to lend agricultural equipment to needy farmers. Needy farmers use the centre as a sales outlet for village produce.
The centre has a computer class and a montessori school too. It also conducts cultural shows. To construct the Resource Centre they got about Rs. 200,000 from the EC in two stages.
"But the villagers as a unit have done much more than that money could have done. With our human resource contributions, the building would cost about Rs. 750,000. All members in our families have done their maximum to put up the building," says Champika, one of the key persons who were in charge of the construction work.
"After Care came to this village, our people's attitudes have changed remarkably. And now everybody thinks of doing well in their livelihood and providing a good education to their children," Champika says. They have also purchased equipment to be lent to farmers who cannot afford to hire such equipment at the prevailing high rate.
However, water for agriculture is an issue in this village too. As a remedy, the villagers have begun to harvest rain water with the assistance of a community organisation.
Their Farmers' Organisation has 35 members, many of them are young women. K. Pathmasiri, President of the organisation said they were planning to find money to set up a rice mill so that they could start milling their paddy and selling rice at a better rate.
"If we are to sell paddy, we do not get a good price, although the Governments makes various promises," he says.
However, he adds that they need the state assistance to make this dream comes true.
In all these villages, we met men, women and children who have made great contributions to their own communities.
They face trying natural and man-made conditions, but they are winning the battle with the helping hand of the EC/Care project.