Unplanned cultivation and lack of government support for vegetable farmers in and around the Dambulla region have forced many of them to feed their produce to the cows and elephants, while consumers in other parts of the country are paying high prices for vegetables, The Sunday Times learns.
This situation had apparently got worse during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year as many farmers had attempted to maximise their profits by increasing their production, only to find there were no traders to purchase them.
The Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre (DDEC) set up in 1999 enabled farmers in the area to market their produce even at night. About 200 lorries from outstations line up daily at this centre to purchase vegetables and transport them to various parts of the island. However, over the past three months the number of lorries coming to the centre have steadily dwindled and farmers have been struggling to find buyers for the large quantities of vegetables flowing into the market.
While some farmers are being forced to destroy their crops others are quitting farming due to the low prices they are receiving.Though the farmers complain they are receiving low prices for their produce, consumers are paying high prices, with the middlemen involved in transporting and selling vegetables in Colombo and other areas making huge profits.
Farmers who sell their vegetables at DDEC have called on the government to enforce fixed prices to curb the middle man from thriving in the situation of varying prices.
R.G. Henry, a vegetable farmer from Nakyanweva told the Sunday Times that he gave up paddy cultivation and started on vegetables because of insufficient income, but now he was in the same plight. He also charged that the government had failed to keep their promises and give concessions on fertilizer.
“We have not received any support from the government for fertilizer. Even the machine we use to spray the insecticide costs us about Rs. 65,000. With the prices we receive how can we afford this?” he asked.
A. M. Abeysinghe, a farmer from Galenbindunuweva said due to heavy transportation costs, local farmers hardly earned enough to even feed their families. He said the low prices they received for their vegetables at the Economic Centre had aggravated the situation.
Despite the government’s claims to have spent over Rs 5 billion on fertilizer concessions many of the farmers who sold their crops at the DDEC complained that they had not received a single rupee from the government.
On an average upto 20 trucks can be seen taking the excess vegetables to be dumped in the surrounding areas. Vegetables brought by the farmers during the day are loaded into tippers and taken to the Dhigampathaha forest area to be disposed off.
Minister of Trade and Consumer Affairs, Bandula Gunawardena told The Sunday Times that the recent landslides in the Nuwara Eliya District had resulted in an over production of vegetables . Elaborating on this he said as many crops were destroyed in the Central Province due to heavy rains and landslides in December and January the farmers had increased their production during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year to compensate for their heavy losses.
“Even though the production increased dramatically, the demand remained the same. There weren’t enough traders and consumers to purchase all of the farmers’ extra crops. This was the root cause for the disposal of vegetables ,” he claimed.
Minister Gunawardena said the government was unable to control the prices in the DDEC as the government only provided the infrastructure for private traders to buy goods directly from the farmers. The DDEC is now owned by private parties further limiting the government’s authority over traders, he said.
Apart from the problem of over production, traders complain that reports regarding a possible attack by the LTTE on the DDEC had resulted in a decrease in the number of buyers who come to the Economic Centre during the week.
“If there are such specualtions the government forces should at least provide more security at the Economic Centre and clear any fears the public may have,” a trader said.
Meanwhile Dambulla OIC L. De Silva said police had provided the centre with additional security and had even appointed a Sub Inspector to oversee the security of the centre.
“Security is not the issue here There were long queues of buyers from all over the island last week,” he claimed. He said however police have been conducting routine vehicle checks in and around the area in addition to tightening security near the economic centre.
Something rotten in the Dhigampathaha forest
Due to the large quantity of vegetables going to waste at the DDEC, many traders opted to dump the extra vegetables at the nearby Dhigampathaha forest reserve, causing a serious threat to the habitat and wildlife of the area.
As over 100 tons of vegetables including polythene and plastic bags, were dumped in the forest, herds of elephants could be seen helping themselves to a New Year feast of rotting vegetables . Dr. Vijitha Perera, a Veterinary Surgeon from the Wildlife Department cautioning about this situation said, “firstly, the elephants could get used to the taste of vegetables, which are not part of their usual diet and they may venture into neighbouring villages to find vegetables, causing damage to crops and homes.”
Dr. Perera also said that due to the elephants inability to separate the polythene from the vegetables they would consuming large quantities of polythene, which could cause a complete blockage of the animal’s bowels. However, little has been done to curb this situation as the government claims it was unaware of this situation despite many media reports.
Apart from the Dhigampathaha Forest Reserve, vegetables are being dumped in acres of land in Habaraththawala.Sunil Jayaratne whose land has been used for dumping the refuse complained that about 20 tractors make way to his land daily to unload the rotting refuse.
“My Cashew farms have all suffered due to this waste, as an increase in insects has completely destroyed the crop,” he said.
Meanwhile Environment Ministry media secretary Aruni Muthumali said the ministry had not been informed of the situation in the Dhigampathaha forest.
“This seems a serious issue. We will look into it immediately to see that this crime is checked forthwith,” she said.Ms. Muthumali blamed the local authorities including the Municipal Councils for not acting immediately.
However, the Sunday Times learns that some private contractors have been given the authority to carry out the vegetable dumping in the forests and surrounding areas.
Trader who felt the pangs of farmers
Nissanka Senaratne, a vegetable trader at the DDEC was among the unsung heroes who had bought much of the poor farmers stocks at reasonable rates to allow them to enjoy the New Year.
Mr. Senaratne had spent over Rs. 250,000 out of his own pocket to purchase all of what the farmers brought to him. However, his generosity had little use for him as the vegetables had been thrown away into the nearby forests.
“I have to protect my farmers because I know what it is like to be in that state. I too was a farmer before I became a trader ,” he said.
A few of the farmers who benefited from Senaratne’s generosity stood outside his shop and openly showed their appreciation while unloading their goods.
Chaminda Kumara, a young farmer from Dambulla said that they received Rs 60,000 each for four lorries of vegetables.
“Although an excess of vegetables had been produced, Nissanka’s generosity saw that we got a decent pay for this month,” he said.
Kumara said about 15 farmers who always sold their goods to Mr. Senaratne were able to enjoy their New Year because of his generosity.Among the many farmers who congregated around his shop to show their gratitude, was Ajit Weerasinghe.
“If we hadn’t got this money from Mr. Senaratne, we would not have been able to enjoy our New Year,” he said.
But most of the farmers were not so lucky and they had no alternative but to sell their products at low rates or see them being dumped in surrounding areas.