Plight of the Northern Sri Lankan Farmers

mapIn Sri Lanka, the agriculture products account for almost one-fourth of Sri Lanka’s exports, the 24% made up of 13% Tea, coconut 3%, spices 4% and other 4%, providing an important source of foreign exchange and livelihoods for the people in the country, and yet most of the Northern farmers are not able to play a key role in this important wealth earning activity, because of the devastation caused by the three decades of civil war ending in 2009 and the harmful policy pursued by the previous regime during the negative peace years to 2015. 

The importance of rebuilding the agriculture sector of the region cannot be over stressed.  Unlike the farmers in the rest of the country involved in cultivation, who needs state assistance to keep price of produce stable and to ensure inputs including fertilizers are available when needed at a competitive price; the northern farmers have been denied access to their land and have lost their agriculture infrastructure as well as most of their work force due to the civil war and it could only be rebuilt with the full participation of the state.  If conditions are conducive the northern farmers can complement paddy production in the rest of the country to raise it to export quantities. They could also produce many export crops such as chilies, fruits and vegetable and produce import substitute products like potatoes, onions and many pulses.

After end of the civil war in 2009 the major detrimental factor to rebuild the agriculture sector in the North under Governor’s rule was caused by the authorities, who denied farmers access to their land. Several farmer families are still unable to return to their homes due to many official and unofficial Security Zone restrictions in areas in the North, which prevent in many places and severely restrict in the rest access to cultivatable land. The legislators from North Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with those from the United National Party (UNP), co-partners in the National Government have stepped up pressure to seek the release of more lands now under security forces control.  In all the five districts of the Northern Province many returning farmers displaced by war, were denied access to the land they had been utilizing for their agriculture activities. Many farmers were informed by officials that they no longer had permission to cultivate these lands as the land had been confiscated by the state for use by security forces. These families left their homes, to escape fighting or because their lands were confiscated for use by the forces. Unable to return to their lands are dispersed to other areas in mainland and peninsula. These people were displaced from their lands some initially in 1984 and were unable to return until 2012. They have suffered multiple displacements and witnessed the worst of the fighting, particularly during the final phase and also were the last to be released from the Internal Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and many are still in make shift accommodation without basic amenities. In some cases, they were told access has been denied due to failure to pay taxes for a long period during the war or because land permits were no longer valid and were asked to produce documentation to prove their title to the land.  Many of these people have lost their documents, while fleeing the fighting and over years of displacement and no longer have the required documentation. These people have lost everything in the war and now have no income and no livelihoods as the community is reliant on cultivation done on these plots of land.

The past regime failed to realize that such actions would only give political forage to the representatives of these farmers and this matter was taken to the notice of UN Human Rights Council by TNA ably supported by the Tamil diaspora and as expected the National Government under good governance has consented to resolve the problem and a small percentage of the land has already been released to the owners– map indicate current position of typical security held land. It is the hope that all farmers will be able to get back to their land soon.

In the meantime during the negative peace years following the end of war the State and its organs were engaged in altering the demographic of the Northern Province through systematic colonization. This acrimonious action by the authorities assisted by the previous regime can only be considered as that of mere political pests without vision of good governance to rule a multi-ethnic country like Sri Lanka. They were encouraged by a similar programme executed successfully by earlier regimes in the Eastern Province, at a heavy price. If an economic impact study was done today on the majority biased post-independence colonization policies of distributing small holdings to landless people; it would confirm without any shadow of doubt it produced more negative effects and contributed to the three decades of bloody civil war, which put the country back by five decades than facilitating to the development of the country.

Earlier the farmers whose land were not confiscated by the security forces experienced delays to resettle in their own land; rebuild destroyed homes with whatever assistance received from the state and well-wishers.  The state took considerable time to de-landmine the lands before releasing of it to the farmers for cultivation and the progress was further hampered as more time was needed for the authorities to rebuild the destroyed agriculture infrastructure delayed due lack of funds, both problems are beyond control of the farmers.

There is a bigger problem of mismanagement of human resources that is going unnoticed that has been hindering the productivity drive in the whole country for many decades. The country has for generations been producing agricultural products and exporting plantation crops to earn foreign exchange. Instead of building on this base, the farmers receive subsidy to pursue the traditional feudal times subsistence farming. Many labour utilization programme undertaken over the years, have caused a decline in local food production in spite of farmers receiving subsidies from the state. This is because state had not planned the agricultural sector to develop the workforce with any labour saving techniques. Instead it had continued the old feudal way of life by extracting labour for minimum wage and the manual work force have moved away from agriculture and the production has suffered. The centuries old work arrangement of utilizing farm labour has resulted in thousands of these workers being exploited and are the most under privileged community; a condition increased with the three decades of civil war in North and East Provinces.

Today in the north production of paddy, vegetables and fruits is left with farmers with small holdings doing subsistence farming, which does not sustain production quantities of quality for export. What is even more disheartening is the lack of agricultural planning by the state or at provincial level on what to produce and where. As the result when they do produce surplus of some agricultural product it goes waste, while other products in short supply are imported to meet consumer demand. Due to the absence of proper post-harvest handling there is a high wastage of products. There is also an activity that goes unchecked is the production of tobacco that is using very fertile land, where with proper planning alternate crop could be introduced with a subsidy if needed for a period of transition without loss to the farmer. Lot of effort is needed by the state at provincial level to organize the agricultural section to improve productivity, than providing subsidiaries for unplanned production.

These farmers involved in agriculture including paddy cultivation should venture into suitably planned large scale farming, if they are to make an impact on the export. The State and the Province agriculture sector authorities needs to rescue the toiling northern farmers from the subsistence farming to large scale co-operative farming for better productivity. During the feudal times rice was the staple diet, but today wheat flour products like ‘roti’ bread, buns and other associated bakery products are widely used. Tea is slowly getting pushed out by imported coffee, for there are many five star hotels in the country that are unable to serve a good cup of tea, instead serve good coffee. Many pulses, potatoes, milk, sugar, salt and many other food items are imported. These trends will continue, unless state takes appropriate actions to plan agriculture production in the country.

On resolution of these problems the northern farmers could join hands with the rest of the farming community in the country to increase agriculture exports to enhance the engine of growth. The state must introduce a planned agriculture for the whole country with all the post-harvest handling facilities to reduce waste in such a way, to encourage large scale farming of paddy, pulses, potatoes, vegetables and fruits as appropriate in every province to obtain surplus production to enable exporting the same. At the same time increase the production of other foods items such as milk, salt and sugar substitutes beyond subsistence level. Any subsidy given to such planned agriculture production will be beneficial to the country in many ways and reduce the import cost of food items.