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Small farmers in Sri Lanka

Country: Sri Lanka |   Partner: MONLAR

Aims

  • To improve the livelihoods of impoverished, small scale farming and fishing communities in Sri Lanka
  • To spread the practice of sustainable farming and fishing based on the knowledge of small scale communities combined with scientific research and the use of resources within the village
  • To inform farmers about government policies and programmes, global trade processes and emerging alternatives
  • To work towards a humane alternative to the neoliberal model of economic globalisation

Successes

  • Thousands of poor families, especially women, are producing healthy and nutritious food using affordable and sustainable farming techniques, as well as native seeds, which are better adapted to local climatic and soil conditions
  • Workers from the tea plantations in the central hills of the country have obtained from the government the right to cultivate on unused tea estates land to establish home gardens and produce food for their family
  • Small scale fishing communities around Puttalam’s lagoon, in the West of Sri Lanka, have mobilised and obtained the creation of a 100-meter coastal belt which will protect the lagoon beach from pollution and further destruction. This resulted in a greater accountability of the local government towards the local communities

The facts

  • Almost a quarter of Sri Lankans live below the poverty line; and almost half of the poor rural population consists of small scale farmers
  • Small farmers produce 85% of the country’s rice and a substantial share of other food crops such as maize, pulses and root crops, and most vegetables and fruits
  • Due to increased costs of production and artificially depressed commodity prices, a small scale farmer can now lose up to three rupees for every kilo of rice produced
  • Rural populations are excluded from influencing policies that are vitally important to their survival, often because they do not have knowledge of the policy processes that are being developed

Since the 1970s, the Sri Lankan government has adopted a number of agricultural policies aimed at creating an export-oriented agricultural economy, giving little attention to small scale farmers, which represent 70% of the population. They produce the vast majority of the rice consumption in the country and a substantial share of other food crops (maize, pulses, root crops and most vegetables and fruits). Yet limited access to initial resources, markets, decent infrastructures, technical knowledge, exacerbated by adverse climate conditions and lack of influence and sufficient knowledge of their right to food, land, water and seeds, prevent rural communities from breaking free from hunger and malnutrition.

Farmers's protest against new proposed seed law

Agriculture is the most important sector of the Sri Lankan economy and is divided in two main farming sectors: large plantations of tea, rubber and coconuts producing for exports on one hand, and on the other, impoverished farmers, the majority women with small land holdings, producing more than half of the country’s food consumption.

The economic liberalisation programme advocated by the government has led to a decrease in the value of domestic food crop production - obliging farmers to sell below the cost of production -, to severe environmental degradation, over-exploitation of resources, such as depletion of fish stocks and pollution from prawn farming, whilst rural workers dont have sufficient wages to buy food. As a result, and despite Sri Lanka’s exceptional life expectancy and literacy rates, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) classifies the island as a low-income food deficit country with a third of the population living in poverty.

MONLAR - the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform – War on Want’s long standing partner in Sri Lanka, emerged from the peasant’s movement opposing neoliberal reforms in the 70s and 80’s, and encompasses a network of farmer’s grassroots organisations. MONLAR gives a voice to rural communities and endlessly campaigns for agricultural and land policies that protect them. The movement also help improve the self-reliance of small scale communities through sustainable agriculture, teaching agroecological techniques and native seed conservation.  

Currently, War on Want is working with MONLAR on an ambitious and innovative project funded by the Big Lottery Fund, which takes a holistic approach to poverty alleviation. The project covers the poorest sectors in Sri Lanka in terms of livelihoods (agriculture, fishing and tea estates plantations) and society (engaging all ethnic and religious groups), and mobilise communities to influence decision-making and secure changes in local and national policies to promote fair access to land, preservation of native seeds and ecosystems, and gain government’s support for agroecology as the most economically and environmentally sustainable approach to farming. For the first time, the project will also support people, in particular widows, affected by the 25-year long civil war in the north, in restarting their livelihoods. 

Big Lottery Fund logo War on Want gratefully acknowledges funding for this partner from the Big Lottery Fund.

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