We spent a week on the road in April (before the fuel crisis hit particularly hard) speaking to farmers across the five main agricultural districts in the country. These are the people’s stories spanning an island, which have been ignored for way too long.
Rice laid out to dry on the long roads between Polonnaruwa and Medirigiriya. The yield has nearly halved in these areas.
In the first week of April 2022, Watchdog travelled to five locations across Sri Lanka to listen to farmers who were impacted by the now-former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s overnight ban on chemical fertiliser.
These farmers’ experiences drive home how short-sighted and gravely impactful the policy truly was. The Government’s reversal of the policy almost one year later cannot make up for the loss of livelihood for most farmers, and the strain placed on them over the last year. To add insult to injury, the compensation promised to them has not been fulfilled.
We thank all the individuals who facilitated our conversations with the farmers; and most importantly, the farmers who gave their time, insights and knowledge to make this series possible.
In our initial piece for this story, we explored the reality for farmers in Hambantota, the Rajapaksa heartland. It was the starting point of a journey across the main agricultural areas in the country. Let’s do a quick recap of our route:
Sammanthurai: The Eastern Rice Bowl has just seen the harvest season. Empty paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see on the A31 road between Ampara and the small town. Tributaries of the Gal Oya — the country’s first irrigation scheme — should cut under the road as they run to supply the fields, but remain dry - we’ll see why later. In between seasons, elephants roam the empty fields, munching on ‘leftovers’. We drove a long way off this main road, along a dirt path through the fields that is probably more used to tractors and bikes, to visit the Pattampitti anicut, where farmers are preparing for a lunch meeting with the Divisional Secretary.
Walapane: While curfew has just set in, we walk a steep climb up from the Haragama Road, into the fields of Tennehenwala. Paddy grown on terraces and small vegetable patches are ringed by mountains at this height. These fields are balanced along the hills’ inclines and are inaccessible to mechanised farming machines. Traditional methods of sowing and harvesting by hand are still practiced. We are told the area has also become a lot warmer in the last ten years, signalling at the slow creep of climate change.
Polonnaruwa: The landscape of the North-Central province is a patchwork of paddy fields, vegetable farms and the irrigation tanks created to sustain their cultivation. Newly-harvested rice dries along the long roads at Medirigiriya and in Hingurakgoda, as the farmers who’ve spent decades in agriculture recall their memories. Fed by the channels of the Mahaweli irrigation scheme, the region has recorded high number of CKDu cases, which President Rajapaksa cited as one of the main reasons for the chemical fertiliser ban.
Jaffna: We cross the causeways into the peninsula, and the colours change from pale ocean blues to stretches of red earth. The rich soil holds fruit trees, paddy, and tobacco for miles. Across Maruthanarmadam, Inuvil and Kandarodai, we meet farmers who grow some of Jaffna’s well-known and loved items. Driving along a single small road, one will see these fields on one side, and a fence dotted with military watch-towers on the other.
The Government reversed the ban on chemical fertiliser about a month after we did the research for this piece. One year after its disastrous and ill-informed enactment. Compensation remains to be paid for the damage caused. Fertiliser remains inaccessible to many farmers, as prices have now tripled. Add this to the fuel shortages, and they are moving from one crisis to another.
We recently released Watchdog’s Inflation Tracker, looking at how prices of food items have shot up over the last few months. What do the farmers have to do with these numbers?