New Internationalist

At Debt’s Door

Issue 331

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Health hazard / AGROCHEMICALS

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At debt's door
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya reports on an agrarian
crisis that is driving Sri Lankan farmers to suicide.

Pesticides kill. In Sri Lanka, they are taking the lives of distressed rice-paddy farmers who commit suicide by swallowing these poisons. Their desperation is fueled by the dual burden of poverty and debt. Pesticide poisoning was the number-one cause of death in four major paddy-farming districts of the country in 1997 – Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Moneragala and Hambantota. In absolute numbers the worst-affected was Kurunegala, also a paddy district, with 6,858 cases of poisoning and 436 deaths. Nationally, ‘toxic effects of pesticides’ ranked as the fifth leading cause of hospital deaths.

These alarming figures are the sad result of an agrarian crisis that has been building up from the mid-1980s. Paddy farmers have been simply unable to sell their harvest for a price that covered their cost of production. Most of them are poor smallholders, owning plots of less than one hectare. The cruellest time of year is the period before the Sri Lankan New Year in mid-April, just after the Maha or main harvest for the year, and traditionally a time of celebration. It is also a time when social obligations and expenses mount and the debt collectors – traders and middlemen in the marketing chain – come visiting.

This is when many suicides occur, says MK Jayatissa, a Polonnaruwa paddy farmer and co-convenor of the Working Committee for Protection of Farmers’ Rights (WCPFR). This group comprises nearly 100 farmer organizations in and around Polonnaruwa. ‘We toil in the fields for six months to raise a crop. When we bring the harvest to the marketplace, we are told by the traders “today the buying price is so much”. The cost of producing a kilogram of paddy is eleven rupees but the price we got this last Maha season was just eight rupees.’ Consumers on the other hand may pay as much as 24 rupees a kilogram to buy it in the open market.

Two of the hardest-hit areas centre around the ancient Sri Lankan cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. These are the sites of the country’s most important ruins and cultural monuments dating back to the fourth century BC, the height of Buddhist civilization. The irrigation reservoirs bear witness to the amazing engineering skills of a time when kings considered it their duty to foster domestic agriculture and to protect the interests of the farmer.

Photo: Charlie Pye-Smith / Still Pictures On 13 August 2000 Polonnaruwa paddy farmers gathered together for a huge demonstration in the town of Hingurakgoda. A fast-unto-death was launched by six male farmers, two women farmers and three Buddhist monks, in support of 29 demands. Into its sixth day the demonstration drew a crowd that newspapers estimated at 7,000. The demo and fast were called off on 18 August when their main demand was met and the Government gave the assurance that it would purchase the sudu nadu variety of paddy at 13 rupees.

Other demands placed before the Government by farmers include an immediate stop to imports of produce such as rice, potatoes, onions and chilies; the introduction of policies that would allow farmers to set their own price and the cessation of taxes for irrigation facilities.

Rice is the staple food of Sri Lankans. Nearly 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and paddy is the main peasant crop, the basis of rural subsistence. Almost half the rural labour force find part time or seasonal employment in paddy cultivation.

The plight of small farmers is due to a complex web of circumstances, many of which are beyond their control. Besides the inability to make sufficient profits to pay debts and meet their obligations, there are problems of storage, marketing and transport. The Working Committee for the Protection of Farmers’ Rights is demanding that the Government intervenes to support domestic agriculture and small farmers, in better marketing, provision of credit facilities and agricultural extension services, distribution of good-quality paddy seed and revival and maintenance of ancient irrigation reservoirs. Governments have since 1977 abandoned small farmers and introduced liberalized markets and export-oriented growth strategies recommended by the World Bank.

The Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), an alliance of some 70 organizations of farmers, environmentalists and trade unions, has been lobbying against these policy changes for about ten years. Its Secretary Sarah Freehand says the recent demonstration was one of many farmer actions in areas such as Ampere, Mahiyangana, Dehiattakandiya and parts of Hambantota and Nuwara Eliya districts. The action in the latter districts included vegetable farmers.

Grassroots resistance to World Bank policy measures has been such that when a resolution to dissolve the Paddy Marketing Board was presented in Parliament in April this year, to pave the way for private-sector marketing, it was defeated. The Paddy Marketing Board, however, has been inactive since 1996.

Recent media reports indicate that attempts to commercialize agriculture, bring in large-scale private sector investment and switch to export crops have failed. ‘Many commercial agriculture projects that were started in the early 1990s have been abandoned and the few firms remaining are complaining of low profits and high risk,’ according to an article in the Sunday Times.

Increased farm size is seen as essential for specialization and the growth of commercial farming, according to the World Bank. But dedicated environmentalists and voluntary organizations have shown that alternative approaches can work and that there is no need for the consolidation of small holdings that would push poor farmers off their land, nor for the harmful, excessive use of agrochemicals.

The aid agency CARE International recently concluded an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme that demonstrates the benefits of scientific crop management for selected farmer groups. The results from their 40 Farmer Field Schools run from 1993 through 1998, show that profits can be increased by figures ranging between 38 per cent and 178 per cent whilst avoiding indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. The average size of the farm plots was slightly less than a hectare.

‘One reason why farmers get into debt is their high cost of production,’ says Ashika Gunasena, CARE’s Director for Monitoring and Evaluation.‘Sri Lanka has the highest cost of production in the region, and the lowest yield.’

Agrochemical companies market their products heavily in agricultural districts, with advertising campaigns, demonstrations and distribution of free samples. ‘Farmers are practically left with the impression that if there’s no pesticide, there’s no crop,’ says CARE Kurunegala area programme director DM Illangaratna.

‘Great damage is done to the environment by farmers using agrochemicals,’ says Jayatissa. ‘Waterways are polluted and there is an increase in certain types of disease, such as kidney ailments and cancer.’ Pollution is affecting fish and bird life in farming districts. ‘Nowadays you never see a house sparrow around here.’

A strong advocate of environmentally friendly cultivation practices, Jayatissa believes farmers’ concepts need to change. ‘Agrochemicals have come into the picture only in the last 50 years or so. Paddy farming has been happening in this country for the past 2,500 years.’ His implication is clear: Sri Lankan farmers have the example of an ancient farming culture and heritage from which to draw inspiration.

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya is a freelance writer and a dual citizen of Canada and Sri Lanka, now living in Sri Lanka.
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