Vignettes from Sri Lanka's cloud country

In Sri Lanka, organic farmers draw inspiration from endemic practices such as home gardens or analog forestry, and have also adapted ‘imported’ ideas, such as zero-budget farming from India.

By Aditya Batra
Published: Friday 27 May 2011

Encounters with organic farming in Sri Lanka

There is widespread recognition today of the land and food crisis in Sri Lanka, in both plantations and in the smallholder food-producing sectors. Lands are being degraded and poisoned, while devastating floods and periodic droughts take a heavy toll on food security. The government’s response has been to do more of the same – continue to stoke the country’s dependence on highly subsidized agro-chemicals and continue to cold shoulder alternatives.

But the country also has a strong organic ‘movement’ that advocates a poison-free path to food security while pushing for equity and sustainability in agriculture policy.

This loose coalition of interconnected groups draws its inspiration from traditional farming practices -- home gardens for instance; from growing forests for economic and ecological gain, analog forestry, for example; and includes ‘imported’ ideas, such as ‘zero-budget farming’ borrowed from India.

Tea in the central highlands

Sri Lanka’s green gold

About 221,000 hectares, or four per cent of Sri Lanka is covered in tea plantations, and the industry employs close to one million people directly or indirectly. From 1790 till about the 1860s, Sri Lanka was known for its coffee; British planters switched to tea – James Taylor’s Loolecondera tea estate in Kandy was among the first -- after a devastating bout of coffee rust and blight in the mid-1850s.

Data from the Tea Board shows organic tea accounts for only 2 million kgs of the 30 million kgs of tea that Sri Lanka exports each year. Before the tea estates were nationalized in the 1970s, all plantations were in private hands. Post the land-redistribution in the 1970s, about 60 per cent of the country’s tea is produced by small farmers. The best tea in the country is produced in Dimbule, in Uva province. The prime season for plucking is in June to August when the dry, cold wind, Sri Lanka’s version of the Sirocco, blows through these central highlands.

The full leaf tea from the low-country (below 1500 feet in altitude), is mostly exported to the Middle East; Arabs love the full leaf flavour. Tea from the mid-country (up to 3000 feet) is of medium quality, while the up-country teas, such as here in Uva Province, produce the best grades of black teas, chiefly Orange Pekoe, and Broken Orange Pekoe. Yields in Sri Lanka tea estates are low, 1200 kg per hectare, as compared to tea estates in Kenya that easily produce 3000 kg per hectare.

Next slide: A planter’s life
. Melvyn Perara, planter

A planter’s life

We get talking about life on a tea garden, the loneliness, and how many today in India shun the tough life in tea gardens, once a coveted career. And the binge drinking every day at the club. A teetotaler, Perera was once the secretary of the planters club in Haputale. “I’ve seen these guys get whacked out, on all fours in the early morning hours”, he said, rolling his eyes in the direction of the estate manager standing nearby.

Perera, who served in various capacities in the tea estates for 54 years, was called back into active duty after retirement, and in many ways has supervised the estate’s transition into an organic one. Yet, one can’t shake the feeling that he silently suffers the namby-pamby of all this organic talk.

Next slide: Battle with weed control
Battle with weed control

Battle with weed control

You’ll find a lot of weeds in an organic tea estate; weed control is key.

Melvyn Perera explains the different kinds of weedicides used on a non-organic plantation: systemic weedicides that are absorbed by the weed; contact weedicides, which kill the weed on contact; and pre-emergent weedicides that are formulated to kill the seeds of weeds in the ground.

Non-organic estates require three applications of chemical weedicides, in amounts ranging from 100 kg of weedicide per hectare in up-down plantations, where bushes are planted in columns, to 400 kgs/ha in the denser ‘vegetative propagation’ plantations, where tea bushes are planted in denser clusters, as in contours.

Spraying is best done in wet conditions; you need at least one inch of rain before spraying. “Gloomy and wet like this is perfect for spraying,” Perera said. “This is what the manager has to decide on the spot. If you do something stupid, then the crop will be wasted, no?” he said, in an inflection typical of an English-speaking Sri Lankan. Tea gardens use special spray nozzles, and care is taken to ensure spray lances are not raised above one foot. A tea bush is plucked every eight to 10 days. Spraying occurs in between pluckings; sprayers follow the pluckers.

At this organic tea estate, weeds have to be manually removed at least six times a year, an expensive procedure as it involves more labour.

As tea is a lucrative export crop – Japan is the country’s largest market -- estates are careful users of agro-chemicals, especially pesticides, used to kill nematodes (worms and burrowing insects).

A useful substitute is kohamba, or neem, ginger and garlic, among others. “These are very strong. They have no chemicals, no? Pests can’t hold on to the plants when sprayed, no?” Bio-pesticides remain effective from one to one-and-a-half months.

The estate produces about 300 tonnes of refuse tea each year, useful as a compost, but which is still 50 per cent less than required. Compost is therefore applied every second year. It takes about three years of a chemical-free regime before an estate is considered organic. To prevent contamination from neighbouring estates, the estate management has allowed tea bushes to grow tall along the boundary.

Next slide: Wild boar nuisance
Wild boar nuisance

Next slide: Not all Tamilians are the same

Not all Tamilians are the same

Not all Tamilians are the same

The Indian Tamils are descendants from bonded labour sent from Tamil Nadu to work on coffee, tea and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are also known as Hill country Tamils, or Up-country Tamils, as most live in the central highlands. Some have Telugu and Malayali origins. Muthiah Muralidaran, the Sri Lankan cricketer is an Indian Tamil.

Indian Tamils form the backbone of the country’s plantation economy.

Historically, their standard of living is pathetically below that of the national average. They have also had to struggle with their place in the Sri Lankan nation. In 1949 they were stripped of their nationality, their voting rights taken away. In an agreement reached between governments of India and Sri Lanka in the 1964, around 40 per cent of the Indian Tamils were granted Sri Lankan nationality; most of the rest were repatriated to India; while some remained stateless until the 1990s when they were formally granted Sri Lankan citizenship. The Sri Lankan Tamils, on the other hand, claim lineage from the Tamils of the old Jaffna kingdom or are descended from Indian migrants to Sri Lanka’s east coast. Sri Lankan Tamils mostly live in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

Although the Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils view themselves as separate communities, the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in the recent decades has created a common, even if as yet nebulous, Tamil identity.

Next slide: Left-leaning politics

Left-leaning politics

Left-leaning politics

Politically, the Indian Tamilians strongly support trade unions and left-leaning political parties. Here at the Thotulagalla organic tea estate in Haputale, the left-leaning Lanka Estate Workers Union is the largest of the four labour unions.

By rough estimates, a tea estate needs about three line workers per hectare; more are needed for organic farms. The Thotulagalla organic tea estate has 175 line estate workers on its payroll.

The high labour wage rates -- SLRs. 285 per day plus an attendance incentive of SLRs. 90 per day, according to the Department of Labour -- means estate managements do not take on too many staff on their rolls. Permanent workers invite extra expenses for estate owners, such as housing, rations, education, etc. Increasingly, contract labour is being hired instead. Many organic tea estates face a double whammy: a high cost of production and a crippling labour crunch. Many line estate workers are moving out of tea estates in pursuit of better life. “We are unable to replace with the younger generation, as they opt for more sophisticated jobs,” Perera said. Retirement age of women is 55; men retire when they reach 60.

Next slide: Restore a landscape by plants, trees
Water Towers project

Restore a landscape by plants, trees

This is a crucial landscape to restore, as the 23 tea estates in this hilly province are located precisely at the source of all 103 rivers in Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka has three dubious distinctions: we have resources coming out of our eyeballs; we like alcohol, and we have perhaps the highest per capita rate of agro-chemical use for suicides in the world,” says Kamal Melwani, who heads Neosynthesis Research Centre (NSRC), a non-profit research body that restores degraded and poisoned landscapes through analog forestry, a silvicultural practice that re-creates a forest that is economically productive for communities and promotes biodiversity.

Mimicking the species available in the small patch of surviving cloud forest in a neighbouring tea estate, NSRC’s restoration project here involves treating the riparian zones of gullies and waterways and replanting mountain ridges with economically useful and ecologically diverse species of trees.

The project relies on phytoremediation -- planting selected trees, grasses and shrubs to remove contaminants from soil and water, chiefly high nitrates from heavy fertilizer use by estate workers on their vegetable plots.

Next slide: Working with schools
Working with schools
Next slide: Different from agro-forestry
Winner never quits, quiter (sic) never wins

Different from agro-forestry

The picture Veersingha cradles is from another life – he was once a champion body-builder in the army, before he lost his leg fighting the LTTE in Killinochi in 2000.

A purist would sniff at the analog forestry on Veersingha’s plot; critics such as Ranil Senanayake, who coined the term, would claim this is closer to agro-forestry that, “takes an agricultural system and puts a tree layer on it.” The stated goal of agroforestry is to increase productivity.

Analog Forestry, on the other hand, “uses natural vegetation as its design paradigm. Analog Forestry has conservation of biodiversity as an equally important goal as economic gain.”

Next slide: Organic outreach
Organic outreach

Organic outreach

“South Korea pays its farmers to become organic, while this country punishes you for being so,” De Silva said. About 35,000 hectare of the country’s land is certified organic, adhering to I-Form and EU standards and SL standards.

His 23-acre demonstration farm is a living experiment of innovative, low-cost practices in organic home gardens for the country’s poor. “A 40-by- 30-foot plot is enough to grow 20 varieties of vegetables to feed a family of five year around,” he said.

Next slide: No empty holes
Demonstration farm

No empty holes

This is intensive hands-on farming with composting and bio-pesticides. “No empty holes, you keep on planting,” de Silva points out. Here are at least three varieties of composting contraptions, including among others a vermi wash, a ‘live fence’ compost bin of gliricidia sepium stakes and a multi-tiered compost bin for hilly terrain.

There are a bewildering variety of greens, tubers, squashes, beans and vegetables growing in small demonstration plots throughout, while the 28 goats and 10 cows provide milk and dung for plants and generate biogas for cooking. The ambition is to make the farm self-reliant to serve the needs of its 20 members.

Next slide: Push for food self sufficiency
Home gardens

Push for food self sufficiency

‘Home gardens’ in Sri Lanka, small plots of intensively cultivated land close to the house in which a variety of vegetables are cultivated throughout the year, have recently gained centre stage in government food policy.

In March this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched ‘Divi Neguma’, an ambitious programme to promote food self-sufficiency across one million ‘domestic economic units’, or households in the country.

Divi Neguma is being coordinated by the Ministry of Economic Development, and will be implemented by village-level government officials, including the Grama Niladhari, Samurdhi officers, and agrarian services and health officers – who will each enroll 100 families from each of the 14,000 Grama Niladhari divisions in the country. The focus in the initial years is on the cultivation of vegetables in small home gardens, but will in time include fishery, bee keeping, horticulture, and cottage industry. The home gardens roughly of two perches, about 50 sqm each, will cover about 5000 hectare of the country.

“Such a call for households to grow their own food reminds me of the closed economy days of the 1970s,” said Sarath Fernando, Secretary of MONLAR, an agriculture advocacy group. This is another version of a 2007 scheme that targeted all of Sri Lanka’s 4 million households, including ‘wastelands’. In an earlier version, says Fernando, Divi Neguma included a cash reward of Rs. 10,000 to each household.

Now the government will hand each family four to five varieties of hybrid seeds, chillies, tomatoes, beans, thampala or leafy greens, and ladyfinger, and distribute small packets of fertilizer alongside.

Organic agriculture proponents are seeing red over what they claim is a misguided populist move influenced by agricultural corporations.

“The agro-chemical subsidy of SLRs. 1500 per month per family is sufficient for a family to invest in a batu harak (indigenous cow) that will fertilize up to 30 acres of land,” Fernando said.

MONLAR has instead proposed a more holistic approach of ‘ecological’ farming, which the group claims will raise productivity, improve soil health, composting, bio-fertilizers to control pests and promote biodiversity by planting several plant varieties that will also improve food diversity.

Next slide: Battleground for seed
Community seed bank

Battleground for seed

GSA hand-holds close to 100 area organic home garden farmers and runs a popular savings and loan operation that on-lends for several income-generating agricultural activities.

Sri Lanka’s Seed Act, 2003, requires any seed sold in the market to be registered with the Director of Seed Certification in the Department of Agriculture. Although farmer-to-farmer seed sale and exchange is exempted, locally produced seeds sold in the open market have to be certified. This in effect forces local seed producers to be registered, ostensibly a move to maintain standards, but one which works against the interests of thousands of farmers looking for a market for their home-grown seeds.

“This in a country that never sold but bartered seeds,” said K A J Kahandawa of COMPAS, a consortium of about 30 farmers’ groups working for the past three decades to push non-chemicalised agriculture.

Marketing traditional seeds remain a challenge, Kahandawa said. “How do you convince a farmer to spend SL Rs. 180 per kg for a traditional rice seed when a hybrid is available for SL RS. 60 per kg?”

Some NGOs produce and sell traditional seed varieties. A list prepared by the ministry of agriculture in 1958 identified 2000 varieties of seeds; now the government, in a list prepared by IARI recommends only 10-15 varieties. In fact, CIC (a syngenta affiliate) is now also in the business of selling ‘traditional’ seeds. The agro-chemical giant now manages, under a 30-year lease, at least three large government-owned seed farms in the country. It also owns many cattle farms in the country, under a similar lease agreements. “We have asked the agricultural ministry to help train our farmers on seed production so that they can be registered. I can say right now there are 15,000 farmers ready to do this,” Kahandawa said.

Next slide: Advocate of farmers' rights
Sarath Fernando

Advocate of farmers' rights

Sarath Fernando of the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), a coalition of farmers groups, says the government’s dalliance with agro-chemicals is due to three reasons: a misplaced idea that it will help combat spiraling food costs; the undue influence of large agro-chemical firms; and high subsidies that are a populist measure for votes.

Land and agriculture policy has historically been stacked against the interests of poor farmers and small landholders, Fernando said. The series of youth uprisings in the country -- in 1971 (10,000 killed); 1976 (90,000 killed); and 1988 to 1990 (60,000 killed) – was due in part to the failure of the rural economy to provide jobs and opportunities to rural youth, turning them into rebels.

Fernando said the opening up of the hill country for monoculture plantations, then the Green Revolution from the late 1960s, and more recently the “neo-liberal” export-led agriculture has spelled doom for the country.

“We were then challenged to think about alternatives,” Fernando said. MONLAR now has a large network of 70 organisations with over 300 villages practicing alternative, ecological farming. “We stand for farmers rights in a type of agriculture that restores nature’s ability to restore itself,” he said.


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