The road to agroecology in Sri Lanka

How 'green” policies are not enough without a just economic and social transition

Protest conducted by the community at Maha Oya, Ampara district, Sri Lanka in December 2020 objecting the Initiative of the Mahaweli Authority to give away the watershed of Rambaken Oya reservoir, also the native lands of Pollebadda indigenous community to a massive scale plantation and animal husbandry project. FoE Sri Lanka joined the protest and later filed a case regarding this issue (CA WRT 70/21)

Before the Green Revolution came to Sri Lanka in the 1960s, with the imposition of modernised machinery, high yielding varieties, increased use of fertilisers and other agrochemical inputs, the country had an ecologically sustainable agricultural system. Farmers used mixed farming techniques and cultivated in a manner that protected the natural environment and human health. They maintained soil fertility through the use of cattle manure, crop rotation, and planting shrubs and trees next to crops so as to increase farm productivity and improve soil health. “It used to be a very interactive system,” says Chalani Rubesinghe, from the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), or Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka.

But with the Green Revolution “along came the massive application of fertilisers and other inputs to support crops, and eventually farmers lost fertility in the crop lands which further increased their dependency on external applications,” she explains.

The main goal of those who brought the Green Revolution to Sri Lanka was to increase total agricultural production, particularly in terms of rice, which would improve the living conditions of rural people. Unfortunately, it did not result in poverty reduction. A study conducted by CEJ in 2012 came across a number of malpractices in the way farmers used fertilisers, such as applying chemicals to target insects in larva stages instead of adult insects, thus rendering pesticides ineffective, or mixing different chemical substances without knowing the final effects.

“Ultimately, the Green Revolution in Sri Lanka was not successful in securing a healthy or sufficient quantity of food at a fair price,” highlighted Rubesinghe.

Sudden ban on chemical fertilisers

In April 2021, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a ban on all synthetic fertilisers. According to Rubesinghe, the real intention behind the decision was to save the dollars that the government spent on importing chemical fertilisers, which amounted to around $400 million each year.

“We could say that the decision was a result of long-run advocacy from some academics, medical professionals as well as some CSOs who advocated on eliminating the use of pesticides (…) and who believed that Sri Lanka should go back to its traditional farming system. But the way this decision was implemented was a total mess,” she added.

Commercial farmers were not ready for this sudden transition. “There wasn’t enough time between the ban and the implementation,” stated Rubesinghe. In order to convert the land for organic farming, preparations are needed, organic matter has to be allowed to breakdown and release nutrients.

The decisions that followed the ban were also the wrong ones. For example, the government tried to import processed municipal waste as organic fertiliser from China, which was found to have potential plant pathogens that could destroy crops.

CEJ opposed the import of these organic fertilisers by filing a lawsuit in 2021. They argued that organic fertiliser from any country could not be imported into Sri Lanka under any circumstance, according to the regulations of the Plant Protection Ordinance imposed in 1981 and the Plant Protection Act No. 35 of 1999. These prohibit the import of soil particles, living organisms, virus, bacteria or fungus cultures into the country, given that organic manure/compost is made of decomposing animal and plant parts, which could consist of pathogens.

The April 2021 ban sparked a crisis in farming and food. Civil society organisations blamed the government, arguing that the attempt to bring organic farming to the country overnight deeply undermined the initiatives that were ongoing slowly towards an agroecological transition. Farmers were generally highly dependent on chemical inputs, and not yet ready to farm in the way that they did generations previously. “This was like an opportunity given to the agrochemical industry to be more popular among farmers as their only saviour,” regretted Rubesinghe.

The crisis continues in to 2022, in the wider national context of deep economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka, which is affecting commercial farmers, but also small-scale peasant farmers and fisherfolk. The recent fuel crisis, which is a result of the country’s severe debt, has meant that farmers are unable to operate machinery for preparing their fields, fisherfolk cannot go out to fish, the market is suffering from transportation delays and the price of products is increasing.

Also when Covid-19 hit, the central market space was often closed, and prices fluctuated overnight. This made life very difficult for farmers, because in these fluctuations, intermediaries are the ones who profit.

“I would say that the last two years have been the worst nightmare for our producers and farmers,” stressed the activist.

Agroecology as a holistic approach

In 2021, CEJ produced a “Roadmap of Policies, laws and measures to successfully adopt agroecology” as a set of guidelines for decision-makers for a proper implementation of agroecology.  This publication was circulated to the Ministry and agriculture officers working in state departments that have the possibility to influence and establish agroecology in Sri Lanka.

According to CEJ, the implementation of agroecology in Sri Lanka faces huge challenges. For example, the lack of technical know-how to meet the demand for food using agroecology, or the lack of coordination between researchers, officers, and decision-makers to apply the findings of studies into decisions. The market is also a huge challenge. The majority of consumers in Sri Lanka can only afford cheap produce, so agroecological farmers need good prices in order to sell their harvest.

“I think this is one of the reasons we need to push for a gradual and whole conversion rather than a sectoral one, in order the achieve food sovereignty through agroecology,” stated Rubesinghe.

“Sri Lanka is a good example of why agroecology needs to be understood as a holistic approach that is as much about just economic and social transition as it is about “green” policies,” said Kirtana Chandrasekaran, co-coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Programme at Friends of the Earth International.  “For example when agroecology becomes reduced to carbon sequestration it can have also some perverse results, but as part of an integrated approach the mitigation and adaptation benefits of agroecology are huge. Most of the success stories of agroecology take this into account and are also led by small-scale farmers themselves as protagonists of the transition – which is key if it is to be really scaled,” she concluded.

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