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SRI LANKA: Farming, Fisheries Offer Hope to Former Battleground

Amantha Perera

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Apr 28 2010 (IPS) - Well before the northern Sri Lankan region of the Jaffna Peninsula was devastated by over two and a half decades of a bloody sectarian war, fisheries and agriculture had been the mainstays of its economy.

The northern economy, devastated by years of war, is now looking for a boost. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The northern economy, devastated by years of war, is now looking for a boost. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

More than 25 years since the war broke out – and a year after it ended – these same commodities are offering glimmers of hope toward the region’s economic recovery, thanks in part to hundreds of thousands of tourists, mostly locals from the south, who make it a point to stop by the Jaffna market and buy from at least one of thousands of roadside sellers before heading back home.

At least a quarter of a million visitors come to Sri Lanka’s northern region on weekends, so say the rough statistics maintained by government authorities.

Dried fish, fruits and vegetables are among the tourists’ favourite buys in the region, popularly known as the Vanni. These sell at prices lower than those in other parts of Sri Lanka.

"Agriculture and fisheries accounted for more than 50 percent of the Vanni economy in the pre-war times (early-1980s)," Muthukrishna Sarvananthan, a Sri Lankan economist, told IPS.

The revival of agriculture and fishing will not only benefit the former war zone but the rest of the country as well, said Sarvananthan, who heads the independent, non-governmental Point Pedro Research Institute, which focuses on the north-eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

"The revival of the Vanni economy would boost the national agricultural production (including fisheries), especially paddy, fish, onion, chili and other subsidiary food crops. Additional contribution to (national) agricultural production could reduce imports of agricultural produce, including fish," he said.

Rasiah Janakumaran, head of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce, shares Sarvananthan’s assessment. "It is a step-by-step process, but once production increases and, more importantly, the northern produce can reach the southern market, prices will fall; most agricultural and fish (products) produced here are cheaper," he said.

Both economists see the revival of the northern economy’s fortunes as a cyclic trend.

"Economic revival in the Vanni will increase the demand for consumer goods, including consumer durables, thereby boosting businesses island-wide. Vehicle and machinery markets will also get a shot in the arm. All these will expand the services sector in the national economy," Sarvananthan said.

The northern population is predominantly Tamil, who make up 12 percent of the South Asian country’s population of 22 million. The region became the battleground of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as it fought for a separate state for the Tamil ethnic minority. The war cost over 70,000 lives, displaced at least 280,000 individuals in its final phase, and devastated the region’s economy.

There is hardly any building that has not been hit. Trains stopped running a long-time back and the iron tracks were removed to build bunkers.

Public administration is slowly picking up, but no private enterprise survived in the areas dominated by the Tigers unless it towed their line. All that did so are long gone with the end of the Tigers.

In Jaffna the situation is slightly different. It has been under government control since 1995. Farming, fishing, agriculture and other income sources survived, albeit barely.

Since the LTTE’s defeat by government troops in May 2009, tens of thousands who fled the fighting have been returning to their former villages with infrastructure development and private enterprise in the pipeline. They want quick assistance in the forms of tools and machinery like boats and tractors, as well as facilities like reconstructed schools, hospitals, markets and transport to revive their region economically.

"The war is over, people are coming back; now life has to return to normal. For that we need help. A quarter-century war did not leave much to be salvaged," Joseph Devasagayam, a new returnee in the Omanthai area in the Mullaittivu district of the Vanni, told IPS.

Some of the returnees have begun farming on a small scale. Senna Pakiavathy’s husband in Puliyankulam district in Jaffna used part of the 25,000 Sri Lankan rupees (approximately 220 U.S. dollars) he received as government and United Nations assistance to start a vegetable garden.

"We wanted make sure that we could make some income, so we started the vegetable plot. It is small, but we make some money by selling it and we can use it ourselves," Pakiavathy said.

Until the war started, vast stretches of the Vanni were used to grow paddy and vegetables. But some areas – including agricultural lands – have yet to be cleared of mines and unexploded devices – remnants of the decades-long war with the Tamil.

The government says that over 1,000 square km of land, including public roads, have been cleared while a little over 600 sq km remain untouched. The U.N. says it plans to provide tool kits worth 680,000 U.S. dollars for the next farming season.

For now, most of the returnees survive by doing odd jobs – but soon these, too, will run out.

"With some help, we can start paddy harvesting," said Pakiavathy. She and other returnees feel that agriculture and fishing can be easily boosted in the Vanni with a guaranteed income to those engaged in them – and perhaps a little more help from government.

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