Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

Former War Zone Produces Plenty

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Mar 28 2012 (IPS) - Most things in Sri Lanka are becoming expensive these days. In early February fuel prices were increased by margins ranging from eight to 49 percent, with the all-important diesel, used widely in commercial transport and power generation, going up by 36 percent. The Sri Lankan rupee that was trading at 107 rupees to the dollar in January surpassed 130 rupees per dollar last week.

Backbreaking ways of transferring agricultural produce also mean wastage.  Credit: Indika Sriyan/IPS.

Backbreaking ways of transferring agricultural produce also mean wastage. Credit: Indika Sriyan/IPS.

The Central Bank said recently it was spending over 21 percent more on oil imports by early 2012 compared to last year.

Already electricity, transport and bread prices have increased. Gas and milk foods are also baying at the door for increases but have thus far been blocked by the government. Everyone is getting ready to face the traditional New Year, in mid-April, amidst rising costs.

But not everything is going up in price. Surprisingly, vegetable prices have been at a two-year low. According to data gathered by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI), all vegetable varieties have recorded a significant fall in prices.

By the first week of March, beans were down by 50 percent compared to 2011, tomatoes and aubergines by over 60 percent and beetroot by 50 percent. “These are significant drops,” Ajith Rathnasiri, a researcher at HARTI, told IPS.

He attributed the plunge to several reasons, partially to good weather but particularly to the fact that the former conflict zones in the north and east, which had been almost completely cut off from the national market during the three decades of civil war, have been able to keep supplies coming continuously since early last year.

“There are vast areas of land whose harvest is now getting into the national supply centres on a weekly basis,” Rathnasiri said.

Agriculture and fisheries were cornerstones of the Northern and Eastern economies, not only in the pre- war period but even during the conflict. As much as 30 percent, if not more, of the Northeastern economy may be dependent on the two sectors.

With new employment opportunities at a low ebb in the former conflict areas, many of the hundreds of thousands who have returned to their villages since the war ended in May 2009 have begun cultivating small plots of land, or home gardening.

“Some of the most fertile land in the country for vegetable cultivation has traditionally been in the north,” Kiruja Sivasubramaniyam, a field worker with the International Labour Organisation working on agricultural projects in the Northern Vanni district – the vast swathe of land that bore the brunt of the war – told IPS.

The latest United Nations situation update for the region said that field crops’ yields grew by 60 percent during last harvesting season. “Maize achieved its highest cultivation extent reaching about 68,500 hectares. Higher yield is expected in this season for maize, potato, green gram, black gram and ground nut,” according to the report.

“Some varieties, that were traditionally only cultivated in cooler areas in the Central Province, are now grown in the north and east. Sometimes these areas record better yields,” Rathnasiri added.

The yields were so high in February that tomato prices plummeted to around 10 rupees (less than one cent) per kilo.

“Whereas a year back, the main national distribution station at Dambulla would get around 600,000 to 700,000 kilogrammes per day, in February we saw twice that much coming in.”

Other factors like cheap fertiliser, high-yielding seeds and a national policy that encourages small-scale agriculture have also helped, Rathnasiri said.

But the high yield is not without its own pitfalls. A high harvest sometimes means large losses to farmers who fall victim to buyers’ price-fixing, as a small group in the village of Olumadu, in the Northern Vanni’s Kilinochchi district discovered midway through 2011.

The villagers had enjoyed a bumper crop of aubergines but ended up making a loss as buyers drove the market down to as low as eight rupees a kilo. “Even now we are having difficulties selling some varieties at a profit,” said Chitra Gurukularaja, a cultivator in Dharmapuram, in Kilinochchi.

Researchers at HARTI say that farmers are making losses because they don’t plan ahead. “When one variety makes a profit, everyone will go for that, then the prices are automatically pushed down,” Rathnasiri said.

According to L.P. Rupasena, HARTI’s deputy director of research, the country lacks an integrated agricultural sector. “We don’t have information going back and forth, we don’t have a system where farmers will look at data and assess the market,” he told IPS.

One of the biggest dupes farmers face right now is seeds. In this unregulated market, importers often dump three times more than the national requirement of popular seed varieties onto the market.

“That is why we have so many tomatoes now, because there is an over-supply of a fast-maturing imported seed variety,” Rathnasiri said.

Rupasena told IPS that the only way to avoid such pitfalls is to develop a regulated and integrated market. But he warns that it is not easily achievable.

“We can’t get our farmers to shift to crates, they still prefer burlap or coconut fibre bags,” he said, referring to last year’s island-wide protests against a government policy forcing farmers to transport their produce in wooden crates.

Experts like Rupasena say that crates could reduce wastage during transport from as much as 30 percent to negligible levels.

However, “(agriculture) still remains largely an unregulated, unprofessional sector, despite its national importance,” he concluded.

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