Farmers turn paddy fields into gem mines

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The lack of fertiliser, fuel compounded with the high cost of living has transformed the ‘Goviya’ into a ‘Pathal Karuwa,’ and transformed paddy fields into mining fields.

Farmers islandwide have turned to gem mining in their paddy fields to earn dollars to support their families.

In Kantale, a group of farmers who are now ‘sick of farming’ have given serious thought to gem mining instead. However, farmers in the Potan Katuwa, 10 Ela Yaya, Agbopura, and Divulgaswewa yayas continue paddy cultivation to feed themselves.

Farmers have been requesting for permits from the authorities to carry out gem mining.  They had been granted permits annually for the  purpose but for reasons best known to them they haven’t been able to do so for the last couple of years. Perhaps, they were hampered by Covid-19, a source said.

These farmers say they have no faith in the government’s cultivation plan for the Yala or Maha seasons and complain that they do not have enough funds to recommence paddy cultivation citing lack of fertiliser as well as rising fuel prices as prime reasons. Furthermore, they have not succeeded in getting their return on investment after having pawned their jewellery and raised funds to focus on the crops last season with the anticipation of a good yield. They are in dire straits now, being unable to make ends meet.

President of the Kantale Business Farmers’ Association Indika Paranavithana said, no one who was engaged in farming received even 40 per cent of the expected harvest last season.

“Loans could not be repaid after the harvest was destroyed by machines and fertiliser. That is why people are afraid to focus on agriculture this time around. The Government is no longer paying any compensation. Therefore, I have chosen the simplest and ideal way to earn money.  Gem merchants from almost every part of the island used to flock here because gems were found all over in Kantale. Gem mining came to a halt abruptly due to a lack of industry permission. Because licences are currently issued by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB), we ask these authorities to carry out an inspection and find out the actual ground situation, so that deserving farmers could be granted permits for gem mining,” he said.

Former Environment Minister and current Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera had temporarily suspended the issuance of inland sand mining permits.

He was of the view that inland sand mining was causing massive environmental damage and alleged that inland sand mining had completely destroyed the village of Walewatta in Ambalantota. It has also been observed that inland sand mining has destroyed cultivable paddy lands as well as economically cultivated lands including ‘coconut’ lands. “Walewatta has become a ‘ghost town’ as a result of inland sand mining. Homes are hard to find. Coconut and Jack trees have been felled. The entire village has been evacuated in terms of habitat. The Surakimu Ganga programme was chosen to rehabilitate the Walewatta village. It is very expensive. Some people pose as gem miners and obtain permits to mine inland sand. The GSMB has stopped issuing gem mining permits now. However, there appears to be a swindle involving the mining and sale of inland sand using licences obtained from another institution. As a result, a large number of both cultivable and cultivated lands have been severely damaged in some parts of the island. A huge environmental damage has been caused and much has to be done to rehabilitate these areas. ” he said.

Recognising the farmer community’s difficulties, he said while the entire land area is not conducive to cultivation due to fertiliser and fuel supply constraints, the government will encourage them to grow additional crops such as corn, green gram, soya, kurakkan, and ‘undu’ after making arrangements to make the soil fertile.

The Minister also said, farmers would be granted financial assistance to purchase either organic or inorganic fertiliser as per their needs and that a Cabinet paper  would be submitted next week  upon deliberations with industry experts.

Minister Amaraweera also noted that countries producing fertiliser have limited their exports due to the looming global food crisis, and that he has already spoken to seven foreign envoys in Colombo to assist Sri Lanka in securing the required stocks.

He also said a delayed shipment of 65,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser from India is being discussed at a diplomatic level. “I request that farmers complete paddy seeding by 10 June and continue food crop cultivation on available lands to avert a potential food crisis. I also encourage the public to begin home-gardening with food crops in pots and on available land,” he said.

Minister Amaraweera stressed that there are over 60 varieties of crops that can be grown in home gardens and that the initiative will be implemented at the State level, stemming from residences of MPs to Grama Seva Niladharis.

Meanwhile, GSMB Chairman Dr. Senarath Hewage highlighted that the issuance of inland sand mining permits to the Ampara and Hambanthota areas have been halted since simultaneous rehabilitation work was not taking place in the area. He did, however, state that they will continue to monitor the progress and decide when to lift the suspension. He also admits that there is no islandwide moratorium on inland mining permits.

For about two years, there has been no shortage of water for agriculture, and tanks across the country have overflowed due to heavy rains. Large reservoir sluice gates had to be opened, and water is not a problem for paddy cultivation. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are said to be the only issue. The government’s ban on chemical fertilisers has been lifted, and chemical fertiliser imports have begun. However, obtaining chemical fertilisers is somewhat difficult.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, global fertiliser production and distribution have plummeted, and as the World Bank Chairman points out, a fertiliser crisis, a food shortage, and an energy crisis will spread globally. Countries must devise strategies to address it. There have been numerous warnings from various sources about an impending food crisis.

Agriculture experts believe that the only solution is to cultivate every available inch of land. A home gardening programme is also underway, and many other agricultural factors in Sri Lanka, such as land, soil, and climate, are favourable.

BY Thameenah Razeek