Homagama farmers stuck without fertiliser

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Any rice farmer would find it awful to be unable to use weedicides, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, or organic fertilisers, yet that is exactly what is happening to farmers in the small village of Prasannapura in Homagama.

The Government, which was facing a foreign currency deficit, attempted to block the outflow of foreign currency by restricting imports of fertilisers and other items. President Rajapaksa’s (at the time) lofty ambition was to ‘create the world’s first 100 per cent organic farming country’,and that failed miserably; the bottom line being spelling disaster to farmers and the farming community.

Imports can be decreased and doing so, is also a green policy was the idea, however, the policy that appeared to accomplish two goals at once, but it had to be abandoned because of fierce farmer-opposition brought on by a decline in harvests.

The impromptu decision to switch overnight to entirely organic farming by Sri Lanka’s leadership under Rajapaksa has an irreversible impact on farmers, who are still suffering throughout the country. This being the background, farmers also struggle mightily to adapt to quick changes in the soil, climate, and economic conditions. It has been more than half a year since the withdrawal of fertliser supplies. How do farmers caught up in the turmoil perceive the ban on chemical fertilisers and organic farming? It’s a long story for people of Homagama.

The lives of the paddy farmers of west of Sri Lanka in Prasannapura, Pitipana South, Homagama just 24 km off Colombo, is dwindling unable to produce rice for their own consumption having vast acres of paddy land.

They once had bountiful harvests and never went dry. Some of the farmers not only had enough rice for consumption but was selling rice, making additional income.

“We have lost everything while traditionally we are neversulky,” noted 79-year-old P. A.Piyasena. He said, the total yield has dropped to 50 per cent in his area and the farmers are struggling still without fertiliser both chemical and organic.

Growing community

Piyasena’s grandfather and father were all well-off persons in Prasannapura with only few families doing farming in that area but today the farming community mostly related to Piyasena, has reached 110.

“Our agriculture was so healthy, and all know how we were taught by the Japanese and recall how they had assisted us. All the know-how we learnt from Japan. but today the Governments are going after fake fertiliser and importing from world over and have created a mess for everyone.” He said the chemical fertiliser from China has not been effective at all.

Today, there are around 110 paddy farmers in Prasannapura and the numbers are gradually decreasing with farmers switching to other jobs.

Organic farming became a hot topic last year in Sri Lanka; the measure to wholly introduce organic farming crippled the domestic economy when the Government announced a ban on imports of pesticides such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides in April 2021, and predominantly stopped imports for half a year.  “The leaves are yellow because we don’t have enough nitrogen fertiliser.”

The farmer’s society in Prasannapura is highly concerned. They have been holding talks with the Government but to no avail. The weedicides and pesticides are not available and even subsidies are not provided. The organic compost is made available, but the targeted yield cannot be determined.

Many of the farmers have their own compost pit but that alone would not be enough to support the cause. The organic compost also needs a scientific method by drying the various kinds of leaves and compounds mixing with dairy poultry wastes, dried and pounded following sifting of the compost to make it soft sandy- like product.

Today, a 50kg bag of urea costs Rs 30,000 and 50kg bag of organic compost is expensive too.

More than two million farmers, or around 27 per cent of the national labour force, were left scrambling for natural fertilisers. The Government failed to increase domestic production of organic pesticides and fertilisers or provide farmers with subsidies to purchase them. The sudden policy-shift wrecked crop yields. Rice, Sri Lanka’s dietary staple that it used to produce adequately and even exported, saw average yields slashed by some 30 per cent. For the first time in decades, Sri Lanka was compelled to import rice. The production of tea, the country’s prime export, fell by 18 per cent, further crimping its foreign exchange earnings. Bending to protests by farmers, the agrochemical import ban was eased in November. But there was still no going back to subsidising chemical fertilisers like before.

The Prasannapura Paddy Society’s General Secretary is Chamara W. He criticises the Government for carelessly eradicating paddy cultivation at a time when the younger generation has already given up on farming.

Lagging behind

In contrast to Bangladesh, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, Sri Lanka has not embraced new technology to advance agriculture, particularly paddy cultivation.

According to Chamara, Atotra, Thuneessa, and Bajiri are among the weeds that have destroyed 80 hectares of paddy fields in Prasannapura.

Some farmers manually remove weeds, while others have stopped paddy cultivation mid-way because they can’t keep up with the weeds’ sporadic spread.

Piyasena notes that these weeds like Atora are strong and challenging to eradicate. They are consuming all the water and natural fertilisers from the soil, leaving very little room for paddy to grow.

There were acres of paddy that were completely devoid of rice, with only the paddy husks remaining. Half-eaten leaves and various kinds of insects were flying around. The paddy plant curves when it is ready to be harvested, but since only the husk is left, they grow tall and from a glance, we can infer that there is no rice inside the husk.

The Low Country Wet Zone (LCWZ), which includes the districts of Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Ratnapura, and Kegalle, has long been thought to be an area where paddy cultivation is less successful, unprofitable, and subject to wide yield variations between its districts. According to Prasanna Wijesinghe and Rasika Wijesinghe’s study for the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute, the yield gap between the LCWZ and other agro ecological zones is significant, at around 50 per cent with the dry zone, 28 per cent with the intermediate zone and up-country wet zone, and 21 per cent with the mid-country wet zone.

According to Thedchanamoorthy (2005), the soils in the LCWZ are classified as mineral and organic soils. Iron toxicity, flooding, and acid sulfate conditions are the main constraints in the wet zone, where rainfall is abundant and evenly distributed.

Crucial factor

The study also demonstrates that since paddy is still a labour-intensive crop in Sri Lanka, labour is one of the crucial factors in its production. Comparing LCWZ to other areas of Sri Lanka, it appears that the use of machinery is less there. In this region, the Combine Harvester was the machine that was most frequently used, which decreased the labour-intensive nature of the harvesting, threshing, drawing, and winnowing processes. Chain type (small) Combined Harvesters are available and can be used in soil that has been saturated with water. The cost of labour, which accounts for 58 per cent of total costs and of which 31 per cent is the cost of hired labour.

True, this study was done in 2015, but as of right now, when paddy cultivation is expected to experience its worst-case scenario in 2022, hiring a tractor for one acre, costs them Rs 30,000. Hiring any tractor for harvesting or ploughing has become a nightmare as a result of the high cost of fuel.

“We want to do organic and that’s a fine initiative, but the Government failed to provide the techniques and the equipment to do it. The worst part is, none of us know what to do next, says Chamara.

Several tractors used for soil preparation were idling without fuel to operate them.

Piyasena is now doing some home gardening leaving his entire acres of paddy land unattended as the cost is high. “We have to hire people to pull out weeds manually and how many can do it? The pesticides and weedicides are not reaching us hence, we let the paddy land die during this time, tells Piyasena. General land preparation, first and second plowing, bund plastering, levelling, broadcasting, harvesting, drawing, and threshing with a thresher are tasks that rely more on family labour. The number of family labourutilised varies according to how the plant was established. Due to the higher cost of hiredlabour in districts like Colombo, Galle, Kalutara, and Matara, paddy production is more expensive than in other districts. As a result of paddy lands being abandoned, farmers are unwilling to indulge in the paddy sector. Therefore, unless steps are taken to increase yield, it is impossible to encourage farmers to get involved in paddy agriculture anymore.

Today, lands including paddy lands in Homagamaare on sale due to the severe crisis the farmers are encountered with. This is evident by the numerous newspaper and online advertisements for land sales in Homagama.

Back to old methods 

Chamara says they have reverted to the ancient practice of chasing insects by lighting fire torches and installing them on the corners of the paddy field. The insects fall on fire and smoke and the smell-spread to keep the insects away. But again, how long and often can we dothis? he asks.

The Department of Agriculture is underfunded, according to Chamara, and no officers are stepping up with alternatives. Agriculture is still a viable industry since it supplies food, but Sri Lanka doesn’t seem to have any plans to develop the sector at a time when the rest of the world is turning to it for self-sufficiency when it is the only option to overcome the global food and economic crisis. Many paddy farmers in Homagama are now choosing to work outside of the country that pushes Sri Lankafrom purchasing basic food and essentials from neighbouring countries.

Government reverted to the old practice of chemical fertiliser but the ‘current financial crisis’ took the lead never to import what the farmers want.

Also, without remorse, the Department of Agriculture posted a message on its website on 28 June 2022, acknowledging that, “the current crisis situation in Sri Lanka and the decision to ban the import and use of fertilisers and agrochemicals pose a serious threat to the country’s food security,” and   there are hardly any news updates or initiatives supporting the beleaguered farmers.

However, Prasannapura’s farmers are still hopeful. They have missed three paddy harvest seasons and still don’t believe they will make it to the next one. They are waiting for some bright ideas emerging from the Government sooner or later how to deal and hope for better harvesting. Until then it’s just wait-and-watch, they said.

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Text and Pix By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan