Ecological agriculture is the way out of poverty

Compiled by Sarath Fernando

This Sri Lanka National Report is based on the experiences of action and struggle in Sri Lanka for about 20 years for a more logical, workable and people friendly approach and strategy for economic improvement, reduction of poverty and hunger and for social justice.

Over a hundred organizations of farmers, fishers, women, plantation workers and industrial workers have joined and contributed to these activities. Today we are able to present a very workable alternative approach to the economy and development process in the country. It has succeeded in getting the Government to accept some aspects of this strategy at least as election promises.  It is a strategy that is relevant to the current world situation and a strategy that can be worked out to a considerable degree, even without active and honest support of government.

The main thesis

In order to face the current crisis of MDG failure to reduce hunger and poverty new strategies have to be formulated and new planners and decision makers are necessary. The failures of the present leaders of powerful countries and the international institutions they have set up to find effective solutions to the many crises that the world is facing shows that it is foolish to expect the very creators of these crises to find solutions.

Thus it is necessary to think of new strategies and new planners and decision makers to find effective solutions.

In finding solutions it is necessary to find ways in which the poor and hungry people take over the tasks of overcoming hunger and poverty. Since they do not have capital and since borrowed capital not be expected to support a process that does not benefit capital such a strategy will have to depend on capital to a minimum. Thus, free gifts of nature are utilized to the maximum

In Sri Lanka’s situation we have found that the most effective way of ending hunger and poverty is by allowing nature to make its maximum contribution to this process. Sri Lanka still has a very large percentage of small farmers who are concerned primarily with producing their food. Thus, they grow rice, main food, vegetables, pulses, yams and potatoes etc.

In 1996 the World Bank guided the government of Sri Lanka to adopt policies that would push these people out of their land and agriculture, getting them to migrate into cities and find non-farm employment.: (Ref: Non Plantation Sector Policy alternatives: WB report 1996). This however, has not worked in Sri Lanka and still large numbers of people live in rural areas. Youth in Sri Lanka have waged three armed rebellion that killed around 10,000 in 1971, about 60,000 in 1988 -90 (UN Committee on involuntary disappearances visiting Sri Lanka in 1991) and over several hundred thousand in the northern war that lasted for 30 years Trying to make the country attractive to foreign investment over the last 36 years has failed and only cost the country a tremendous increase in foreign debt. More recently the governments have declared various programmes for rural small farmers’ agricultural improvement. Programmes such as "Divineguma" (livelihood improvement), "Gamaneguma" (improvement of village), "Gemi Diriya" (courage of villagers, "Api Wawamu" "Rata Nagamu" (let grow and Build the Nation) have all being saying about utilizing the possibilities of rural small holders to grow their own food. However, these programmes have been influenced by agro chemical companies for their interests and thus the programs are not carried out with a right vision and approach.  Governments still continue in the same direction of improving massive infrastructure, building express highways, international airports and harbors, tourist zones etc which have failed to achieve the declared objective of expanding exports attracting foreign investment, achieving faster economic growth, expecting it to trickle down and reduce poverty. This is just to be able to get more and more foreign loans. The burdens of these debts are transferred to the poor while the rich and investors get very large tax holidays.

Experiences of farmers in Sri Lanka

Experiences of farmer organizations and people’s organizations over the last 15 to 2 years show that ecological agriculture is a very effective way of overcoming hunger and poverty and of reducing ill health, and ecological destruction caused by conventional chemical farming. Further this has become very expensive since all chemical inputs are imported. Government has had to spend huge sums of money to provide chemical fertilizer at subsidized prices (about a hundred billion is spent annually on the fertilizer subsidy alone). It has now been found that chemical agriculture leads to severe health problems and death. In Padaviya in the North Central Province around 20,000 people have died of a mysterious kidney disease proved to be caused by arsenic or Cadmium poisoning due to chemical agricultural inputs. In the North Central Province the people affected by this disease is over a hundred thousand. It is spreading to other areas too since this practice is island wide. Cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and many other diseases are caused by these.

Thus, it is definitely necessary and quite possible to transform chemical input dependent agriculture in Sri Lanka into a much more beneficial form of ecological agriculture.

In doing this it is necessary to give an emphasis to the necessary transformation in the hill country, which is almost entirely covered by tea grown as a monoculture plantation. There is a very important need to attend to in the hill country agriculture and land use.

When the British started tea plantations they brought cheap labour from India. Over a million people were thus brought and kept under conditions of semi slavery. They were kept under miserable conditions, very low conditions of housing, health, education etc. In 1947, they were deprived of citizenship since it was feared that they would vote for the left parties. When Sri Lanka got independence these workers did not get any independence and they are even today kept under the same conditions. Plantations today are a dying industry, the soil has got completely eroded and less productive. Therefore, people’s organizations demand that these plantation people should be given land ownership and they should be assisted and guided to do ecological agriculture. We have found that about 40 % of plantation youth have got some education now and are unemployed. They do not want to be employed as plantation labour under the present degrading conditions. Transforming the hill country into an ecologically sound form of agriculture, with the highest elevations reforested and rest of the land convered into diversified agriculture growing fruits, vegetables, timber and also animal husbandry can best be done by the plantation people themselves.

In the experience of rural farmer organizations such ecological agriculture can be tremendously productive and extremely beneficial. Overcoming the poisoning of the hill country with chemical farming is essential since the hill country is the major catchment area. Heaviest rainfall is in the hill country and this rainfall is carried to the plains right round by around 200 rivers. So storage of water in the hill country by improving the forest cover and overcoming erosion is essential for the whole country. Ecological agriculture can also provide nourishing and diversified food to the people, and plantation people are the most undernourished section of the population.

This transformation needs to be done in all other parts of the country.

The essential elements of ecological agriculture are:

  1. Protection and improvement of top soil be preventing erosion (building ridges and mulching)
  2. Making maximum use of sunlight by growing a variety of trees, growing to different canopies,
  3. Complete recycling of all organic matter and utilizing animal waste for increasing microbial activity for soil fertility improvement
  4. Avoiding the use of chemical pesticides (allowing insects to do their job),weedicides ( stopping the killing of microbes, allowing them to o their task of soil fertility improvement ) and avoiding the use of chemical fertilizer (allowing the enhancement of microbial activity and avoiding soil and water poisoning)
  5. Maximum diversity of plants to reduce pest losses and improve bio diversity
  6. Improving forest cover to reduce erosion and get other benefits.

These principles can be applied in all parts of the country. Farmer organizations and their networks have begun to do this over the last 10 – 15 years and there are about a thousand villages where the benefits and methods can be demonstrated.

How this can be further propagated

It is useful if all people’s organizations and NGOs understand and engage themselves in this strategy. It is very important to initiate dialogue with all political parties, development organizations, scientists and scholars and all those involved in development dialogue about the effectiveness and urgency of this strategy.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on right to food presented a paper several months ago that it is possible to overcome hunger by adopting ecological agriculture. Using examples of many countries, particularly in Africa when environmental conditions are difficult, that food production can be doubled within 3 to 10 years adopting ecological agriculture.

IAASTED (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) a very high level research done by 400 scientists, working for 4 years, studying many countries of the world said that there are very strong weaknesses in agriculture so far. They were that it was not sufficiently socially concerned and it was not environmentally concerned. These need to be corrected. This shows that the global trend has begun to change.


We suggest that in Sri Lanka, a country that has failed miserably to treat its youth justly and rationally should adopt a strategy of reorienting the entire field of youth education to help youth to develop ecological agriculture as a way of building a new scientific and dignified profession. Around 300,000 students sit for the GCE advanced level exam and around 120,000 pass with sufficient marks to enter universities. However universities absorb only less than 20,000. So, around a 100,000 most intelligent and hard working youth are stranded annually. This is the breeding ground for youth rebellion. This can be overcome by giving then opportunities to become new professional and experts playing a very useful role of transforming the country.

We have found that this can be done at very low cost. Using a small plot of land of (say ¼ acre) it is possible to get an additional output of around Rs. 3,000 or 4,000 a month at practically no other cost of production. A youth instructor who can be trained easily within a month in basic aspects of ecological home gardening can attend to about 30 home gardens visiting each of them weekly. If the beneficiary pays this instructor about Rs. 300 a month, he /she can get a remuneration of around Rs. 10,000 a month which is equivalent to a graduates staring salary. They can be provided higher education opportunities over the weekends and be given a diploma after some time. Thus government can do this with very little additional cost. The savings to the country in terms of health, environmental improvement, water improvement and more important a creative contribution from all people is possible.

We suggest that this process of transformation should be begun by people themselves with initiation by people’s organizations. When this is sufficiently built to a demonstrative scale people must begin to actively reject conventional chemical agriculture and eating such unhealthy food. This should be done ignoring Government, until they begin to accept this. We have to continue lobbying all the time.