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FOCUS December 2007 Volume 50

Peasants Situation and Human Rights in Sri Lanka

Sarath Fernando*

* Sarath Fernando is the Moderator of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), a network of farmer organizations, non-governmental organizations, and people's organizations in other sectors in Sri Lanka.

Seventy per cent of the nineteen million population of Sri Lanka still live in rural areas with livelihood largely related to peasant farming. With about 1.8 million small farmer families (averaging five members per family), there are about nine million small farmers in the country. About one million of them are small-scale paddy farmers, cultivating an average land area of less than half a hectare.[1] About 1.2 million families have received land from the government since the introduction of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935[2] with restriction against selling the land outside the family.

A brief history

Sri Lanka is considered to have over 2,500-year-old system of small scale, domestic food-producing agriculture. Throughout this history the rulers supported and encouraged small-scale agriculture through irrigation development and relatively easy access to land for new settlements. Village communities were permitted to build their own small-scale irrigation reservoirs and settle down as and when village expansion was necessary.

Before the British rule introduced legislations such as the Waste Lands Ordinance in early 1800s, all lands were considered owned or under the custody of the king and the regional feudal leaders. However, people were free to settle down and develop their own forms of cultivation on any available land. The British colonial rulers introduced private ownership of land as a means to acquire land for plantations (coffee and later tea plantations in the hill country, rubber and coconut plantations in the mid-country and the plains).

The ancient food-producing agricultural and irrigation systems were ecological and adopted a systemic approach that made the best use of the natural conditions, the gifts of nature, in a manner that did not destroy the regenerative capacity of nature's resources.[3]

Three phases on f destructio

The problems facing agriculture and domestic food production and the emerging situation of food insecurity among people, including the small scale rural farmers, were brought about by three important interventions.

Plantation agriculture completely denuded the forests in the central hills. These hills have the highest rate of rainfall in the country and the starting point of all major and many smaller rivers that provide irrigation to the rest of the country.[4] Over one hundred fifty years of erosion and agrochemical pollution caused serious damage to the land. Although tea, rubber and coconut plantations were the main income earners for the country for nearly one hundred fifty years, the plantation workers have remained the most exploited and deprived people in the country. Even today they are compelled to work under conditions of near slavery, receiving wages of only Rs. 170 (around one and half US dollars) per day when agricultural labor in other sectors receives a daily wage of about Rs. 350 (a little over three US dollars).

Green Revolution, introduced throughout the country since mid-1960s and helped increase production in the early periods, contributed to the destruction of the natural fertility of the soil and made agriculture heavily dependent on external inputs. The combined impact of plantation system and Green Revolution led to serious destruction of the regenerative ability of nature's resources. The government admitted that heavy dependence on imported agrochemicals (such as fertilizers) and food was an unaffordable burden on the national economy.[5]

The third intervention that further worsened the situation of small farmers was the introduction of "free and open market" policies, under the guidance of the World Bank (WB) and other international financial institutions (IFIs) since 1977.[6]

The policies adopted by all governments since 1977 aimed at economic transformation based on an export-oriented growth model. All government support services, helpful interventions and protection given to small-scale farming and domestic food production were withdrawn, largely on the recommendations and dictates of the WB and other IFIs. This situation resulted in a near complete breakdown in the agricultural livelihoods of the small farmers and caused the unbearable increase in food prices for the relatively poor consumers.

Consequences and problems faced by farmers and the poor in general

The thirty-year application of the neo-liberal economic model in Sri Lanka made the situation of small farmers extremely difficult.

Rural poverty increased very rapidly over this period. In the early 1990s, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) identified Sri Lanka as having the sharpest increase in rural poverty among 114 countries surveyed.[7] The WB's own recent studies confirm the continuation of this trend. WB's Country Director said in August 2007 that "even if real per capita GDP in Sri Lanka grew at a healthy rate of 3.1 percent, it is still lower than" those of China, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries also are "much more successful in terms of poverty reduction than Sri Lanka." She further observed that "a key factor behind the low growth [in provinces other than the Western province] is the stag- nation in the rural economy-both the farm and non-farm economy-over the past decade."[8]

Rural poverty and large income disparities were some of the main contributory factors to the armed uprisings by the youth. Armed youth uprising in 1971 resulted in 10,000 deaths and repeated youth uprisings during 1987-1990 period led to thousands of disappearances of youths.[9] A report by the United Nations' Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted that the number of cases of disappearances recorded by it in 1991 was the highest figure ever for a single country.[10] Farmer indebtedness kept increasing, resulting in suicides that continued from 2004 till the present. About a million paddy farmers had to sell their paddy at prices considerably less than the cost of production. Studies done by the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR)[11] over the last few years in the five major rice producing districts show that farmers spending over Rs 12 or 13 (about a quarter of a US dollar) to produce a kilogram of paddy have been compelled to sell between Rs 11 to 13 per kilogram.

Although the present government has promised to buy paddy at Rs 16.50 - Rs 17.50 per kilogram the amount of money allocated for the purpose every season is sufficient only to buy less than five per cent of the produce. Monopoly traders buy and stockpile imported rice and keep the rice market prices very high, putting consumers in very difficult situation.

The WB has been proposing to the government since 1996 the issuance of freehold titles to all farmers to encourage them to sell their land and move out of agriculture.[12] The 2003 economic strategy plan of the Government (adopted in collaboration with the WB) expected the decrease of rural population from seventy per cent to fifty per cent by year 2015.[13] This in fact is the planned strategy of the WB to create a free land market by making rural small-scale farmers leave their villages. The urban areas, however, do not provide new opportunities for such a large migrant population. Thus this strategy can only result in creating a much larger population of landless, unemployed destitute.

Farmer resistance

While a strong and consistent farmer's movement does not yet exist, the farmers have strongly resisted tendencies to invite foreign companies to take control of land and agriculture. They have also been fighting for higher prices for their produce and for supportive government intervention in marketing and agricultural subsidies. These struggles have been suppressed from time to time. While the government made promises to adopt supportive policies, the promises have not been seriously kept due to pressures from the WB and other lending institutions as well as big domestic traders who have a great influence on whoever political leaders were elected.[14]

Proposed solution

It is clear that the only way out of this crisis is to strengthen rural agricultural economy, adopting approaches that would make it possible for the rural small-scale farmers to continue their agricultural livelihood. This requires adjusting agricultural methodologies to suit the situation of farmers and make them viable. Domestic food availability at affordable cost is essential. This can easily be done by promoting ecological agriculture, making the best use of the helpful natural conditions and the knowledge and experience that Sri Lanka has in such low cost, ecological agriculture.[15]

This should be planned with a vision of restoring the regenerative capacity of nature's resources that are available as free gift of nature. This approach has the potential for giving better livelihoods and better food sovereignty to the plantation workers,[16] the urban poor and also to the rest of the low income earning population in the country.

In September 2007, the government declared a new agricultural policy that gives higher emphasis to domestic food production and also declared a program of growing domestic food throughout the country, utilizing the capacity of small-scale farmers, and adopting home gardens. This is an admission by the government that the export-oriented growth model has failed to reduce poverty and hunger. However, the commitment of the government to implement this approach, facing the pressures of the international lending institutions and proponents of neo liberal economic policy, is still to be seen.

The farmer's movement in the country has to take the task of supporting the new policy. It has to main-stream the growing trend among rural people to move into affordable and viable agricultural approaches.

For further information, please contact: MONLAR, 1151/58A, 4th Lane, Kotte Road, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka; ph (94) 11 2865534, 4407663; fax (94) 11 4407663; e-mail:;;


1. "Official Poverty Line for Sri Lanka," The Department of Census and Statistics Bulletin, June 2004, in pdf

2. See Government of Sri Lanka, Regaining Sri Lanka: Vision and Strategy for Accelerated Development, Colombo, 2002.

3. See Siran Deraniyagala, "A Note on Man and Water in Sri Lanka: From Prehistory to History" in Mendis, D.L.O, Water Heritage of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Sri Lanka Pugwash Group, 2002.

4. See Mendis, D.L.O., "Ancient Water and Soil Conservation Ecosystems of Sri Lanka" in Mendis, ibid.

5. See Declaration of New Agriculture Policy, Ministry of Agriculture Development and Agrarian Services, Colombo, 2007.

6. World Bank, Sri Lanka: Non Plantation Crop Sector Policy Alternatives, World Bank Report, March 20, 1996 in www-w

7. See Jazairy, Idriss and Stanier, John, State of World Rural Poverty: An Inquiry into its Causes and Consequences. New York: Published for International Fund For Agricultural Development by New York University Press, 1993.

8. See keynote address of Ms. Naoko Ishii, World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka, before the Sri Lanka Economics Association in August 2007 in

9. There is still no confirmed total number of disappeared through the years. Estimates range from official count of more than 20,000 cases to unofficial count of around 60,000 cases. See footnote 3, pages 11-12 in Romesh Silva, Britto Fernando and Vasuki Nesiah, Clarifying the Past and Commemorating Sri Lanka's Disappeared: A Descriptive Analysis of Enforced Disappearances Documented by Families of the Disappeare d, Human Rights Data Analysis Group, Families of the Disappeared (FoD) and the International Center for Transitional Justice in

10. Paragraph 192, Report on visit to Sri Lanka of three members of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (7-18 October 1991), E/CN.4/1992/18/Add.1 (8 January 1992).

11. See MONLAR, "Solving the paddy crisis, fighting the World Bank..." in

12. World Bank, op. cit

13. See Government of Sri Lanka, op. cit.

14. See MONLAR, Regaining Sri Lanka and PRSP: Compelling the poor to subsidize the rich, 2003 in

15. See MONLAR, Proposals of People's Organisations for Another Development: Observations And Alternatives on the Sri Lanka Budget 2005 in

16. See MONLAR, Socio-Economic Conditions and Unproductive Lands in the Plantation Sector in Sri Lanka in