Hambantota: Fertiliser, fuel, and man-made disaster
Jun 23, 2022
In this series assessing the impact of the fertiliser ban on farmers, Watchdog travelled across five major agrarian districts. Here is our update from Hambantota — of drastic drops in yields and the farming community’s fears for the future.
  • Farmers in the Hambantota District face severe drop in Maha season harvest
  • Fuel shortages have delayed harvesting in some fields, causing crop to wilt
  • 2021/22 Maha season yield had halved compared to previous seasons

The Journey

A farmer in Mamadala tries to salvage what he can from what should have been an abundant harvest

In the first week of April 2022, Watchdog travelled to five locations across Sri Lanka - Hambantota, Sammanthurai, Walapane, Polonnaruwa and Jaffna - to listen to farmers who had been impacted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s overnight ban on chemical fertiliser. The ban didn’t take into consideration the opinions of experts who’d spent years researching agriculture, and they predicted a disastrous drop in yield.

These farmers’ experiences drive home how short-sighted and impactful the policy truly was. The Government’s reversal of the policy almost one year later cannot make up for the loss of livelihood for most farmers, and the strain placed on them over the last year. To add to this, the compensation promised to them has not been fulfilled.

We thank all the individuals who facilitated our conversations with the farmers; and most importantly, the farmers who gave their time, insights and knowledge to make this series possible.

In the Southern Province at Hambantota, we visit three villages 10km from the Barawakumbuka interchange of the Expressway - Walawa, Mamadala and Welangahawela. Lush forest greens — a contrast from the ocean blues that the South is best known for — stretch for miles. The paddy has mostly been harvested, and the only fields still full are those where harvesting has gotten delayed due to the fuel crisis. Paddy is the primary crop and farmers also cultivate other grains, vegetables, and fruit. Some fields are rain-fed while others receive water through irrigation projects in the Yala and Maha seasons.

Fertiliser and fuel

“The nil gathiya (‘nil’ here meaning the distinct paddy green) just didn’t happen this time around, everything remained yellow,” say farmers in Hambantota who were expected to switch overnight from chemical to organic fertiliser.

In previous years, they would have been able to cultivate enough to sell some to rice mills or to the State-run Paddy Marketing Board for money, while also keeping a share for their own family’s needs. With the yield nearly halved, many have just kept the paddy for consumption at home. Between increased costs of production, and scarcity, it’s the only way to ensure some form of food security for their families.

The types of organic fertiliser that were available to farmers under the State subsidy were also difficult to use. Many farmers complained about the quality of the fertiliser provided to them. They alleged that the new compost had ‘pieces of glass and rubber’. “How can we walk through the field to tend to it when we might get injured? How many of our children also play in the fields?” A group of farmers also claimed some variants of organic fertiliser they were given include fish blood, which makes the entire field smell bad, and attracts animals who destroy the crops. However, we were unable to get the name of the brands given to them to confirm this.

“The government asked us to try alternative crops, and to grow others off season. We tried everything - those didn’t work either.” Photo by Amalini De Sayrah.

Using organic fertiliser alone was sure to spell disaster for their cultivation, so farmers thought to mix it with chemical fertiliser. Some bought it through dealers for an inflated price - what they obtained for Rs. 450 via the subsidy now cost Rs. 15,000 or more. Others dipped into the stocks they already had. “Every cultivation season we set aside a little, so we had some leftovers - now that is finished too, so it’s likely to get worse in the next season.”

When it is time to harvest, they must plan it around the prices and availability of diesel for the tractors. Initially, fuel stations were asked to fill only to vehicles directly. Farmers whose tractors had long since run out of fuel raised this issue with local station operators. Now, signs can be seen at some stations in the area that say that fuel will be pumped into canisters only for farmers. Still, this doesn’t make queues go away - “we have to stand in a queue for miles, to be able to harvest”.

"We stood nearly three days in the fuel queue, they were also refusing to fill canisters. Now we are required to show a letter from the farmers’ association and they will fill canisters for us to use in our tractors.”

“The paddy in this field is close to over-ripe. A few more days and it won’t be usable. The harvest got delayed because there was no diesel to operate this machine.”

Most farmers say they sell to middlemen from the rice mills, as opposed to directly to the Paddy Marketing Board. This is mostly because the Board asks them to provide paddy that is dry to a certain degree. Selling the wet paddy to the middleman allows them to charge for a heavier weight, and those agents usually have the required equipment to do the drying. At this point in time however, it is also helpful because agents pick up the sacks of paddy sometimes straight from the paddy field, saving the farmer the fuel they’d have to use to transport them. They would sell it to whoever offers the highest price.

At that moment, a tractor filled with sacks of paddy drives past where we are seated. Behind it, a man on a motorcycle follows closely. “Now every tractor travels with a guard like that - with the low supply and high prices, people sometimes steal right off the tractor.”

With limited quantities of rice, the farmers keep the little they have for their family’s meals. Those who do have a few sacks extra, sell them sparingly, waiting for the next price hike. One farmer tells us how when she visits another home, she can see extra stocks stored in a corner**. “They won’t sell to us, waiting to be able to charge more”**, she says. “They also need that income to survive these times, I suppose.”

“For years we have farmed these lands. Now our children have gone to sea looking for work that pays them properly, because they see us suffering trying to cultivate.”

An overnight catastrophe

The overnight switch came with no proper training for farmers. Decisions were made, yet no discussions happened with the communities actually affected by these policies. The most that officers from the Agricultural Department did, we were told, was to fill forms and get signatures for fertiliser distribution and compensation. The knowledge needed to improve cultivations were not shared with the farmers.

To add to this, decades of using chemical fertilisers made the earth attuned to it — and the farmers feel that the paddy rejected organic fertiliser which was suddenly introduced to it. They knew there was something wrong as soon as the crop started wilting. “We may not have gone to university but we know what the paddy is supposed to look like”

Some farmers who took to making compost found that the homemade versions were of a marginally better quality than what was provided by the government. However, the cost is not practical at this time - to make one kilo of compost, they need to purchase three kilos of raw materials.

“We don’t take loans to help with the farming, because we know if the season is not productive, we’ll have no way to pay it back.” Instead, they take the loans to help educate their children. The enthusiasm among local youth to partake in agriculture has dropped, and even more rapidly after they witnessed the devastating impact of the ban. Many look to Colombo or even to opportunities overseas for work. What a shame, the farmers say, looking out at the abundance of the area nearby, that people must leave it to find a sustainable future.

They also wonder out loud if they don’t have the worse end of the stick in the current landscape. ‘We can at least grow something in our land and use it for food for our families, when prices are high and produced food is not available. What do people in Colombo do? They can’t grow vegetables in their city gardens’.

“You usually wouldn’t be able to walk through this patch so easily, the gourds would be so abundant they’d be blocking your way. But the crop dropped this season.”

“If we use the high-yield seeds without fertiliser, they don’t work. See, the crop shrivels and you can’t use it.”

One of the farmers picks up a tomato tendril in his calloused fingers - the leaves are already blackening and the vegetable has barely formed. They explain to us the history and relationship between fertiliser, seeds and the earth that they cultivate. “Who was it that made us turn to chemical fertiliser? It was the State. Then they made us use seeds that had been brought from overseas. They brought all of this on us, and now they are expecting us to undo nearly 50 years of work in one night?”

The seeds ‘from overseas’ are the hybrid varieties introduced to Sri Lanka with the Green Revolution of the 1960’s. While the local varieties grew well without chemical fertiliser — relying on compost and other natural forms — the farmers feel these hybrids are specifically engineered to grow properly only with chemical fertiliser.

Do they remember any similar disruptions to the cultivation process in their lifetimes, we ask. “During the 88/89 period, the second insurrection, the JVP would tell us not to cultivate, to leave the fields empty. But we went ahead and cultivated anyway because us and our communities needed to eat.”

“It has become useless to try and cultivate. We are spending more than ten times the usual amount for next to no yield. Now we will try and grow just enough to eat at home.”

‘Earlier, you could see from here - where we are standing - straight across to the other end of this huge field. But we’ve lost that whole strip of cultivation with the highway coming in.’

Walking through a paddy field that surrounds a small vegetable patch, we see the extended Southern Expressway cutting through the fields. Acres of cultivation have been reduced since the highway bisected these areas. The compensation promised to many of the farmers for the loss of cultivation land hasn’t come through. In their network of villages and societies, the farmers knew only one person across all of them had received a fraction of the compensation he was due.

Changing cultures and an uncertain future

After walking through harvested fields and passing fishermen protesting for cheaper fuel, we meet some farmers as they finish up a training session with a non-governmental organisation. The trainer had been leading them through options for organic fertiliser and ways to make it at home. As they sit in chairs to speak to us, we are handed entire combs of bananas and are asked to help ourselves.

Their generous hospitality is now limited to guests where once they would happily share amongst all families in the area. “Hospitality is such an important part of our culture, either inviting people home, or sending them food” they said as they asked us to eat more. “With all the current crises put together, we can’t even do that now. We used to share everything we got with our neighbours, but we can’t afford to do so now,” they say. The monks at the local temples have also told them they should downsize the _daana/_almsgiving they present to them, given how much the families struggle to feed even themselves.

One farmer had a fantastic analogy for the overnight organic shift - “it’s like you’ve been taking English/Western medicine all your life and you’re now suddenly asked to switch to local/Sinhala medicine.” They point out how, to recover from the food shortage, so much rice and other items have been imported into the country. While we might be informed as to where they are from, we do not know if they are also organically grown and free of chemical fertiliser.

They gesture at the rolling green fields and full waterways: “what a beautiful, abundant island,” they lament. “We have so much here, so much we can provide, yet we know more than anyone else how much food, gas, and medicine has to be imported, with money sent outside the country.”

As for the future, they had very little hope that the government would provide them with any help that was meaningful enough to pull them out of the terrible situation they are in. ‘Everything bad that could have possibly befallen us, has already happened’ they say.

By the numbers

  • There are 12 administrative divisions (Divisional Secretariat) in the Hambantota District. Ambalantota has the largest agrarian population among these (11% of total farmers in the district), according to the 2013/14 economic census. All of the areas we visited come under the purview of the Ambalantota Divisional Secretariat.
  • The Hambantota district had an average yield of 5,883 kilograms per hectare in the 2020/21 Maha season. The majority of farmers we spoke to say their harvest for the 2021/22 Maha season has halved. Some farmers who had used reserve stocks of chemical fertiliser in their possession reported smaller crop losses.
  • The 2013/14 Economic Census shows the Ambalantota Division had 9,587 men and 1,698 women engaged in agriculture.
  • 57.4% of farmers in the Ambalantota Division are above the age of 50 as per the 2013/14 Economic Census. This corresponds with what we were told on the ground regarding youth not wanting to take on agriculture, opting instead for jobs in the cities, in factories, and overseas.
  • The farmers we met with grew diverse crops including paddy, mung beans, millet, gourds, capsicum, chillis, and onions. As mentioned before most of the paddy is sold via middle-men. Other produce is primarily sold in markets (pola) in the area.

Data for this piece

DSC Paddy Data - 2020_2021Maha_Metric.pdf 60118

2013_14 Economic Census - HambantotaSH2Report.pdf 4176221