Presidential candidates and the ailing agriculture sector
Posted on November 15th, 2019

By Dr.  C. S. Weeraratna
( Former Professor at Ruhuna and Rajarata universities Courtesy The Island

November 14, 2019, 6:35 pm


Agricultural sector is the cornerstone in the economic and social development of the country and hence, a number of presidential candidates in their manifestoes highlighted the need to improve this sector.. Around 1.6 million ha of the country is cultivated with annual and perennial crops and around 25 percent of Sri Lankans are employed in the agricultural sector.

Domestic Food Sector

Around 860,000 ha in Sri Lanka are under food crops such as cereals, legumes, oil crops, vegetables etc. The total production of most crops, except rice and maize, cultivated in Sri Lanka during the last decade does not show any upward trend. Due to shortage of food availability, a colossal sum of money is spent annually to import food as indicated in the table given below. . In 2018 around Rs 320 billion worth of food including milk food has been imported. Most of these can be locally produced. With about 2.5 million hectares of hitherto uncultivated/partly cultivated land, importing Rs. 320 billion worth of food annually is an anomalous situation.

See Table 1.

Table 1. Value of food imports (Rs. millions)

Numerous food production programmes such as “AMA’, ” Waga Sangramaya” and “Govi Sevana ” were implemented during the last decade but these have not made any significant impact on the agricultural sector of the country, indicated by increase expenditure on importing food. Those responsible need to look into the various issues that limit food production in the country and take appropriate action. It will contribute in a more meaningful way towards the socio-economic development of the country by increasing food security, reducing the annual trade deficit which stands at around US$ 10 billion and also increasing employment opportunities.

Many factors influence level of crop production and an important factor among these is water which tends to be a limiting factor. In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water annually, inhabitants of many parts of the country do not get a regular supply of water for their farming and domestic activities. . It is estimated that around 60% out of the 100 billion cubic meters of rain water received annually escape to the sea.

An integrated plan needs to be implemented in collaboration with the relevant ministries to improve water supply. One of the main reasons for water shortage in many parts of the country is high surface run-off. Rainwater that falls on to the ground infiltrates and the balance runs-off. Most of the soils, especially those in the high rainfall areas are eroded and cannot retain much water thus favouring run-off. Silt and clay carried by run-off water get into tanks, reducing its capacity to hold water. It is because of this that most tanks spill after a few rains and dry up after a few weeks/months of dry weather. The amount of water available for irrigation, domestic use etc. can be increased considerably by implementing appropriate soil conservation measures which will reduce run-off and promote infiltration. Most farmers have to face droughts which seriously affect crop production although there are around 12,000 tanks in the dry zone which collect rainwater to be used for crop and animal production and various domestic activities. Water shortage which the farmers in the dry zone face can be partly attributed to the inability of the governments from 1977 to rehabilitate most of these tanks.

In addition to cultivating food crops a large number of crops which would yield to agro – industries can be cultivated in the hitherto uncultivated/partly cultivated lands, Among these are cassava, horticultural and floricultural crops, , cane, bamboo, sunflower, castor , ayurvedic herbs, etc. which have a considerable industrial potential. Development of industries based on these crops will also increase export income and will have a tremendous impact on the economy of the country and also provide employment opportunities among rural people. Private sector can be involved in such projects for which appropriate technical assistance need to be given by the relevant public organizations.

Plantation Sector

The plantation sector which includes tea, rubber, coconut, cashew, sugarcane and minor exports crops such as cinnamon, cardamom, cocoa ,plays a very important role in the economy of the country. Since the implementation of the Land Reform Law in 1972, the large estates of tea, rubber and coconut were nationalized and their management was given over to the State Plantations Corporation (SPC) and the Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB). In the year 1992, a large number of these estates, nearly 300, were given on lease to Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs).

The extents under plantation crops is around 870 ,000 ha. Nearly 30% of the labour force is involved in this sector, which earns about 20% of export earnings. . According to Central Bank reports, as shown in Table 2 , the production of these crops does not show any significant increase during the present decade.

See Table 2.

A number of issues can be attributed to this unsatisfactory state in the plantation sector. Among these are (a) Increasing cost of production ( b) Old machinery (c) Land degradation (d) Old age of crops (e) Low value addition (f) Inadequate diversification and intercropping and (g) Insufficient marketing strategies

Land Degradation: One of the important contributory factors for the decline in the productivity of the plantation sector is Land Degradation. Soil erosion, soil compaction, and nutrition depletion, cause productivity of land to decline, making crop production less profitable. In view of the importance of land degradation, the Ministry of Environment, in 2005, established an expert committee on Land Degradation and mitigating the effects of drought in SL. This committee comprised a number of experts in the field of land management and the main role of the committee was to advice the Ministry of Environment, on issues related to controlling land degradation. This committee has not met since Feb. 2013.

At the first national symposium on Land Degradation held in 2010 , organized by the Ministry of Environment and the expert committee on Land Degradation, the participants, who were representing many land-related institutions in the country, revealed that a substantial amount of soil/ha/year is lost due to soil erosion. They were of the view that urgent action such as implementation of proper land use planning and the soil conservation and environment act etc. need to be taken by the relevant organizations to control land degradation.

There are many ministries, departments and other institutions which are expected to take appropriate control measures. During the last few decades a large number of seminars, workshop s have been held on this topic. In spite of all these, land degradation continues to take place evident by the common occurrence of landslides, depleted top soil, siltation of tanks and reservoirs, decline in crop yields, eutrophication etc. The Ministry of Environment (ME) needs to activate the already established Committee on Land Degradation which would make appropriate recommendations to reduce land degradation to be implemented by ME.

Diversification: Productivity of many estates under planation crops is at a low level. Diversification of such unproductive lands is essential . A survey need to be done to identify these unproductive lands which need to be diversified. Such lands may be put under pasture and have cattle which will reduce our expenditure on milk imports, it will also reduce degradation of the lands resulting in less silting of the reservoirs. There are many other crops such as spice crops, horticultural crops etc. which could be cultivated in the unproductive lands. These crops would give better returns to the cultivators. An in-depth study needs to be carried out as early as possible to determine appropriate land use in the unproductive holdings/estates giving due consideration to factors such as climate, topography, availability of labour etc. Those lands which are not going to be diversified need to be managed better. In this regard, infilling, cultivation of better clones and their effective management including better fertilizer and pest management practices, , increased rate of replanting, reducing soil degradation and conservation practices are essential.

Deterioration of the plantation sector will exacerbate the financial and social problems we are facing.. The annual trade deficit which stands at around Rs. 1800 billion and unemployment among the rural plantation community will get worse. In view of these critical issues faced by the Plantation Sector it is necessary that the relevant authorities develop an integrated plan to increase the productivity of the plantation sector.

Lack of an integrated plan is a factor responsible for the low productivity in the agricultural sector. For example a land use policy has been formulated but is not effectively implemented to reduce land degradation which has serious repercussions on the productivity. The Land use policy need to be implemented as an integrated programme in which many ministries have to be involved.

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