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Irrigation channels and inter-cropping have transformed Patrick Jeyahalan ’s family farm p h o t o g r a p h : j i l e s p r e t t y

S R I LANKA IS famed worldwide for its glorious tropical climate, rich cultures and fertile soils. Yet today many small farmers struggle to make a living. As in most developing countries, policy-makers are u n d e r p ressure to encourage their domestic agricultural sectors to become export-focused, and if a few farmers disappear through inefficiency, then this is the price o f progress. But look closely, and you'll find local organisations working with farmers to develop sustainable forms o f agriculture that are highly productive and diverse, and instructive to us all. One such is the Sewalanka Foundation.

Sewalanka is working in the north with more than 4,000 farmers organised into several hundred self-help groups. This is the region where the civil war caused deep disruption for two decades, and where, since the 2001 cease-fire, rural people are showing that they can create alternative futures for their communities. Head north for an hour from the ancient city o f Anuradhapura, centre of a 1,200-year-old Buddhist dynasty, and you’ll come to Vavuniya, a small town supported by some o f the best examples o f sustainable farming.

We walk first across the farm of the Jayawardne family, abandoned since the conflict started. Now they have cleared two and a half hectares of scrub, and planted a complex mix of perennials and vegetables. T he papaya and banana shade the chillies, onions and aubergines, and the twenty-five cattle provide manure for the soil. T he family have a shop in the village, and are p roud that farmers’ groups are b rought from all over the country to see what can be achieved. They say, “During the war, we d idn’t know whether we’d ever be able to start life again, and yet we’ve now achieved so much.” Their spirit o f co-operation is generous. “ It’s important for us to work in groups. If we only develop ourselves, there

“ O u r p l a n i s t o g e t e v e r y o n e i n t h e v i l l a g e w o r k i n g t o g e t h e r . I n t h i s w a y , s m a l l f a r m e r s c a n a c t l i k e l a r g e f a r m e r s , a n d s e l l t o t r a d e r s o n t h e i r o w n t e r m s . ”

will still be problems in the village. O u r plan is to get everyone in the village working together.” In this way, small farm ers can act like large farmers, and sell to traders on their own terms. A FEW K IL OM E T R E S away, Patrick Jeyabalan’s family have effected another remarkable transformation. They took on their one-and-a-half-hectare farm just two years ago, and have already paid off the loan. At that time, only one crop was grown — not an unsuccessful piece of land, but certainly not a very productive one. As we walk a ro u n d die farm, bending beneath the bananas and hanging fruit, stepping over carefully staked vegetables, listening to the cries and calls of distant animals, we count thirty-eight types of crop. Here there are lime, lemon, coconut and guava; over there are gourd, string bean, tom a to , chilli, capsicum , onion and cabbage. T h e r e are g ro u n d n u t and g reen gram , and manioc, sweet potato and maize for staples. A round the house are herbs and medicinal plants, and an enormous compost heap. Every corner of the farm is growing something useful. Who says small farmers are inefficient and unproductive?

What is also significant is that we are in Sri Lanka’s dry zone. Here farming is tough — but these farmers are showing that ingenuity, hard work and co-operation can transform the land. They can do this with low-cost and locally available methods, and their soils are improving. T he diversity of crops is good for their diets and for pest control, and also helps with y e a r - ro u n d marketing. These farmers are telling us that efficiency in farming does not have to be achieved through monocultures and ever-increasing farm sizes. More importantly, they are showing us that having people on the land is a good thing. •

R e su rg en ce N o . 224 M ay /J une 2 0 0 4 2 7

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