Sri Lanka’s farmers struggle to feed the country—and themselves

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GALENBINDUNUWEWA, Sri Lanka—For more than half a century, Pahatha Mellange Jayaappu has tilled the field on his modest farm in Sri Lanka’s agricultural heartland, unswayed by recurrent political and economic turmoil.

Now the 71-year-old is just trying to eke out enough of a harvest to feed his family after an abrupt ban on chemical fertilizers last year devastated his crops. He says he has given up on planting for profit.

“We have lived through armed insurrections and bad government policies,” Mr. Jayaappu said. “This is the worst year I’ve ever seen. They have destroyed the farmers.”

Many Sri Lankans aren’t getting enough to eat, and farmers and agricultural experts say the food shortages are set to worsen. The government reversed the ban in November and promised fresh supplies of chemical fertilizers, but farmers said many received only a small amount, and too late for the current growing season.

The nationwide yield from this month’s rice harvest—one of two each year—will likely be just half the normal level, said

Manoj Thibbotuwawa,

a food security expert at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, a Colombo-based think tank. Yields of other major crops such as corn and sorghum will likely be off 30% to 60%.

The island nation of 22 million has been in the grip of an economic crisis long in the making. Financial pressures started mounting before the pandemic because of debt-fueled infrastructure spending and tax cuts that slashed government revenue. Then Covid-19 battered the tourism industry, and the war in Ukraine roiled global markets for food and fuel.

Without fertilizer, the 1-acre farm of Wasala Mudiyansalage Walamaga Gedera Weerakoon Banda, 66 years old, no longer produces enough rice for his family, let alone to sell. He grows a number of crops now, often going to village fairs to sell his vegetables, and works as a day laborer for a little extra cash. Deepti Asthana for The Wall Street Journal

 

 

The ban on imports of agricultural chemicals took effect in May 2021, and the rice harvest the following March was down 40%, according to government data. Prices soared. Sri Lanka, which had been largely self-sufficient in rice, was forced to use some of its fast-dwindling foreign reserves to import the key staple. Other crops, like tea, an important foreign-exchange earner, have also suffered. In May, the country defaulted on its external debt.

Nearly 6.3 million Sri Lankans lack access to adequate food, the United Nations World Food Program reported last month, and well over half of households are cutting back on meals or eating less-nutritious foods. Food inflation crossed 90% in July, according to official data.

“Never before in modern history have we faced famine of this scale,” President

Ranil Wickremesinghe

said last month.

Mr. Wickremesinghe was installed by Parliament last month after his predecessor,

Gotabaya Rajapaksa,

fled the country and resigned in the face of mass protests over fuel shortages and food prices. The new president has warned that the country needs to find a further $300 million to import enough fertilizer to prevent another rice disaster. The next crop will be sown in September.

Mr. Rajapaksa billed the ban as a nationwide shift to organic farming, but agricultural experts say that requires a yearslong transition. Opposition lawmakers said cutting off imports of fertilizer, which the government heavily subsidizes for farmers, was a shortsighted attempt to hold on to foreign reserves.

Above, farmer Pahatha Mellange Jayaappu, 71, has pawned nearly all his wife’s jewelry for farm loans; below, some of the rice he has saved for his family, which he thinks won’t be enough.

In Anuradhapura district, a major hub of rice farming in the northern part of Sri Lanka, many farmers say they don’t believe that their troubles will end soon. About half the farmers in the region have given up on commercial farming.

“Even those who cultivate the land don’t have enough to eat,” said 66-year-old farmer Wasala Mudiyansalage Walamaga Gedera Weerakoon Banda. His 1-acre farm, which usually produces about 2,000 kilos of rice—allowing him to sell part for a profit—now can’t produce enough to feed his family, he said. He and his wife are down to two meals a day, and may go to one if the current crop disappoints.

He has been working as a wage laborer on nearby farms to make a little extra cash. “We have barely any income,” he said.

Farmers complained that the organic fertilizers that came on the market after the ban took effect were poor quality, full of material that wasn’t fully decomposed. And the haste of the ban left insufficient time to make their own compost, or learn how to farm organically.

Sanath Sisira tried sprinkling cow and chicken manure onto his fields, which helped his guava plants some but had zero effect on his rice crop.

“You can’t just throw food waste into the fields,” he said. Without chemical pesticides, he added, bugs have devoured his melon crop. He says trucks hauling crops are trailed by flocks of crows, as they are crawling with insects.

The government began supplying chemical fertilizers at a subsidized price to farmers on Monday, and global organizations like the World Bank have agreed to provide financial assistance to buy fertilizer, said

W.M.D. Wanninayake,

spokesman for the agriculture ministry. The ministry is also encouraging farmers to plant crops like corn and mung beans, which require less fertilizer than rice.

Crowds in Sri Lanka, angered by the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, stormed the prime minister’s office compound in mid-July, demanding that he step down. The prime minister had just been appointed interim leader after the president fled the country. Photo: Chamila Karunarathne/Shutterstock

The country has two rice farming seasons, with the smaller crop sown in May and harvested this month. If the weather cooperates, the next planting season should be successful, said Mr. Wanninayake.

But first will come this month’s harvest, which many farmers say they expect to be disastrous. Mr. Jayaappu estimated his rice crop at about 200 kilos, more than 90% below normal. His soybean field will yield about one-third of what it did in previous years. He didn’t bother planting corn.

Mr. Thibbotuwawa, the food-security expert, said more food shortages, especially of rice, will hit by September, requiring the government to import more.

“What we need is the government to prioritize these essential foods,” he said.

But that will mean diverting the country’s limited foreign currency away from other essentials such as fuel and fertilizer, putting the next rice season in further peril.

Many small-scale farmers like Mr. Jayaappu say they might not hold out for another season, especially after taking out loans. Some talk of going into cities for construction jobs, or of their wives going abroad to work as household helpers.

 

Mr. Jayaappu said he and his wife have pawned nearly all of her jewelry to keep the farm running. Costs have skyrocketed, he said—hired labor and rented machines tripling; substandard pesticide quadrupling.

He spent the equivalent of $113 on a 50-kilo bag of fertilizer on the black market, which is rife with fake products. He realized once he got home that the fertilizer was the wrong kind. He sprinkled it over his rice fields anyway—to no effect. During a normal year, he used to earn an annual profit of about $1,400; now he is losing money.

Mr. Jayaappu’s wife, Wadu Gedera Yaso Menika, said the family has run through all the money she saved from two years’ work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. Now she worries that they will have to take out more loans to keep planting the next season.

The 66-year-old is furious at the government. There is no point in farming, she said, without good fertilizer.

“We have tried everything,” she said. “Everything died.”

Write to Shan Li at [email protected] and Philip Wen at [email protected]

Corrections & Amplifications
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the former president of Sri Lanka. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled his last name as Rajapaska in one instance. (Corrected on Aug. 19, 2022)

 

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