A protest by environmental activists in Sri Lanka during the recent crisis © Janaka Withanage

In August 2022, we spoke to Chalani Rubesinghe, an advocate for transformation of food systems with Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, known locally as the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ). She talked to us about the food crisis in Sri Lanka, the impact of the government’s sudden synthetic fertiliser ban in 2021, and the struggle to bring agroecology to a country so reliant on industrial inputs.

You can listen to the audio interview here on Real World Radio.

Sri Lanka’s agricultural landscape was completely changed in the 1960s Green Revolution, with the imposition of modernised machinery, technology, hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers in the country, along with a shift to an entirely commercialised food system.

Before this, Sri Lanka had a very ecologically-sustainable agricultural system.

“They cultivated in a manner that protected the natural environment, sustained living beings and protected human health. It used to be very interactive,” explained Chalani.

Farmers practiced mixed crop cultivation (where various crops were planted in the same field) and agroforestry (where shrubs and trees were planted beside crops to increase productivity and improve soil health). The natural fertility of the soil was maintained through regular crop rotation and thanks to abundant cow dung. Pest control by birds and insects was simply part of the ecosystem, and harvesting was done collectively, for and by communities.

The imposition of industrial farming systems in the 1960s saw the farmers abandon this kind of sustainable agriculture. They switched to short-term paddy (rice) fields, using genetically-modified, high-yielding seeds, and applying plenty of chemical fertilisers and other synthetic inputs to maximise the harvest for sale. The main goal of the Green Revolution in Sri Lanka was to increase total agricultural production, particularly to make the country self-sufficient in rice, and in turn improve the living conditions of rural people.

A tea plantation in Sri Lanka.
A tea plantation in Sri Lanka. pxhere.com/en/photo/1380600

“So, was the poverty reduced?” we asked Chalani.

“Unfortunately not much.”

Farmers, whose soil gradually lost fertility due to intensive cultivation methods, were locked in to buying costly external applications: fertilisers, weedkillers and pesticides, as well as corporate-controlled seeds. These costs greatly outweighed the benefit of obtaining a higher yield at harvest time. Profits from high food prices flowed to intermediary businesspeople, not peasant farmers or their families. Chalani explained:

“If they sell the harvest for a good price, the intermediates increase their share. Ultimately the farmers would not be able to bear the cost of their own product if they want to buy it from the market!”

Vendors with bananas at market Sri Lanka
Vendors waiting to sell bananas at the Minuwangoda town market. © Dennis Sylvester Hurd

There were other knock-on effects for human and ecological health. Insufficient training in how to properly use chemical inputs meant some farmers were mixing pesticides, or applying them at the wrong moment, which ended up being costly. Some women even found themselves in micro-credit traps due to borrowing money for fertilisers. Throughout rural areas, women and children continued to suffer from malnutrition. Around 2002, a chronic kidney disease started appearing among farmers, which many scientists suspected was due to chemical contamination of water.

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) has been resisting this chemical-intensive farming system for many years, and advocating for a system based on agroecology.

In 2012-13, the organisation led “chemical awareness programmes” which informed farmers about the adverse environmental and health impacts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers (agrotoxics). CEJ published a number of leaflets and books in the local Sinhala language about alternative, organic and traditional practices. They conducted a scientific analysis which proved that excessive use of agrotoxics was polluting the water, and forced local authorities to take measures to clean it up. The organisation has fought against glyphosate both in the field and at policy level, filed two court cases against distribution of Arsenic-contaminated pesticides (2011), and helped farmers to sell their organic produce through an ‘ECO store’. One great victory was the introduction of labels for genetically-modified food in 2007, following a lawsuit by CEJ.

In April 2021, the Sri Lankan farming sector was plunged in to further turmoil when then-President Rajapaksa announced a ban on all synthetic fertilisers. This overnight shift to ‘organic’ farming was a complete failure. It left farmers unable to cultivate and caused food prices to skyrocket, at a time when the country was already facing a severe international debt crisis.

“There was not enough organic fertiliser for farmers engaged in commercial farming. They strongly believe that their harvest and thereby income depends on chemical fertiliser. So, they were outraged,” noted Chalani.

They had been given no time to prepare the land, and the booster products offered by the government were few and far between. Rice production dropped by 20% in the six months following the ban.

Protests at Gotagogama in front of the Presidential Secretariat © Diwanka Randula Podduwage
Many farmers joined protests in Colombo © Diwanka Randula Podduwage

CEJ, along with other civil society organisations, despaired that the overnight change would only make the agrochemical industry more popular, and negate the years of campaigning, educating and gradually implementation of agroecology initiatives.

“This was like an opportunity given to the agrochemical industry to be more popular among farmers as their only saviour,” she regretted.

Hidden behind environmental concerns, the fertiliser ban was really a way for the government to cut costly imports during the debt crisis.

“There’s no argument that the decision was one of the remarkable, towards eliminating agrochemicals. Unfortunately, the intention behind it was not so remarkable. It was clearly made by the government to save the dollars it spends on importing chemical fertiliser, which is around $400 million,” explained Chalani.

In response to the ban, CEJ has stepped up their advocacy activities for a proper transition to agroecology, rather than a switch to ‘organic’ farming only. They call for an agroecological farming system, wherein cultivation works in harmony with the local ecosystem, natural resources are conserved, farmers share knowledge and seeds, and public policies support smallholders’ access to the market.

In 2021, they produced a “Roadmap of Policies, laws and measures to successfully adopt agroecology”, and led a webinar with other activists to share knowledge and experience on “The Present and Future of the Organic Farming Problem”. Chalani explained:

“The booklet was produced to guide decision-makers as well as those officers who implement the decisions at the ground level for proper adaptation of agroecology.”

Advocacy and education materials developed by CEJ

While there are a number of organisations in Sri Lanka that advocate for and practice agroecology, and some government-led initiatives for smallholder farmers (such as the “Good Agricultural Practices” farmer societies, organic villages which engage women in gardening, beekeeping and other activities, and government-deployed Army officers who carry out organic farming), there is a huge challenge for farmers to be competitive in the market. In the context of high food prices and economic turmoil, the majority of consumers in Sri Lanka can only afford cheap produce.

Chalani concluded:

“The concept that broke out with the government’s fertiliser ban was organic farming. But our advocacy is not merely about replacing the fertiliser, that is only one of the practices in agroecology.”

In agroecology, cultivation is done while adapting to environmental processes and utilising them while conserving natural resources. It encourages greater diversity of crops and breeds, while discouraging the use of agrotoxics or dangerous new technologies such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“We need to push for a transition and integrated, holistic conversion, rather than one-dimensional changes, in order to achieve food sovereignty through agroecology.”

The food and agricultural crisis in Sri Lanka was a long time in the making. Causes include long term indebtedness, the promotion of Green Revolution technologies which made the country dependent on imports of agricultural inputs, and the focus on export crops for foreign exchange rather than food sovereignty for the country. The Sri Lankan experience is a good example of why agroecology must be understood as a holistic approach, entailing a just economic and social transition in which small-scale farmers themselves are the protagonists.

Female farmer Sri Lanka
A farmer irrigates with groundwater in Kalpitiya. © International Water Management Institute

Listen to the audio interview here on Real World Radio.

Main image: A protest by environmental activists in Sri Lanka in 2022 © Janaka Withanage