Organic farming - case study

Do we need to invest on research for indigenous agricultural practices and technologies?

Do new technologies often help? Farmers who cultivated improved hybrid rice varieties in Ooraniyayaya in Hambanthota district had to abandon their paddy land due to saline soil conditions 20 years ago. The once proud farmers had to make a living by becoming mere wage labourers. Twenty years later the experiences and knowledge of Practical Actions project on organic farming helped to bring about change into the lives of these farmers from Ooraniayayaya.

Nobody passing the lush green paddy field in Ooraniya yaya in Bandagirya Grama Niladhari Division in Hambantota district would find a trace of the same abandoned paddy land 20 years ago. The Ooraniya yaya (paddy land) is located in the arid zone of Hambantota adjoining the Bundala natural sanctuary, and the Bundala salt lake. Livelihood of the communities in this area is mainly paddy or chena cultivation. The village in ancient times had a well developed irrigation system to obtain water from Tissamaharama Yoda wewa tank. However it is no longer operational. The prolonging droughts, lack of water for irrigation and increasing saline conditions in soil had led to abandoning of the paddy land for nearly 35 years. The farmers in this village had no option but to engage in daily wage labour as their livelihood.

In 2005, the national government of Sri Lanka initiated a programme to cultivate abandoned paddy lands. As part of the process abandoned or unutilized irrigation systems too were rehabilitated. As a result the irrigation channels in Bundala area in Hambantota district too were rehabilitated. It was followed by numerous programmes carried out by government officials to get farmer organizations to cultivate paddy in the lands where the irrigation channels were rehabilitated. The newly improved paddy seed varieties, chemical fertilizer and using special cultivation practices did not help the Department of Agriculture officials and the farmers to cultivate in the saline soil conditions in Ooraniya yaya. Bathalgoda Rice research Institute tested the soil samples and declared the location as unfavourable for paddy cultivation. The Farmer Society too did not have an answer to the problem. It was at this point an extension officer from the Department of Agriculture requested the Farmers' Society to contact Practical Action project team and find a solution from traditional cultivation methods.

After a series of awareness programs and exposure visits the farmer organizations realized that paddy cultivation in these adverse conditions is still possible with the indigenous rice varieties and organic methods. However, it was still difficult to mobilize farmers to cultivate in Ooraniaya yaya. Weerarathne leader of Bundala Farmer association had participated in a training program conducted by Practical Action organic agriculture project team at Hambanthota. Practical Action implemented this project in partnership with the National Federation for Conservation of Traditional Seeds and Agriculture Resources (NFCTSAR). He contacted NFCTSAR to obtain more information. Weeraratne got samples of traditional seed varieties of Kuruluthuda and Pachchaperumal from NFCTSAR and cultivated in a small plot in Bundala field applying organic cultivation practices. At the adjoining plot he also cultivated conventional hybrid paddy varieties which have the same soil and irrigation conditions.

At the end of the season Weeraratne's plot on traditional paddy produced a good yield whereas the plot with hybrid varieties had totally failed. This helped to win the other farmers confidence to cultivate traditional paddy varieties in saline soil conditions. Bundala Farmer Association called up a meeting with to Department of Agriculture officials, representatives from NFCTSAR and Practical Action project team. A major decision taken at this meeting was to re activate the 2004 number 46 Agrarian Development Act with the support of Ministry of Agriculture. According to this act any farmer who cultivates an abandoned paddy land has a right to get the total harvest for five years from the time he started cultivation. As a result many land less farmers and land owners started cultivating traditional paddy applying organic cultivation practices.

This favorable policy decisions accelerated the cultivation of indigenous paddy in the southern province. The Department of Agriculture again agreed to give 45 kg of traditional seed paddy and a grant of Rs 3500 per acre for the traditional paddy farmers as a subsidy for organic fertiliser. A good rice yield from the earlier abandoned paddy lands gave a new lease of life to the paddy farmers from Ooraniya yaya in Bandagiriya Grama Niladhari division in the arid zone of Hambantota district. As a result of increased paddy cultivation activities that started happening farmers got more money to their hands. Hiring of agricultural equipment such as tractors to other villages and labour exchange helped to improve the financial conditions of the farmers. The traditional environmental friendly cultivation practices brought them the highest price for their yield.

The farmers got together to rehabilitate the soil applying traditional practices to make lands cultivable. The others who were not directly involved in cultivation also took an active role in protecting the crop from elephants and other animals. The revival of traditional cultivation practices also helped to rekindle the unity in the village.

Varuna Rathnabharathi
Project Manager - Organic farming
Making markets work for poor programme

Read more about Practical Action South Asia's organic farming projects

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