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CHAPTER 2. The Research Area: Description and Agricultural Background

Location of the Research Area
Settlement and Landrights
Farming Systems
Government Services in Agriculture
Abundance of Rural Organizations

Location of the Research Area

Matale district is located North of the central mountain area of Sri Lanka (see Map 1.). It is characterized by a climatological and physical diversity and hence by a great diversity in farming systems. Rattota division is situated in the hilly wet zone, Naula, for a large part, in the somewhat hilly intermediate zone and Dambulla in the flat, dry zone.

The research covered the 12 village clusters where the project was active during the time of the research (1988-1989). Four of the village clusters were located in Naula division: Karawilahena, Maragamuwa, Bowattennewatte and Kumbiyangahaela. Dambulla had six village clusters: Menikdenneyaya, Digampataha, Tittawelgolla, Pekulame, Wewelawewa, and Unupanduruyaya. And Rattota division had two village clusters: Welangahawatte and Wanaraniya. Map 1. visualizes the location of the village clusters. Table 1. gives the number of respondents per village cluster in the sample survey.

A village cluster is generally defined as an area consisting of several neighbouring villages where groups have been formed with the assistance of one group organizer alone or of a team of two group organizers. By the time of the research the project was reorganizing the support of the group organizers in such a way that one division would be served by one or two group organizers only.

The total number of adult small farmer groups as per December 1988, in the 12 village clusters was 147 and the number of groups per village cluster ranged from 31 groups (in Kumbiyangahaela) to 6 (in Menikdenneyaya). Membership of groups can be either entirely female, entirely male or mixed. Membership ranged from an average of 6 members per group (in Karawilahena village cluster) to 12 members (in Digampataha). For the 147 groups the average membership is 9 persons.

The small farmer groups, being the primary organizations, were requested to form secondary groups, the village boards. In chapter six the role of the village board is analysed. Usually the village board coincides with the area covered by one group organizer, except for two locations where two village boards where established in one village cluster, i.e., in Kumbiyangahaela and in Welangahawatte.

A village cluster comprises of a group of villages or hamlets where small farmer groups have been established. The number of such hamlets varies per village cluster. For example, the group organizers identified 10 different hamlets in the Wewelawewa cluster and only 2 in Welangahawatte cluster. Their settlement pattern is discussed in the next section.

Map 1. Sri Lanka and the Location of the Research Area

Table 1. Number of Groups, Members and Respondents by Division and Village Cluster

AGA Division

Village Cluster No.


No. members*
























































































* Excluding children and children's groups
Source: Resource-base Survey 1990

Settlement and Landrights

In terms of farming systems and settlement, in Sri Lanka, a division is made between the dry zone and the wet zone. Since the time of the ancient kings, the dry zone has been sparsely populated and not until colonization schemes started in the 1940s and the development of the Mahaweli irrigation scheme in the 1970s began, did large scale settlement occur in the dry zone. The re-settlement organized by the government is primarily based on small holder cultivation.

The wet zone is characterized by dense population and by the persisting importance of agricultural estates (mainly tea, rubber, and coconut). Rattota division is part of the wet zone and Naula and Dambulla divisions, in general, are part of the dry zone. Map 2. gives an overview of the differences in population densities in the Matale district.

Map 2. Density of Population in Matale District: 1981.

Settlement in rural Sri Lanka can be roughly divided in: old villages (purana gama), colonies initiated by the government, and spontaneous settlement. Both in the wet and the dry zone, old villages were often concentrated around small irrigations systems: mostly around systems which acquire water through a diversion weir in a stream (anicut) in the wet zone and around tank systems in the dry zone. Ownership of land under such a system (oppu or sinakkere) is often recognized by the state, and the land can be sold or leased. (See for example Leach, 1961, for a description on ownership of land in an old village in the dry zone.)

In colonies initiated by the government, the land provided to the settlers is given either on a deed (swarnabumi), or on a permanent lease, which requires a yearly payment (balapatrayak).

Encroachment of state (or "Crown") land is a widespread phenomenon in Sri Lanka and especially in the dry zone. It can occur in various ways; for example, opening up of jungle for foodcrops and/or tobacco cultivation during the major rainy season (maha season) or illegal cultivation along irrigation channels. This last type of encroachement is known as 'pipe irrigation' because a pvc pipe is inserted in the channel to tap the water. Encroachment can range from large-scale (mainly for cash crop cultivation) to small-scale (mainly for subsistence crop cultivation). The government can decide to legalize the land encroached by either giving a deed, a permanent permit, or a yearly permit.

In one village cluster, Pekulame, a number of group members have encroached on land that is declared forest reserve by the Government. Here the Government is unwilling to legalize the land encroached, but has planned to resettle the encroachers in a nearby area, which is however, considered less suitable for cultivation by the people concerned.

In Sri Lanka, land can be inherited by both males and females. This means that either direct ownership of a piece of land can be inherited or access to cultivate land, for example the rights to cultivate land under a sharecropping arrangement or rotating ownership arrangement. If available, land or access to cultivate land is often part of the dowry supplied by the family of the female party. This land or land title usually remains in the name of the female, unless she and/or her husband decides to sell or transfer the land or the right to cultivate it. Yet, in Sri Lanka, legally land can be registered in the name of the head of the household only (Cloud, 1985:39). Consequently, registered cultivators or owner-cultivators who are eligible for agriculture support services, such as cultivation loans, are predominantly male.

Both female and male owning or inheriting resources is not only common for land but for any other assets as well, whereby "... males and females meet financial responsibilities to the family individually with little or no access to each other's cash or resources." (Cloud, 1985:25). Or as Leach (1980:100-101) clarifies for a village in the dry zone: "In Pul Eliya every adult, individual, male or female is treated as a separate economic unit, separately entitled to own property and separately entitled to derive benefits therefrom.". However, this does not necessarily mean that men and women within a household do not share resources or make every decision pertaining to resources separately.

Nearly all the village clusters have a great variety of settlement patterns and of land rights. In all clusters encroachment of land is common practice, either through spontaneous settlement of persons from inside the area or outside as well where land is relatively abundant (in the Dambulla and Naula areas) or mainly by new generations of the existing inhabitants where land is short (in the Rattota area).

None of the village clusters is part of the Mahaweli Irrigation and Settlement Scheme, although part of one cluster in Naula (Kumbiyangahaela) and part of one cluster in Dambulla (Wewelawewa) receive irrigation water through a rehabilitated ancient diversion (Elahera channel) of the Mahaweli river. The land cultivated with this water is thus part of a larger irrigation system.

Except for Bowattennewatte, all village clusters include one or more purana gamwele. Such a village is often located near one or more small-scale irrigation systems, usually an anicut in the wet zone or a tank system in the dry zone. Although such a system may provide water during both major wet season (maha season) or minor wet season (yala season) in the wet zone, in the dry zone the tank systems often provide only supplementary irrigation water during the wet season. It may happen that the tank does not contain water for one year or a number of subsequent years at all. The maha season starts roughly in September and ends in January, and the yala season starts in March up to May. Regional variations in rain patterns occur. With the growing importance of vegetable cultivation in the dry zone, pump irrigation has also gained ground.

There have been many subsequent laws in Sri Lanka, to regulate the cultivation of (especially irrigated) land. The Paddy Lands Act of 1958, aims to provide security of tenure to tenant cultivators and stipulates a maximum rent payable to the landowner. With the introduction of the Land Reform Law in 1972, a ceiling on individual land ownership of 25 acres on paddy land and 50 acres on dry land was imposed. Furthermore, under the Agricultural Productivity Law of 1972, it was envisaged to provide more security to tenant cultivators. Under the Agrarian Services Act of 1979, it is not allowed to abandon irrigable land for more than two years. This Act aims to give security and services to all registered cultivators, whether owner or not.

Despite the abundance of agricultural laws, marginalization of smallholders increased substantially over the past three decades (see for example, Peiris and Nilaweera, 1985). According to the report on "Marginalization of Agricultural Labour in Sri Lanka" (date unknown:30): "While the total number of paddy holdings increased between 1962 and 1970 by 42 percent, the average size of a paddy holding diminished from 2 acres to 1.5 acres. This average size further dropped to 1.2 acres in 1976 during which an estimated total of 1,305,000 paddy operators were cultivating 1,570,799 acres. Of these operators, 97 percent had one-half to five acres.". Based on a comparison of the data from the 1973 and the 1982 Agricultural Censuses, the Gini Coefficient, i.e., the indicator for inequality in the distribution of land holdings, increased from 0.51 in 1973 to 0.62 in 1982 (FAO, 1988:36). Furthermore, the Consumer Wage (i.e., the agricultural wage deflated by the Consumer Price Index) decreased from 6.8 during the period 1970-80 to -3.6 during 1980-84 (World Bank 1986, in FAO, 1988:113).

Yet, besides formal regulation on land tenure, there are many informal ways to obtain access to cultivable land. This can range from merchants leasing out land for one cultivation whereby the type of crop and the share are fixed and the inputs are often provided by the merchant, to cultivators leasing land for one season bearing all the costs and risks themselves, to longterm sharecropping arrangements, to rotating cultivation rights (tattumaru), derived from a traditional practice. This all adds to the very complicated issue of landrights in Sri Lanka.

Not having any formal type of land title is a problem for many cultivators as it restricts access to any form of (government) service; e.g., (cultivation) loans and subsidies.

Farming Systems

In Rattota area, the farming system is dominated by irrigated agriculture during two seasons per year, with water from small anicut systems, and by cultivation of tree crops in addition to other homegarden crops. Animal husbandry on a small scale has become common, especially keeping of one or two milk cows, chickens and goats. Due to the shortages of land, once created by the establishment of the estates and now sustained by the growing population, many people seek all types of additional sources of income. People may work as labourer in the estates or go to the Mahaweli area in the peak seasons (transplanting and harvesting). Furthermore many people are engaged in small industries, which may be either traditional and caste related, such as pottery, or relatively newly introduced such as sigarette (beedi) making or ekle and broom making.

According to project staff queried, it has been difficult to enhance the participation and commitment of group members in the Rattota area, exactly because of the diversity and multitude of activities that the people are engaged in. Lack of common group interests might also have been caused by other processes, however, such as increasing polarisation of resources or the persisting importance of patron-client relationships in sustaining a lifelihood when resources are scarce (see for example Perera: 1985 and Dale 1985).

In contrast, the farming systems in the dry zone seem more homogenous, and for a large part based on dry land agriculture. However, the importance of irrigated agriculture from small and large (Mahaweli water) systems should not be underestimated. The division of dry land and irrigated cultivation for the project participants will be discussed in Chapter five. A main difference between dry land and irrigated land is that access to irrigation water is often very unreliable (unless access to Mahaweli water or another main source is guaranteed).

Traditionally, irrigable land was often cultivated with rice, mainly for home consumption, and the dry land, on a slash and bum basis, with subsidary food crops for the market as well as for home consumption (Perera 1985). With the growing importance of vegetable cultivation, the cultivator may have the choice to decide whether to cultivate rice for home consumption and/or vegetables for the market.

During the minor wet season, drought resistant crops such as sesame and specific pulses are grown under rainfed conditions. Pump irrigation during this season, especially for chilly and onion cultivation has increased since the prices obtained can be high.

In Rattota as well as in Naula and Dambulla divisions, tabacco is grown during the major rainy season, often on newly cleared lands. The Ceylon Tobacco Company is the main buyer of the tobacco grown. Under a Government Act it is forbidden to cultivate tobacco on irrigable lands, as priority is given to the cultivation of food crops. This however, has contributed to massive erosion of slopes in the wet and dry zone areas.

In general, it is obvious that farming systems in Sri Lanka have become more and more linked up to the market. However, the prices cultivators obtain for their products are often dependent on the way marketing of crops is arranged, on the world market prices and on government intervention in buying certain crops from the cultivators and especially in importing certain crops, such as onions, dahl, rice, maize and soya. Although the physical infrastructure in Sri Lanka is relatively good, e.g., the number of motorable roads, many cultivators complain about the domination of large scale traders in agricultural produce and the consequent low prices they obtain for their produce.

Fishing is often part of the farming system and fresh water fish makes an important contribution to the diet. But due to its caste connotation, it has a low status and there is therefore a reluctance of people to reveal their involvement in fishing.

Government Services in Agriculture

As mentioned above, Sri Lanka knows a long history of Government involvement in agriculture, whereby frequent changes in policies have taken place. Under the Agrarian Services Act of 1979, Agrarian Services Centres are established at sub-divisional level. These centres integrate the services of the Agrarian Services Department (mainly involved in minor irrigation issues and in cultivation loans), the Agricultural Department (was mainly involved in agricultural extension), and other agencies, such as the Agricultural Development Authority, and the Coconut Cultivation Board, when appropriate. The Agrarian Services Centres are also the main vehicles for implementing short term government programmers such as buying of onions from cultivators during the minor wet season in 1989.

Agricultural extension was given by field level extension agents from the Agricultural Department supported by subject matter specialists from the Agrarian Services Centres and the District Offices. The field level officers were supposed to follow the T&V system based on seasonal planning of acreages cultivated and yields of certain crops per area. However, in 1989 the Government decided to withdraw all field level officers from both the Agricultural and Agrarian Services Departments to become administrative officers under the Home Affairs Department. The rationale for this move was the implementation of the poverty alleviation programme".

Agricultural extension is now the responsibility of the officers at Agrarian Services Centre level, but the area to be covered by each officer is far too large for an effective extension service. The government plans to establish farmer's organizations to facilitate agricultural extension.

Cultivation loans are provided for registered (owner) cultivators and are thus not accessible for the cultivators who do not have a legal title or permit to the land or are not registered a leaseholder. However, cultivation loans are in some areas provided by (semi) NGOs, such as the Federation of Cooperative Credit Societies Sri Lanka Limited or Sarvodaya, and those organizations which do not require that the borrower be a registered cultivator.

Abundance of Rural Organizations

In Sri Lanka, there is an abundance of rural village level organizations supported by both government and non-government organizations. There is an increasing number of departments in Sri Lanka that have initiated their own village level organizations (Wanigaratne:1977). The main purpose of these organizations is often to channel the services of the Departments to the rural population, more on the basis of supply than on demand (Jungeling 1989). Consequently, often such village level organizations focus on obtaining external benefits and not on organizing and representing common interests of its members. In practice, the only well-known organizations that are autonomous and that serve a common interest are the funeral societies and part of the Cooperative Thrift and Credit Societies. These societies often serve a clear single purpose.

One effect of the longstanding patronage (often politically motivated) which has been channelled through rural organizations, is that many rural people have become dependent on this type of assistance, both economically, as a necessary source to supplement their income, and mentally. This situation makes it difficult for organizations or projects that have adopted the principle of self-help, primarily based on resource mobilization by their potential target groups, to become successful.

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