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Livelihood and poverty conditions in the conflict region

The economic base of the North and East is agriculture, livestock and fisheries. While 80 percent of the population depends on the agricultural sector for their livelihood, agricultural activities contribute less than 10 percent of household monetary income. The mean income is SLRs 734 (in the North) and SLRs 620 (in the East) (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2003c).

Prior to the conflict this region was a significant agricultural hub of Sri Lanka and production was higher than in most areas of the country. The displacement, salinity, security zones, damage to irrigation infrastructure, land mines, lack of access to markets and lack of capital during the conflict brought abandonment of paddy lands (Sri Lanka NEP, 2003). Despite the area’s decline of agricultural activity during the conflict, the sector’s growth rate increased to 7 percent consequent to the cease fire agreement of 2002 (Central Bank, 2004). In Maha 2002/2003, paddy acreage in the North and East increased by 18 percent, though mostly in marginal lands as prime land was located in areas controlled by the LTTE and in government high security zones. All districts in the North and East reported increased paddy output which, though much lower than pre-conflict output, still accounted for 7 percent of the total Maha output (Central Bank, 2004). Production of other major cash crops such as chilli, onions, cow pea, lentils, vegetables, maize and cassava also increased (Central Bank, 2004).

In the North, fisheries were the primary productive activity in 1990 and accounted for 35 percent of the agricultural sector. In the next five years, however, fisheries experienced a 12 percent negative growth rate due to restricted offshore and lagoon fishing, restricted spatial and temporal mobility, banned use of motorised boats, destroyed fishing gear and other assets, displaced and destroyed houses and disrupted marketing links. The consequent reduced fish production seriously affected fisher families’ livelihoods. In the Eastern province, in contrast, fisheries grew by 16 percent in the same period; although production declined when the war resumed in 1995, the industry did not suffer the constraints experienced in the North and had the resilience to pick up after two years.

Fisheries grew substantially with the easing of military confrontations in 2002 and the consequent removal of some offshore fishing restrictions and opening of the main road to the North; the sector’s response, however, fell below that of the agricultural sector. On the positive side, wartime restrictions expanded resource stock that resulted in a harvestable surplus. Poaching by foreign fishers, however, including companies using capital intensive technology in Sri Lankan waters off Jaffna, could lead to resource depletion if not contained (Central Bank, 2004; Shanmugaratnam, 2003).

Guerrilla warfare and the clearing of forests for military purposes extensively damaged the forests and environment in the North and East. Decline in forestry activities reduced the rural population’s employment opportunities. Acute shortage of firewood, the primary energy source for cooking, especially affected the Jaffna peninsula that has no forests. Depletion of forest cover affects ground water levels and creates environmental problems. Unlawful operations such as illicit timber harvesting contribute to environmental degradation (Silva, 2003).

Livestock rearing is integral to crop farming, but herds have dwindled. Chicken rearing is the most popular activity (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2003b). Despite dwindling livestock numbers, the Northern and Eastern provinces surpassed the all island growth rates in 1990-1995. Constraints on development include the lack of quality breeding stock, scarcity of grazing lands, lack of veterinary services, the collapse of dairy cooperatives and inadequate support to livestock farmers.


Prior to the conflict, large and medium scale industries such as the cement factory, paper factory, salterns and seafood processing factories provided employment; most are not operating now. Small-scale industries also suffered, thus, industrial employment opportunities are limited. Manufacturing employs 12 percent of women in the North and 21 percent in the East, though women’s employment exceeded the percentage of men in this sector.

Subsistence level production resulted from the cumulative effects of numerous factors. Production efficiency declined due to damaged infrastructure facilities such as roads, irrigation and water supply. War damage and lost equipment aggravated the situation. Service delivery to support production was disrupted due to constant displacement of people and disrupted institutions. Acts of war directly affected the small and landless farmers and those engaged in small-scale business activities. Other income generating activities had little or no scope due to constant restrictions on movement of people and goods. Consequently, transportation links and market opportunities dwindled.


Isolation, food and livelihood insecurity and inaccessible assets, services, basic amenities, and transport facilities contribute to poverty due to conflict in the North and East. People in areas that experienced almost continuous fighting are poorer in terms of income, infrastructure, development and livelihood options (Jayaweera et al., 2004). Poverty data on the North and East are limited, though micro studies indicate widespread poverty.11 The mean household income in 2002 for the Northern and Eastern provinces was SLRs 8 155 and SLRs 7 640 per month respectively compared to the national average of SLRs 12 803. Fifty percent of the households in the North and East received less than SLRs 5 858 per month or SLRs 5 500 per month respectively. Monthly incomes of urban households in both provinces were relatively higher (Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, 2003d). The World Bank (2005) found no difference between male and female headed household poverty rates. The emergence of households headed by widows due to the conflict, however, could contribute to significant differences as most of them have not been income earners, have limited education and skills and their earning capacity is below that of male heads of households (Sri Lanka Ministry of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees, 2003).

A village in a LTTE controlled Zone 25 km from Malavi, Mannar district

Twenty years of conflict had left the village with very few facilities and services. The only government officers working in the area are the school principal of the mixed school, the two graduate teachers and the Grama Niladhari, who is not resident in the village. An agricultural extension officer had visited the village once. Although the households live below the poverty line, no welfare benefits reach them. Health care facilities are at a minimum. The Sri Lanka Red Cross holds a clinic once a week and a midwife visits the village once a month. Emergency medical attention is available only in Mannar and Malavi, 25 km away. It is reported that about ten people in the village die in a year from snakebites without emergency medical attention and pregnant women face immense difficulty often having to rely on a village elder at time of childbirth.

A road had been repaired one year ago but transport facilities are minimal. There is no public transport and a tractor, three motorcycles and bicycles are the only means of transport available in the village. Although Vavuniya is the closest town, access is through the high security zone, which is closed to the general public. The villagers have to go to Mannar or to Malavi for all their needs. The bridge, connecting the village to the major towns has been blown off isolating the village during the rainy season.

Housing conditions were very poor. The wattle and daub houses in which the people live lack basic amenities although roofing consists of asbestos sheets supplied by an NGO. These houses had no toilet facilities. Kerosene oil in bottle lamps is used for lighting while fuel wood is used for cooking. Except for a bicycle, household assets were almost non-existent. Although Tamil women invest in jewellery, women in this village had only the minimum – a chain and a bangle or two. Some wore a thali (wedding chain).

Most households obtain minimum food requirements through state transfers and other sources. A World Food Programme survey (2003) of school children’s nutritional status in the conflict districts of Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and areas of Polonnaruwa district adjacent to the conflict zones showed extremely high prevalence of wasting and underweight. A child in the North or East was twice as likely to be malnourished as one in the South.

Government services are limited and there is acute shortage of public servants, teachers and medical officers. Local representatives are ineffective. Transport is almost non-existent (Field assessment, Mannar). The population in LTTE controlled areas is marginalised. The cease-fire agreement partially removed their isolation but worsened their short-term situation with the influx of goods into the region and the inability of the few local producers to compete with them (Sarvananthan, 2003).

11 The Official Poverty Line for Sri Lanka published by the Department of Census and Statistics in June 2004 excludes the eight districts of the North and East.

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