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Rehabilitation of agriculture and the rural sector in the North East

Although the agricultural sector declined in the past twenty years, it accounts for about 18 percent of the GDP (Central Bank, 2004). In the last decade the agriculture growth rate was 2 percent smaller than industry or services (Central Bank, 2003). By 2004 the domestic agricultural sector contributed only 11 percent of the GDP.13 Yet the Sri Lankan economy is significantly agrarian; agriculture directly accounts for about 33 percent of employment, and most of the rural population depends on agriculture, fisheries or livestock for their livelihood.

Agriculture, fisheries, livestock

Sri Lanka’s agricultural policy strives to achieve self-sufficiency in paddy production. The frontier model of expanding land under cultivation, increasing irrigation investment, adopting high yielding varieties and fertiliser use and diffusing agricultural knowledge contributes to increased production, but self-sufficiency in paddy has not been achieved. Food production lagged behind population increase; per capita food production recorded a negative growth rate of -0.3 during 1996-2000 (UNDP, 2003). Large areas of the island including much of the North and East are vulnerable to food insecurity (World Food Programme, 2003) (Map). The country depends on a narrow range of crops. Despite emphasis on cultivating additional field crops such as onions and chillies, output declined over the last decade.

Ingrained structural weaknesses reinforce the sector’s sluggish performance. Such weaknesses include inadequate supply of high yielding seed varieties, poor agricultural extension services, high post-harvest loss, marketing bottlenecks and restrictions in the land market. Delay in achieving change retards growth; it took seven years for the Seed Act finally to be passed in 2003. Other factors retarding agricultural success include state ownership of land, competition among numerous agencies to administer government land and cumbersome administrative procedures in obtaining land for cultivation.

The agriculture sector suffers under government policies and regulation of imports and tariffs, credit, subsidies and marketing. The government’s ad hoc tariff policies negatively affect producers and consumers but also bring reduced tax revenues (Epaarachchi, 2002). Tariff structures of some food items were changed to protect the farmer but they are lower than the level permitted by the World Trade Organisation.14 Government attempts at price stabilisation often fail for lack of financial resources, thus compelling farmers to sell their produce to private traders at depressed prices. Paddy farming is unprofitable despite government subsidies on credit, fertiliser, water and prices. Consequently, many farmers, especially in the wet zone, move from full-time farming to non-farm employment (Epaarachchi, 2002). Constraints on the crop sector include low productivity (refuted by the Central Bank, 2005), lack of diversification to high-value crops, stagnation in land use, low growth in irrigated area and fragmentation of land.


The National Agriculture Policy and Strategy (NAPS) aims to stimulate growth, improve labour productivity and develop an efficient food processing industry. It prioritizes food security but not to the detriment of increased domestic food prices. NAPS defined these areas for reform: market reforms, a greater role for private entrepreneurship, consolidation of smallholdings with the objective of introducing capital-intensive technology, product zoning and area specialisation.

The rural-urban divide shows wide differentials in the monthly rural-urban household incomes of SLRs 6 464 and SLRs 10 067 respectively. Placing high priority on rural development, the World Bank suggests liberalisation of trade for agricultural outputs, gradual reduction of state involvement in agricultural marketing and improvements to rural infrastructure. The poor likely will be affected in the short and intermediate terms by this strategy of trade liberalisation and withdrawal of the state from agricultural marketing.

NEP agricultural development strategy

The North East Provincial Council’s agricultural development strategy envisages shifting from subsistence agriculture to commercially oriented agriculture, cultivating high-value items for the internal and external markets and establishing an agro-industrial base. A significant proposal will diversify paddy cultivation with high-value vegetables, fruits and other field crops. Private entrepreneurs will take a lead. Retention of the nuclear farm system will involve larger numbers of small farmers. Research, extension and training will be strengthened. The NEP strategy will refocus livestock-raising from a backyard enterprise to a commercially viable industry to increase farmers’ income and reduce risk of crop losses. The fisheries industry will be reoriented from fish harvesting to fish culture and processing while continuing with marine fishing. The strategy focuses on rehabilitation of the fisheries infrastructure, modernisation of existing fleets and equipment. The private sector will play a major role in revival of the fishing industry. New agro-industries will add value to farm produce and create employment opportunities. The manufacture, repair and service of machinery, tools and equipment used by farmers and fishermen also are envisaged.

The NEP will bring at least 30 percent of the land area under forest cover and will initiate a social forestry programme with the active participation of the communities. An agro-forestry programme will integrate trees and shrubs on farms for manure, fuel wood, fodder, medicine and other benefits.

Development of the agricultural and rural sector is a priority to reduce conflict-induced poverty, increase incomes and reduce vulnerability to food insecurity. The recovery of the agriculture sector will depend on release of farmland from within the high security zone and areas held by the LTTE. Re-establishment of farming must consider conflicting claims about land, the forcible acquisition of land, encroachment, problems about farm inputs and landmines. Land issues are volatile especially in the East where the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims access the power bases either in Colombo or the Wanni to put forward rival claims for land and irrigation water. The dominance of political capital and patronage further marginalises the powerless.

External assistance

Since the ‘Kilinochchi Agreement’ of 2002 the international donor community committed support for reconstruction and rehabilitation of conflict affected areas.15 Subsequently, donors pledged US$ 4.5 billion and the IMF approved a three-year Poverty Reduction Growth Facility (PRGF) lending arrangement and release of previously withheld funds, and the World Bank and IMF pushed through economic reform. Both sides to the conflict can gain from the development effort, but the reforms and donor approaches to conflict resolution and development must be critically re-evaluated to determine whether existing inequalities would be exacerbated. Donor commitments do not meet the actual requirements. Assistance is in the form of loans except for the North East Reconstruction Fund (NERF) which received grants. Sri Lanka’s history of under utilising development assistance reveals lack of administrative capacity to manage the development process in the North East. Transparency, accountability and timeliness of development assistance must be considered in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of conflict affected areas.

NGO contributions

Numerous international and local agencies undertake rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes in the North and East, though these civil society organisations reveal many contradictions (Bastian, 2003). The NGOs foci vary from providing welfare and humanitarian assistance to initiating small-scale development projects or cultural activities and conflict resolution. Some women’s NGOs provide legal services and counselling. The Suriya Women’s Development Centre mobilises and empowers women in Batticaloa. The LTTE recognised three major NGOs in the area: the Centre for Women’s Development and Rehabilitation (CWDR) formed in 1992, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) and the Economic Consultancy House Ltd. (ETECH). All address women’s and children’s welfare and gender equity (TamilNet). The three recognised NGOs receive funds from numerous sources including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UN agencies, local and international NGOs, local and expatriate Tamil communities and, to a lesser extent, the Sri Lankan Government.

Umbrella organisations coordinate inter­vention activities. The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), for example, selects and allocates projects to NGOs and facilitates optimum utilisation of funds to avoid duplication. The Consortium monitors project implementation but has no enforcement authority. The Divisional Secretariat which requires registration of all NGOs regularly consults with them, yet many NGOs maintain their own agenda.

A constructive role for NGO in conflict zone

The Social Development Foundation is a leading NGO in the Jaffna district with 53 branches in the peninsula. These branches organise farmers at the village level and include both women and men. Unlike in farmer organisations, women participate and hold leadership positions.

Few well-established local or international women’s NGOs are involved in women’s development projects, though some NGOs consciously incorporate women into project activities mainly because of the donors’ priorities. They include women and provide them with skill development, income generation and micro credit. The institutional and management structures of these NGOs, however, show gender imbalances with traditional male power structures remaining intact, and it is questionable whether women’s empowerment will result.

Needs’ assessments, gender considerations and women’s needs

Numerous international organisations and agencies that are working in Sri Lanka identify gender issues as important consideration in post-conflict assistance. The National Framework for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation formulates policies and strategies through a consultative process to assist conflict-affected communities. The consultations included a wide range of stakeholders, but neither the Ministry of Women’s Affairs nor the National Committee on Women were included, and no women’s NGOs working in conflict affected areas were consulted. None of the experts were working on women’s or gender issues thus reflecting gender imbalances in administrative and civil society structures themselves. The outcome is a document written for the most part in gender-neutral language.

The Multilateral Group’s needs assessment recognises “…the key role played by women as economic actors, social leaders and managers of natural resources. Its overall objective is to ensure that women have access to resources, including land and credit, and to the benefits made available under rehabilitation programmes.”16 Vulnerable widows and female-headed households were included in proposed projects, and the assessment specified the need to safeguard women and children’s rights, consult with women in provision of infrastructure facilities such as domestic water, sanitation and electricity, and to provide training and skill development in non-traditional areas employment and training.

The Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs in the North and East (SIHRN), which has LTTE involvement, proposes to improve women’s situation and ensure greater gender equality. It prioritizes health care and nutrition for mothers, education, vocational training, credit and employment opportunities for female headed households and widows and special care for war-traumatised women.

The UN mandates clear strategies and action plans to incorporate gender perspectives in rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes, including monitoring mechanisms, and the incorporation of explicit attention to the situation of women and girls in needs assessments, appraisals and implementation plans for all sectors; and the development of targeted activities, with adequate resources, focused on specific constraints facing women and girls (UN, 2003).

The UN Inter-Agency Assessment Mission in 2002 recognised “support and protection of women affected by the war needs to be central to any UN action”, and specified that “structures and mechanisms [be] created in these processes to reflect women’s many voices and experiences of violent conflict”. The Joint Strategy (2002) document, however, is silent on gender considerations. The UN recently established the Gender Working Group to ensure adequate attention to gender issues in overall policy and programmatic responses of the Multilateral Group. Although a gender strategy is being prepared there is no reference to gender issues in the rehabilitation of the North and East.

The UNHCR policy to integrate refugee women comprehensively in programme planning and implementation focuses on families, and also recognises widows as a vulnerable group. The Commission recognises that the sexual and gender based violence that rehabilitation programmes may contribute to may undermine the programmes’ positive impacts.

UNDP’s transitory programme to support internally displaced persons, refugees, local communities and vulnerable groups emphasises women’s and children’s needs. The programme supports small-scale projects training that targets capacity-development of communities.

The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) gender strategy in Sri Lanka aims to mainstream gender into all of its projects. Its revised strategy under development, will apply to ADB supported projects in the North and East.

The 2003 World Bank Country Assistance Strategy has no gender focus in its support of resettlement and revival of livelihoods in the North and East.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promotes gender equality in access to sufficient, safe and nutritionally adequate food; access to, control over and management of natural resources and agricultural support services; participation in policy- and decision making processes at all levels in the agricultural and rural sector; and in opportunities for both on- and off-farm employment in rural areas. Nonetheless, FAO’s local projects have no specific gender focus, nor do they integrate gender into the project design, nor are there targets for women except for the female headed households the percentage of which is not quantified. An official stated, “FAO is not against including gender but neither does it focus on it” (FAO, 2001).

While project statements accept consideration of women’s needs, there is a general lack of understanding of gender issues. Stereotypical perceptions of women as dependent housewives persist among project designers that could lead to women farmers’ exclusion from agricultural training programmes.

The NEP agricultural policy states that “The agricultural development strategy will be incomplete without a component to assist women. This is being stressed because the conflict has led to the loss of several males who were principally farmers and fishermen. There is also an immediate need to educate women in techniques and methods of commercial farming in view of their fast increasing role in agriculture. The knowledge and attitudes gained by them in a conservative environment are no longer valid to face the challenges of future development” (North East Provincial Council).

“The conflict has resulted in large numbers of female-headed households where women have to carry out the farming and fishing activities and support parents and children. Poverty and destitution will increase unless some firm measures are taken to offset this trend. The strategy therefore stresses the need to train such women in income generating skills and support them with soft credit and marketing facilities....” (North East Provincial Council).

Women who move into commercial farming are marginalised; they need special support mechanisms to take advantage of new opportunities. The NEP agricultural development strategy and other programmes identify female-headed households for special attention, yet do not recognise women’s productive role in agriculture. All women farmers need to be included in the new environment.

Recommendations for gender responsive policies and programmes

Design and implementation of rehabilitation programmes in conflict affected areas require a multi-stakeholder approach incorporating consultative and participatory processes. References to gender equality and women’s role must be enacted with specific policies, adequate finance and ground level action. NGOs at the grassroots level better understand women’s needs that are incorporated in the projects’ designs, but micro level initiatives could be negated if the macro environment is not gender sensitive:

13 Paddy, other field crops-grains, oil seeds, pulses, root crops-fruits, vegetables and sugar.

14 Sri Lanka has bound tariffs on almost all products including rice, onion and chillie falling at 50 percent except for certain domestic food crops including potato and some varieties of beans that have been bound at 100 percent.

15 The cease fire agreement signed between the GOSL and the LTTE.

16 Criticisms of the Needs Assessment include the lack of consultation with grassroots organisations, omission of the issue of governance, which cuts across sectors, and unrealistic cost estimates. Consultations for the assessment were confined mostly to government officials at the national and provincial levels, the LTTE, International NGOs and NGOs. Elected representatives were not consulted (Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna. 2003. “Review of the assessment of needs in the conflict-affected areas of the North East”. Lines 2(1) May 2003: pp. 27-29.) while, apart from the discussions held with the Sub Committee on Gender, the few other women consulted were mostly from International NGOs. The Needs Assessment however presents a fairly accurate picture of the situation of the North East.

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