FAO plays key role in international effort to resettle abandoned lands in Sri Lanka

Over fourteen years of civil strife in the northern regions of Sri Lanka have left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, brought agricultural production to a virtual standstill and severely damaged the fishing industry.

FAO's Special Relief Operations Service fielded a technical mission to the worst-affected regions of the country in September 1997, to assess the impact of the civil unrest on agricultural production and to determine farmers' immediate emergency needs and short-term rehabilitation of the agricultural sector. The mission, funded by the United Nations Development Programme, visited the Jaffna Peninsula - the principal area of conflict for over a decade - and areas of the "Vanni", where the most recent fighting between government troops and rebel forces has been taking place.

More than 60 percent of the estimated 876 000 people living in Vanni have been forced to flee their homes. Damage to infrastructure, displacement of farm families and tight security restrictions banning the import of essential agricultural inputs such as kerosene oil, fertilizer, hand tools, steel and iron products have all contributed to the collapse of the region's ability to produce food. Drought over the past six months has worsened already dire conditions. Most displaced people are currently relying on government-provided dry food rations to feed themselves and their families, with female-headed households among the most vulnerable.

In view of ongoing military operations in "uncleared" areas of the Vanni region, the mission has proposed distributing basic agricultural kits to conflict-affected farmers along with food rations. The kits, made up of small quantities of vegetable seed and hand tools, would allow farmers to develop home gardens and displaced persons to work as farm labourers. In the "newly cleared" areas, a project proposal aims at assisting 2 200 families to return to their own lands - abandoned for periods of over five years. Resettlement packages would include water pumps, vegetable seed, fruit tree seedlings, some fertilizer and funds to rehabilitate wells. The emergency programme to begin in December 1997, would be coordinated by FAO and implemented by the Sri Lankan Department of Agriculture (North East Province), in cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international and national non-governmental organizations involved in relief activities.

In the Jaffna Peninsula, conditions have improved considerably since the last FAO mission fielded in September 1996, according to the latest report. But 65 percent of the population is still receiving food rations. More than 30 000 are reportedly displaced within Jaffna and up to 250 000 people who fled the peninsula for other parts of Sri Lanka or abroad when the fighting peaked in 1995 have not yet returned. "The challenge today in Jaffna," according to the report, "is to assist the resettlement of displaced persons in the Peninsula and the immediate rehabilitation of the economy to encourage the return of those who left".

Agriculture, an important sector of Jaffna's economy, has been devastated by the continuing civil war. Some agricultural areas are restricted, while fences built for security reasons and currently being dismantled are affecting farming activities in others. Land mines are also being cleared.

In 1995-96, no paddy rice production was reported because of the hostilities during the planting period, and the seed was used for food. From 1987 to 1994, some 11 000 hectares of paddy rice had been cultivated in the Peninsula annually. In October 1996, an FAO donation of more than 700 tonnes of rice seed enabled 17 500 farm families to plant 7 000 hectares of rice during the 1996-97 "Maha" season. As a result, humanitarian assistance in terms of rice seed is no longer required.

What is needed are agricultural inputs to help farm families resettle in different areas of Jaffna so that they may begin again. Currently, 4 400 farm families are ready to resettle in the Peninsula and will require immediate support. Earlier this year, over 2 000 families received full agriculture packages that included water pumps, hand tools, vegetable seed, fruit tree seedlings and limited quantities of fertilizer. Funding for this emergency programme was provided through FAO by the United Kingdom and Norway. The United States Government also helped farm families to resettle through the non-governmental organization CARE. In addition, through FAO-sponsored programmes, over 24 000 hand tools were distributed.

Fishing was once one of the main economic activities in Jaffna. The area contributed more than a quarter of the country's total fresh fish production in 1983. But a ban on deep sea fishing for security reasons, the hazards of coastal fishing and large-scale destruction and damage to boats and nets have devastated the industry. In 1996, the Peninsula contributed less than 1 percent of national fish production. Recently the ban has been partially lifted to allow fishing during the day within 2.5 miles of the coast with wooden non-motorized boats.

Support to fisherfolk, most of whom are destitute and currently relying on food aid to survive, should also be a top priority for 1997-98, according to the report. One project proposed by the mission would provide fishing nets to approximately 3 000 fisherfolk authorized to fish within the limited zone, as well as one wooden fishing boat for every five families. Based on an average daily catch of 2 kg per fisherman, the project will enable an annual catch valued at more than US$2 million.

Altogether, FAO has prepared11 project profiles amounting to over US$4 million for submission to the international community. Nine projects - seven in Jaffna Peninsula and two in the "uncleared"and newly cleared areas of Vanni - would give immediate assistance to farmers and livestock owners. The remaining two projects would provide technical assistance to emergency interventions in the agriculture sector and to preparations for the rehabilitation phase in Jaffna and the northern regions as a whole.

Emergencies, the international response and FAO

Helping Sri Lanka rebuild an agricultural sector devastated by years of civil unrest is one example of FAO's work to provide emergency assistance to troublespots around the globe. Speedy humanitarian aid and investment in sustainable recovery after an emergency have become critical with the numbers of natural and man-made disasters and emergencies accelerating year by year. Emergencies, the international response and FAO, a recently published booklet and the subject of the latest FAO Focus, outlines the Organization's increasingly active role in helping countries improve their ability to prepare, respond and rebuild in the face of disaster.

"Our philosophy is that disaster victims are best served by help that gets them back quickly to their homes and their fields," writes FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in the booklet's foreword. "Our experience allows us to tailor rehabilitation programmes to the particular conditions and needs of affected farm families, ensuring that the seeds they sow will sprout and that the crops they harvest will meet their nutritional and cultural requirements."

Assisting in preventing disaster-related emergencies, providing early warnings of food emergencies and helping to rehabilitate food production systems are FAO's predominant roles in humanitarian aid.

21 November 1997

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©FAO, 1997