Farmers were once big supporters of the Rajapaksas, but a bungled fertiliser ban withered their crops along with their backing for Sri Lanka’s previously powerful and popular political clan.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government last year outlawed agricultural chemical imports in a desperate — and ultimately doomed — bid to conserve foreign currency and avoid a debt default.
It was portrayed by Rajapaksa as a push for Sri Lanka to be the world’s first fully organic farming nation.
But it was a disaster. Yields fell sharply, hitting growers’ incomes just as essentials like fuel, food and medicines became scarce and expensive.
“This devastation was a result of policies made by people sitting in air-conditioned rooms who do not understand farming,” said S Jaliyagoda, 66, the head of an association of rice farmers.
Calling it a “stupid” plan, he said experts had decried the move and farmers clearly voiced their disapproval.
“But despite the opposition, the government went ahead and imposed strict rules and forced it on us. And in the end, it failed,” he told AFP.
“All prices of all goods have shot up. Living has became impossible for people. Hunger has become very common. So people have now rejected (the government),” he told AFP.
– Success to failure –
More than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people rely on agriculture.
In past decades the sector was a success story, producing enough for the domestic market as well as exports — in particular Ceylon tea, which fetched 1.3 billion dollars annually for the island nation.
The agricultural chemicals ban was initiated with little warning or training for farmers on how to cultivate crops without them.
MM Jinasena, a farmer for almost all his adult life, always grew enough to feed his family and sell some excess.
Now, the 55-year-old has cut down on the food that he and his family consume.
“When we used chemical fertiliser, we were able to get a yield of about 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) per acre… but since we switched to organic farming, we have received only about half that,” Jinasena told AFP.
“Now, I regret taking up farming. I will tell everyone to avoid it if they can.”
– Unaffordable –
The ban on imported fertilisers was reversed at the end of 2021, and Rajapaksa admitted it was a mistake. But now chemicals are expensive — if they can be found at all.
“Fertiliser, fuel and pesticides are not available. What is available is unaffordable,” said farmer Jinadasa Paranamana.
The 62-year-old has now, for the first time, taken up manual labour work to sustain his family.
The government announced last month that it would reintroduce subsidies for farmers but those in the community have little hope that they will be paid.
Farmers have joined the months of mass protests around Sri Lanka demanding that the Rajapaksas — Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda is prime minister — quit.
“There is no harvest, we toil away all day long, but we have no revenue or harvest… The president’s policies have failed,” said Paranamana.
“Now we are just living day-to-day, trying to make ends meet.” (AFP)