Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: ICRC helps displaced people return to traditional livelihoods

The ICRC is set to distribute seed and fertilizer to small farmers displaced by the armed conflict in order to enable them to generate an income the way they used to - by cultivating their land.

The fertile lands of Thirukkovil, in the Ampara district of eastern Sri Lanka, traditionally provided a livelihood for the area's farming population. Paddy (rice) cultivation fed by water tanks brought relative self-sufficiency and boosted the local economy. But when the area fell under the grip of conflict the villagers fled, abandoning their lands to live with relatives and in designated sites for the displaced. Many had experienced the hardships of displacement before.

In mid-2007, eastern Sri Lanka came under the control of the national government. Measures were taken to restore normality to the region, especially for those who had had to flee their homes. They had lost all their possessions, including the tools they used for farming, to the conflict and wild elephants.

To contribute towards this regeneration and help the long-term displaced generate an income through their regular livelihoods, the ICRC intends to distribute seed paddy and fertilizer to 700 displaced and returnee farmers. The seed will allow them to cultivate one acre of land each. The beneficiaries - most of whom own their land - are from Kanchirankudha, Thangavelayudapuram and Sagamam.

Niranjala Devi, a 42-year-old widow who was also a victim of the tsunami in 2004, is among the beneficiaries from Thangavelayudapuram. She has a 15-year-old daughter who attends a local school. It is hard for her to make ends meet. She ekes out a living by teaching maths, Tamil and English, sewing clothes and raising poultry. "Before I was forced to flee from my home I grew everything I needed myself - not only rice but also vegetables. Now I have to buy everything, and I have very little money." Naturally, she hopes for a better future, and now she has an opportunity to cultivate her land, which she had abandoned for one and a half years. "I hope to earn a good income selling my produce to wholesalers and to the villagers," she said.

Determining who should receive aid and distributing it will be handled jointly by the ICRC, local farmers' organizations and Sri Lanka's Agriculture Department, which will also be responsible for providing the agricultural know-how. "Our aim is to provide guidance to the farmers to increase their paddy yield," said K. Gangadaran, an agriculture inspector with over 12 years' experience in the field. "We will tell them when to add fertilizer, and how and when to spray the fields with weedicides and pesticides, so that they can double their crop. We expect them to be able to earn a significant income from each harvest by cultivating one acre of land."

The seed paddy will be distributed in time for sowing during the current Maha (north-east monsoon) season. The farmers will be able to harvest their crop three months later.

Mannikam, a 63-year-old father of eight from Sagamam who used to be a farmer, is also hopeful about his future. "At the moment I run a small grocery store and I earn enough money for my daily expenses, but I can't save anything for the long term. I expect to be able to do so and apply for bank loans when I resume farming," he said.

Not only will the aid to farmers result in food security for the target community, but it is also expected to increase rice yields in the area, making rice cheaper in the local market.

According to Massimiliano Cartura, who heads the ICRC's livelihoods programmes in eastern Sri Lanka, the main need of displaced people in Thirukkovil is to find a way to generate income. "For these people, a return to their traditional livelihoods is the only solution to their economic challenges. Because there has been no security in their traditional income-generating activities, they have had to engage in casual labour simply in order to survive, and the uncertainties have made it difficult for them to enter the regular labour market," said Cartura. "With this programme, we expect the farmers to have a year-round supply of seed paddy, which will guarantee continuous food security. At the same time, the small profit from the sale of paddy and the saving of some of the seed for the Yala (south-west monsoon) season can help make people secure in their livelihoods for the longer term."

A total of 1,030 returnee farmer families will benefit from a similar programme in Kiran and Chenkaladi in the Batticaloa district. The ICRC will distribute seed paddy and fertilizer to enable these families to cultivate up to two acres of land.