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Nyéléni 2007 - Forum for Food Sovereignty. 23rd - 27th February 2007. Sélingué. Mali
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Struggle for democracy and survival in the age of globalization in Sri Lanka
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Globalization enslaves the whole of humanity and threatens to destroy nature beyond recovery. Prevention of this destruction and creation of something new is the most important task in hand. Resistance has picked up momentum throughout the world. The World Social Forum process has become the expression of this resistance, which brings hope. We from Sri Lanka would like to join this process in order to add our little bit of strength, but also to gain a lot more strength for our struggle in Sri Lanka. What we would like to present today is the story of perhaps the most desperate crisis that our people are facing right now in Sri Lanka, which could be one of the strongest illustrations of the tragic consequences of globalization. It is also a story that tells us about the tremendous potential for us to build something new.

This is the story of the paddy farmers in Sri Lanka…

We have a long history of living in harmony with nature, with a philosophy of approaching life without greed or the desire for accumulation. People have never been very rich, but their whole effort has been to ensure survival. Economic policies planned in Sri Lanka gave emphasis to this need to ensure survival. Therefore production of food at low cost was seen as essential.

Availability of food at affordable cost

was seen as necessary. And development of science and technology for the methods of production and distribution was planned accordingly. This was later regarded as an approach that didn’t lead to economic growth. People were defined as poor from the point of view of the market. Strategies aiming at faster growth through increasing exports were imposed upon the people and their governments with the promise that ‘trickle down’ would be the best way to reduce poverty. The process of thinking and planning was stopped and it was given over to the experts of the World Bank. They also became the lenders who could use the machinery of lending to take control. This was in 1977. These changes led very soon to massive increases in rural poverty and malnutrition and to greater economic and social disparities, ending up in social and political unrest. Within ten years, we experienced two huge uprisings of rural youth. The uprising in the North has resulted in a protracted war that has caused 65,000 deaths and over 1.5 million displacements. The uprising in the South resulted in 60,000 disappearances within two years, between 1988 and 1990. [(Sri Lanka became one of the countries with highest rates of disappearances. We are also said to have one of the highest rates of suicide.)]

Rice and Food Sovereignty in Asia Pacific

There are still one million paddy farming families in Sri Lanka, out of a population of less than 20 million. There are officially two million poor households, about 10 million people, or just over half of the population, all of whom depend on rice for most of their calorie intake. Over ten years ago, the World Bank advised that Sri Lanka should no longer continue with a low value crop like paddy, but should go instead for high value export crops, and switch to imports of rice. The process of achieving this shift was very concrete. The Government was asked to withdraw all services and subsidies for paddy farmers. Providing free irrigation was seen as an encouragement to grow paddy, therefore it was recommended that water be declared a commodity to be marketed by the private sector. Maintaining restrictions on the sale of government-granted land was considered an unnecessary constraint on the market, therefore complete privatization was proposed. Intervention by government in supporting marketing was virtually ended and the state marketing board was closed and stores sold. Free agricultural extension services were stopped. Responsibility for the production of good quality seeds was handed over to the private sector. Low interest credit was stopped.

[(The results of these policies have been disastrous. The average cost of production on one acre is now between Rs. 19,000 and Rs. 23,000. So with a yield of about 80 bushels per acre, the farmer spends between Rs. 11 and Rs. 14 to produce a kilo of paddy.)]

Information gathered in the last few days from the major paddy producing districts shows that farmers are selling for as little as Rs. 10 and Rs. 8 in some areas. This situation of farmers being compelled to sell at less than the cost of production has existed for ten years. In 1994, there was an outburst of farmer suicides, with 24 farmers committing suicide in one season in one district alone, and this trend has continued unabated. Farmers have fallen into terrible debts to big traders who now control both the sale of inputs and the purchase of outputs. Many have lost their land through illegal transfers. The Government consistently pretends to be intervening. Politicians announce that they are buying paddy at guaranteed prices of Rs. 16.50 and Rs. 17.50. But in reality only small sums are allocated for the purpose. On 3rd January this year, they announced a reserve of Rs. 700 million, enough to buy no more than 2% of the 2.1 million metric ton harvest. This was increased to Rs. 1,500 million on 14th February and then Rs. 3,000 million on 22nd March, but with almost all the harvest now complete, even this money remains in the Treasury. When the money does reach the Government Agents, it is often the bigger farmers who take advantage. Meanwhile, much larger sums are being loaned at no or low interest to the big traders, who have absolutely no incentive to offer a reasonable price because they know that more than 90% of the harvest, is theirs. The situation is set to get worse. The World Bank, now supported by the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and Japan Bank for International Cooperation, who together provides about 90% of international finance to Sri Lanka, continues to insist on the full implementation of the remaining policies of globalization. The land ownership bill is being brought for approval to Parliament. This is now a condition of the World Bank. The Government originally gave land to farmers in new irrigated settlement schemes on the condition that it could only be passed on within the family. The proposal is to abandon all restrictions on sale and allow a completely free land market. This is bound to result in a large number of small farmers losing their land and therefore their means of survival. The first Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper or PRSP, called Regaining Sri Lanka, produced in 2003, predicted a massive migration of people from rural to urban areas. It was expected that there would be a change from the current 70% in rural areas and 30% urban, to a balance of 50%-50%. What will happen to these 4 million people? This policy was drafted earlier, but was dropped because of opposition. The water bill has also just been approved by the Cabinet. This is a condition of the Asian Development Bank. It proposes to allow private sector to come in and run water supply schemes and irrigation systems and to establish a system of water rights for different users that could be traded in a water market. This bill has been brought earlier but was not passed because of people’s protest. Meanwhile, the cost of rice is usually terribly high. The average price is generally between Rs. 30 and Rs. 40 per kilo. A family of five will need about 1 kg for a meal, so eating two rice meals per day at Rs. 35 per kilo would require Rs. 2,100 per month. However, the official figures of the Samurdhi movement say that more than 2 million families, or over half the population, receive less than Rs. 1,500 per month. These struggles are for survival. But they are also struggles for democracy, for the people to be able to decide what to do with their lives, with their land, water and so on, as opposed to these decisions being taken by the international institutions in cohorts with the powerful rich elite that has benefited from the policies of globalization.

In the process of the struggle, farmers have been working out alternatives.

There are widespread attempts to cut the cost of production by reducing dependence on unnecessary chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of ecological methods. These have been proven to work and are increasingly implemented by farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has shown in a study of 13 Asian countries that the use of Integrated Pest Management can eliminate the use of chemical pesticides completely, imports of which are said to cost Rs. 1,400 million each year. It can also increase the paddy yield by 23% and farmer incomes by 44%. There are other known methods such as System of Rice Intensification and Nava Kekulama, which have been shown to reduce the cost of production by half almost immediately. There are groups promoting the use of indigenous seeds, which have been shown to be more resistant to pests while being able to give yields comparable with hybrids without application of chemical fertilizers. These alternatives not only strengthen the farmers but also start the process of healing the earth, revitalizing the poisoned soil and water supplies, while improving the health of both farmers and rice eaters. There are also groups of farmers converting paddy to rice in the villages and efforts to set up direct marketing between farmers and trade unions in the urban areas. Half of the world’s population is small farmers. Samir Amin says that if the agents of globalization get their way and agriculture and food production are treated as any other form of production to be submitted to the rules of competition in an open and deregulated market, then almost all of these 3 billion people would be eliminated within a very short period of just a few years. But 3 billion people will struggle for survival and democracy. People in Sri Lanka and people all over the world are being compelled to fight the last battle, and that is the battle for survival. They have to fight for democracy and the fight for democracy is a fight for the right to be human. In the battle, something new is being born, and this something new will save the world.


Presented by Sarath Fernando, MONLAR, Sri Lanka