Land use in Sri Lanka: agricultural land: 43.5 percent; arable land: 20.7 percent; permanent crops: 15.8 percent; permanent pasture: 7 percent; forest: 29.4 percent (2011 estimate); other: 27.1 percent (2011 estimate). Irrigated land: 5,700 square kilometers (2012).Agricultural land is divided into arable land (land cultivated for crops like wheat and rice that are replanted after each harvest) and permanent crops (land with for crops like citrus, coffee, and rubber that are not replanted after each harvest) and permanent pasture (land used for grazing animals such as cattle and sheep). The amount of arable land is 1 percent in Saudi Arabia, 20 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Labor force — by occupation: agriculture: 27 percent; industry: 26 percent; services: 47 percent (31 December 2016). Agriculture employed about 35 percent of the working population in the mid 2000s and 38 percent in 1999 (many also had other jobs). In 1986, agriculture, forestry and fishing employed over 40 percent of the labor force. The dominant crops are rice, paddy, tea, rubber, and coconut. [Source: Library of Congress, “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007, =]

GDP (gross domestic product) — composition, by : agriculture: 7.8 percent (2017 estimate); industry: 30.5 percent; services: 61.7 percent (2017 estimate). 2016). Agriculture accounded for 18 percent to (GDP) in the mid 2000s. In 1986, agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for over 46 percent of exports and around 28 percent of the GDP. [Ibid]

Agriculture has traditionally been the most important sector of the Sri Lankan economy. It remains an integral part the economy although less than it once as indicated by the GDP and labor force figures above. Agriculture’s contribution to GDP declined from 30 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 2000. Rice, the staple cereal, is cultivated extensively mainly for domestic consumption. The plantation sector consists of tea, rubber, and coconut, with tea in particular being a significant source of export earnings. In the mid 2000s, about 75 percent of those working in agriculture were engaged in the production of tea, rubber, and coconuts. At that time these three crops occuppied about 60 percent of Sri Lanka’s agricultural land. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

Agriculture production increased greatly in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “Increases in the area under cultivation, and improved productivity due to the modernization of agriculture are the main reasons for an increase in production. The rehabilitation of Sri Lanka's extensive ancient irrigation network and massive new investment in construction and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure led to a large increase in the area under rice cultivation.Between 1960-2000, the area used to grow rice increased 6 times to 546,249 hectares. The modernization of farming methods, such as the use of high-yielding seeds, tractors, and chemical fertilizers also led to increased productivity in the rice sector. Between 1960-1999, rice yield per hectare doubled from 1,877 kilograms to 3,672 kilograms. In addition to rice, various other food crops are produced for local consumption. They include yams, pulses, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Most of these crops are cultivated in family gardens, except for potatoes and sugar. Sugar cane is cultivated in the dry zone, and Sri Lanka produces only 15 percent of what it consumes domestically. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]


Farming in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has rich soil. Green revolution hybrids are widely used but tend to underfertilized. Some organic farmers have regenerated soils depleted by overuse of chemical fertilizers by adding cattle bone, fish powder, coconut oil cake, activated charcoal and lactic acid bacteria to the soil. Rice is grown year round, with sometimes two or more crops harvested from one plot of land. Fields are often still plowed with water buffalo. Tractors are more often used to as light transport vehicles than for agricultural work. The transplanting of the seedlings, harvesting and threshing was still largely done by hand a couples decades ago but is more mechanized today. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Land holdings for rice farmers tend to be small. Landowning families are mostly involved in plantation crops such as tea, rubber and coconuts. There has been some problems with subsistence farmers falling into debt and becoming little more than tenant farmers on their own land. Shopowners often serve as moneylenders. By demanding that farmers provide their land as collateral some have accumulated large amounts of land.

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Subsistence agriculture supplemented by marginal employment in service-related occupations and government employment characterizes the economic life of most rural Sinhalese villagers. Rice holdings are small and marginally productive. Additional subsistence food crops include fruit (jackfruit, breadfruit, and coconut), vegetables, and manioc, which has become a staple of last resort for the poor. Domestic animals include cattle, buffalo, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs. A major supplement to the village economy is direct government income for schoolteachers and village officials. Low Country Sinhalese achieved early prominence in coconut, rubber, and low-elevation tea plantation agriculture as well as trade and light mining. Marginal employment is available for many people in tea, rubber, and coconut processing.” |~|

In the late 1980s, the government-sponsored Accelerated Mahaweli Program irrigation project opened a large amount of new land for paddy cultivation in the dry zone of the eastern part of the island. In contrast, the amount of land devoted to tea, coconut, and rubber remained stable in the forty years after independence. Land reforms implemented in the 1970s affected mainly these three crops. Little land was distributed to small farmers; instead it was assumed by various government agencies. As a result, most tea and a substantial proportion of rubber production was placed under direct state control. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]


Rural Areas and Agricultural Rhythms in Sri Lanka

On a a visit to a village called Kalinapawela, near off Haldummulla, about 100 kilometers east of Colombo, Florence Wickramage wrote: The village-folk live simple lives and in certain places we found wattle and daub huts dotted here and there with new dwelling places of concrete and brick. There is a popular belief among villagers that the peaceful days of yore and a disciplined and religious society which existed in Lanka decades and generations ago was the result of adhering to these traditional customs, beliefs and rituals. This was confirmed by the elderly villagers we met during our tour to several villages in the Uva Sabaragamuwa province. "Our country was the granary of the east, there were bountiful harvests and we enjoyed a peaceful lifestyle in our villages. This was so because we observed traditional customs and rituals in whatever task we engaged in — be it tilling of our land, harvesting paddy, digging a well or even going through jungle land. This is not so today", one villager said. [Source: Florence Wickramage]

Manik Sandrasagra wrote in “There is also the tradition of mutual help, or kaiya, within each village; we can rely upon each other to help with pressing, day-to-day chores and, more important still, with the onerous agricultural tasks. Rajakariya, or the King's Duty, was the tie that bound us. All of us gave 40 days each year to this principle. During this period we worked for the benefit of the whole community. It was this spirit that we call Mahasammata, or the common consensus. Yuthukarna, or duty, was also considered rajakariya. All of us were born to perform a particular function or duty. Call it karma or destiny. In puranagamas [traditional Sri Lankan villages], each function became the duty of a given clan. In such a manner, quality was maintained in everything we did. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra,]

“Those who worked with clay and created pots lived in one village. Those who made the drums speak lived in another. Blacksmiths made our plough-shares, axes and knives. All the washing and ritual purification connected with our homes and farms were carried out by hena mama, the water farmer, and ridi nanda, the laundry woman.

“Sri Lanka's secret is her village culture. Nobody can cross this labyrinth without initiation. This is hard to attain, since Lanka clothes her secrets in hidden symbolic meaning. We call it ingiya or theravili. The threshing floor was our school, with wisdom passing from one worker to another, one generation to another. The tractor has broken up this institution. The watch hut was another learning ground. Listening to stories near the hearth as infants, we learned survival. The ancient cities Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are no more. They lie in ruins, largely of interest to tourists and students of monuments. However, puranagamas, composed of a cluster of womblike earthen dwellings, existed long ago and continue today as a living tradition.

Rural Infrastructure in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka remains a largely rural country but one thing that sets it apart from other developing countries is that it has relatively good rural infrastructure, especially in terms of roads, schools and health care. Relatively good schools and health care facilities are offered in even the most remote areas. This combined with the fact that is relatively little industrialization and jobs in the cities has meant there is little incentive to move to the cities.

Water is the most essential thing in the village. Each household has a well dug in the garden. Sometimes there would be a common well used for both bathing and taking water for drinking purpose. Usually the womenfolk bathe in the well while men prefer to take a dip in a nearby stream. The well became the meeting place for women where village gossip is discussed. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Goods are still transported by bullock cart. Women carry stuff on their heads. On a a visit to a village called Kalinapawela, near off Haldummulla, about 100 kilometers east of Colombo, Florence Wickramage wrote: Some of the roads were tarred while some still had gravel tracks as roadways. Villagers used the Thawalama to carry home their provisions. These Thawalamas were cattle with home provisions strapped on to their backs slowly wending their way homewards accompanied by their owners, men as well as women. [Source: Florence Wickramage]

Water in a Sri Lankan Village

D. B. Kappagoda wrote: “The prosperity of a village depends on the availability of water for cultivation. This is especially so in Rajarata where paddy cultivation is the livelihood of the people. It is for this reason, our Sinhala rulers in the past developed an intricate system of irrigation with tanks and canals in order to be certain of a regular supply of water throughout the year. The storing of water during the rainy season became the main task of the kings. They went to the extent of enacting stringent laws to punish those who flouted the laws governing the distribution of water. Such was the importance attached to the conservation of water in ancient times. [Source: D. B. Kappagoda, CDN, Mid Week Mirror]

“Water was considered the lifeblood of the economy. Therefore Rajarata where the ancient cities stood, namely, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa came to be known as the tank civilization. The early British administrators too observed how the village economy was sustained by the tank or wewa. Therefore the construction, maintenance and distribution of water became the obligation of the people.

“With the dependence on the village tank, there emerged customs and rituals connected with it. The people began to invoke the blessings of the deity who looks after the supply of water. The practice of appeasing the deities in the form of a ritual can be observed in Wanni, where they worship 'Aiyanayaka deiyo' who presides over their well-being. Since the tank and paddy fields were closely linked, it is important to make a study of the paddy cultivation in order to understand the customs and rituals associated with it. The fields in the village fed by the water of the wewa are classified according to their proximity to the wewa. This is done by taking into account the quantity of water that it can supply.

Tanks (Wewas) and Sri Lankan Agriculture

Manik Sandrasagra wrote in “Agricultural activity requires plenty of water, and our ancestors were ingenious in their use of this precious substance. There were, in all, five different types of wewas. First, there was the forest wewa," which was dug in the jungle above the village. It was not for irrigation but rather for the purpose of providing water for the wild creatures that lived in the jungle. They in turn did not come down into the village in search of water or to interfere with our various agricultural activities. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra,]

The second type was the 'mountain wewa'. This provided water for chena cultivation. The third kind was for erosion control and was called pota wetiya. Here the silt accumulated where it could be easily desilted. The fourth type was the 'storage wewa.' There were usually two of them. One was in use when the other was being maintained. They were connected to a large number of village wewas, which they fed and which in turn fed them when they overflowed. The village wewa" was the fifth type, and there was one for every puranagama.

Sir Edmund Leach, professor of anthropology at Cambridge University in England and a leading authority on irrigation agriculture, claims that in Sri Lanka large water tanks may have been the work of a centralized bureaucracy, hut that the small village tanks were maintained by the villagers themselves. What we today designate as a 'village" is often a product of urban planning and has hardly anything indigenous about it. Important as these communities are in ushering, us into the 'modern age," it is equally important to realize that our traditional village has a worthiness that can never be evaluated in material terms. Indeed, the spiritual principles that are operative in these traditional communities may be the only solution to a world fast being destroyed by materialism.

Ancient Sinhalese Irrigation

The first extensive Sinhalese settlements were along rivers in the dry northern zone of the island. Because early agricultural activity — primarily the cultivation of wet rice — was dependent on unreliable monsoon rains, the Sinhalese constructed canals, channels, water-storage tanks, and reservoirs to provide an elaborate irrigation system to counter the risks posed by periodic drought. Such early attempts at engineering reveal the brilliant understanding these ancient people had of hydraulic principles and trigonometry. The discovery of the principle of the valve tower, or valve pit, for regulating the escape of water is credited to Sinhalese ingenuity more than 2,000 years ago. By the first century A.D, several large-scale irrigation works had been completed. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

The mastery of hydraulic engineering and irrigated agriculture facilitated the concentration of large numbers of people in the northern dry zone, where early settlements appeared to be under the control of semi-independent rulers. In time, the mechanisms for political control became more refined, and the city-state of Anuradhapura emerged and attempted to gain sovereignty over the entire island. The state-sponsored flowering of Buddhist art and architecture and the construction of complex and extensive hydraulic works exemplify what is known as Sri Lanka's classical age, which roughly parallels the period between the rise and fall of Anuradhapura (from ca. 200 B.C. to ca. A.D. 993).

The Sinhalese kingdom at Anuradhapura was in many ways typical of other ancient hydraulic societies because it lacked a rigid, authoritarian and heavily bureaucratic structure. Theorists have attributed Anuradhapura's decentralized character to its feudal basis, which was, however, a feudalism unlike that found in Europe. The institution of caste formed the basis of social stratification in ancient Sinhalese society and determined a person's social obligation, and position within the hierarchy.

In “Ancient Sinhalese Irrigation,” C. W. Nicholas wrote: “The ingenuity of the Sinhala irrigation engineers is best exemplified by the invention of the "bisokotuwa" which historically mean "queen’s enclosure" indicating "out of bounds". The Bisokotuwa is the same as the sluice gate, which functions in the regulation of the outward flow of water and is therefore essentially an invention made by the Sinhala irrigation engineers more than 2200 years ago, 1000 years before the rest of the world, and are considered to have built the most sophisticated irrigation systems in the world according to British excavation engineers. It has remained essentially unchanged since then. "it was this bisokotuwa invention alone which permitted the Sinhalese to proceed boldly with the construction of reservoirs that still rank among the finest work of its kind in the world" (Parker, 1981) Minneriya tank, was the first great rainwater reservoir ever constructed in the world, if the great lakes of Egypt, which are immense natural hollows into which streams were turned, are not considered. This was built by King Mahasena (276-303 A.D.) "Neither in the lands of their (i.e. of the Indo-Aryan settlers) origin nor in South India did there develop an irrigation system of the magnitude or the complexity of that which the Sinhalese afterwards constructed in Ceylon; nothing comparable and contemporaneous with the ancient dam, canal and tank system of Ceylon, mingling the water of rivers flowing in different directions is known in continental India" [Source: A Short Account of the History of Irrigation Works,C. W. Nicholas, JRASCB 1960, 43-69)]

Ancient Rice Agriculture in Sri Lanka

According to the Sunday Times: Rice occupied a very special place in traditional Sinhalese society. It was a community based on rice. Everyone from the king downwards had an interest in agriculture. Each one was a cultivator. Every villager owned a piece of land as well as a paddy field. Even the richest man in the village would get down to the field and plough. Men and women, young and old, were in close touch with the soil. They never considered it a mean task to work in the field. On the other hand, they felt proud to be cultivators. Those who were involved in agriculture belonged to the ‘goigama’ caste just as much as others in different vocations belonged to a caste of their own. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Historians say that agricultural methods as practised to this day had been introduced by the Indo-Aryans who came to the Island. They cleared the forests and converted them to fields. They used the services of the local people to clear the forests and then introduced improved methods of agriculture they knew. They saw to it that the people were self-sufficient in food. If a community did not produce the food they needed, they had to either perish or move to another area where they could get food. The staple diet even in those days was rice. The kings too began to show interest in agriculture since the people had to get their food.

In early times, rice cultivation took two forms. In one, forest land was cleared in patches and cultivated. These had to depend on rainfall, which was seasonal. The other was the cultivating of land, which got water from irrigation as well as rain. It was soon realised that water was needed for a proper and successful system of cultivation. There was thus a need to store the water to irrigate the paddy fields when there was no rain. The reservoirs came to be constructed in every important village settlement.

The great historian and archaeologist , Dr S. Paranavitana describing the agricultural practices in the early Anuradhapura period says: “Agriculture in ancient days, as it is today, was not confined to irrigated lands. Crops were raised during the rainy season on unirrigated land. Rice grown on such lands was more sought after than that from irrigated fields.

Reservoirs built in important villages soon came to be enlarged and our irrigation culture began to develop. Small tanks were being built supervised by the ‘uparaja’, the sub-king. ’Tissawewa’ originally known as ’Tissavapi’, was constructed by King Devanampiya Tissa in the third century B.C. By the first century B.C, the village tank was a well established feature in the Dry Zone.

Historical evidence points to the existence of two methods of irrigation. One is where small, permanent, stone dams as well as temporary dams out of timber and clay were built across streams to divert water to canals, which took the water to the fields. The other was the erection of village tanks directly irrigating the fields. The village tanks had been owned by individuals.

Plantation Agriculture in Sri Lanka

James L. A. Webb Jr. Wrote in History of World Trade Since 1450": ““The British took control of the island littoral from the Dutch in 1796 during the course of the Napoleonic Wars. After their conquest of the mountainous kingdom of Kandy in 1815, the British carved roads into the highlands, breaching the dense rainforest barrier. From the 1830s, following the abolition of African slavery in the British Caribbean, British capitalists established coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, but it was not until the 1840s that British coffee plantations began to spring up in number and to produce more coffee for export than did the Kandyan farmers. Large numbers of Tamil laborers from southern India traveled annually to the Sri Lankan highlands to find employment on the plantations. Many of these laborers eventually remained resident on the plantations, constituting a separate population from the Tamils who inhabit principally the northern and eastern reaches of the island. [Source: James L. A. Webb Jr. “History of World Trade Since 1450", Thomson Gale, 2006]

“The coffee industry struggled with an expanding fungal blight from 1869 until the late 1880s, when the coffee industry spiraled into its final decline. In the late 1870s plantations of cinchona trees, from the bark of which the antimalarial medicine quinine could be isolated, began to be set out in the highlands. In the 1880s these cinchona plantations met ruin, owing to inadequate subsoil drainage and to overproduction. In the 1880s plantation owners and some Kandyan farmers turned their efforts to growing tea, and the highlands were soon carpeted in the leafy green shrub. Tea's late-nineteenth-century rise to predominance was spectacularly rapid, and it proved durable. In the early twenty-first century tea remains the island's principal agricultural export.

“Other tropical crops also played important roles. In the first half of the twentieth century Singhalese owners expanded their plantations of coconuts in the lowlands for both domestic and overseas markets, and British planters took up the production of rubber. Both developed as significant exports through the twentieth century. The predominance of the tropical export crops was challenged in the second half of the twentieth century when Sri Lanka developed a major textile-manufacturing sector that benefited from low labor costs. This transition was driven in part by the declining terms of trade after independence in 1948, owing to a long-term relative decline in the prices of the major agricultural exports, and a consequent shortage of foreign exchange and burgeoning deficits. In 1986 the value of textile exports overtook that of tea exports for the first time.

“Over the course of the twentieth century an increased demand for imported machinery, equipment, automobiles, and oil has accompanied the modernization of the economy. Imports of consumer goods have also risen sharply as the urban upper and middle classes have learned to participate fully in the international culture of consumerism. Rice imports, on the other hand, have declined greatly since the 1980s, when a massive state project to harness the waters of Mahaweli River succeeded in opening up new lands for irrigated rice cultivation.

“In the late twentieth century, however, insurgencies fomented by the Singhalese People's Liberation Front (also known as the JVP) and by the ongoing civil war since 1983 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam damaged the prospects for general economic growth. The political violence discouraged foreign investment and intermittently reduced international tourism. The lack of economic growth encouraged the emigration of Sri Lankan workers who sought employment abroad, often in domestic service or the building trades, and whose remittance of wages helped to sustain their families on the island.

Changing Patterns of Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, agriculture has been dominated by the four principal crops: rice, tea, rubber, and coconut. Most tea and rubber were exported, whereas almost all rice was for internal use. The coconut crop was sold on both domestic and international markets. The importance of other crops increased in the 1970s and 1980s, but no single crop emerged to challenge the four traditional mainstays. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Tea, rubber, and to a lesser extent, coconut are grown on plantations established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before the plantations existed, villagers carried out three main types of cultivation. The valley bottoms and lowlands were occupied by rice paddies. These paddies were surrounded by a belt of residential gardens permanently cultivated with fruit trees and vegetables. The gardens in turn were surrounded by forests, parts of which were temporarily cleared for slash-and- burn cultivation, known as chena. Various grains and vegetables were grown on chena lands. The forests were also used for hunting, grazing for village cattle, gathering wild fruit, and timber. In some villages, especially in the dry zone, there was little rice cultivation, and people depended on the gardens and forests for their livelihood.*

Under legislation passed in 1840, the title of most forestland was vested in the government. In order to stimulate the production of export crops, the colonial administration sold large tracts to persons who wished to develop plantations. At first most buyers were British, but by the end of the nineteenth century many middle-class Sri Lankans had also acquired crown land and converted it to plantation use. The early coffee and tea plantations were often situated at high elevations, some distance from the nearest Sinhalese villages, but as time went on more estates were developed on land contiguous to villages. The precise impact of the plantations on village society remains controversial, but it is widely believed in Sri Lanka that the standard of living of villagers suffered as they lost use of the forestland.*

Although the large coffee, tea, and rubber plantations relied mainly on Tamil migrants from southern India for their permanent labor supply, Sinhalese villagers were employed in the initial clearing of the forests, and some performed casual daily labor on the plantations in seasons when there was little work in the villages. The coconut plantations, being spatially closer to villages, employed considerable Sinhalese labor.*

By early twentieth century, there was no longer much land suitable for the expansion of cultivation in the wet zone, and in the 1930s the focus of agricultural development shifted from the wet zone to the dry zone and from plantation crops to rice. There was ample uncultivated land in the dry zone of the north-central region, but three major obstacles had to be overcome — the prevalence of malaria, the lack of a reliable supply of water to carry out rice cultivation, and the absence of farmers to cultivate the soil. The first of these problems was solved by the success of the antimalarial campaigns of the 1940s. The others were tackled by government policies that sought to restore and build irrigation works and resettle peasants from the wet zone in the newly irrigated areas. In the 1980s, the pace of this program was quickened by the Accelerated Mahaweli Program.*

The most important change in agriculture in the forty years after independence was the increase in rice production. This increase resulted from better yields and the enlarged amount of land under cultivation. In contrast, with the exception of rubber in the 1950s and 1960s, the principal export crops showed only modest gains in productivity, and the amount of land devoted to tea and rubber fell. After around 1970, there was growth in the production of other crops, including onions, chilies, sugar, soybeans, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg.*

Land Use in Sri Lanka

Land use in Sri Lanka: agricultural land: 43.5 percent; arable land: 20.7 percent; permanent crops: 15.8 percent; permanent pasture: 7 percent; forest: 29.4 percent (2011 estimate); other: 27.1 percent (2011 estimate). Irrigated land: 5,700 square kilometers (2012).Agricultural land is divided into arable land (land cultivated for crops like wheat and rice that are replanted after each harvest) and permanent crops (land with for crops like citrus, coffee, and rubber that are not replanted after each harvest) and permanent pasture (land used for grazing animals such as cattle and sheep). The amount of arable land is 1 percent in Saudi Arabia, 20 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Although there have been periodic agricultural censuses, they were limited in purpose and did not provide an overall picture of land use. In 1961, however, a survey of the use of the island's physical resources was compiled based on a 1956 aerial photographic survey of the entire country. The survey indicated that, of the country's total area of nearly 66 million hectares, 29 percent was under permanent cultivation, just over 15 percent under chena cultivation, 44 percent under forest cover, and about 6 percent under various types of grasses. Nearly 33,000 hectares consisted of swamp and marshlands, and about 63,000 hectares, or 1 percent, unused land. Just over 3 percent of the island's surface was covered by water. Of the total area, approximately 23 percent was in the wet zone, about 63 percent in the dry zone, and the balance lay in an area that the survey labeled "intermediate," as it had characteristics of both zones. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Of the land under permanent cultivation in 1961, which included cropland, land under plantation, and homestead gardens, the survey indicated that some 75 percent was in the wet and intermediate zones and about 25 percent was in the dry zone. Chena cultivation, on the other hand, was predominantly in the dry zone, as were the grass, scrub, and forestlands. Although forest covered almost half the country, only about 0.2 percent and 3.1 percent of the forests were characterized as of high and intermediate yield, respectively. The study further indicated that approximately 70 percent of the land in the wet zone was under permanent cultivation, whereas in the dry zone under 12 percent was being cultivated on a permanent basis.*

Since 1961 irrigation has enabled a much greater proportion of land in the dry zone to be cultivated and in 1978 it was estimated that nearly one-third of the country's dry-zone area was under permanent cultivation. This proportion increased in the 1980s, when lands irrigated by the Accelerated Mahaweli Program were added to the total. As a result, the proportion of forestland declined and was estimated at just under 40 percent in 1987.*

Although the forests had few high-yield timber stands, many areas suffered from deforestation because of the heavy demand for firewood in the 1980s. In 1987 it was estimated that 94 percent of households used firewood for cooking. Scarcities of firewood led to price increases well above the general level of inflation in the 1980s.*

Land Tenure in Sri Lanka

In the old days land holding were organized around tanks (reservoirs) and owned by villages chiefs who passed on their land to their descendants but were not allowed to sell the land. The distribution of land among those who worked it was often times defined by the availability of water. If a group of villagers was unhappy with the arrangements they could go off into the wilderness and make a new tank and start their own village. This system declined after the British introduced land titles and eliminated muitles claims over land. Land was sold on the markets and a class of rice land investors (called “mudalalis”) attained large land holdings which were worked by sharecroppers and landless peasants. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Traditionally, the descendants of the village founder owned inheritable (but not marketable) shares (panku) of the village paddy lands. The actual holdings were sensitively adjusted to suit water availability and to reduce inequities in water distribution. The mudalalis left the farming to clients holding the lands through a form of traditional sharecropping tenancy (ande tenure). Population increase has led to severe and growing landlessness.

Land holdings for rice farmers tend to be small. Landowning families are mostly involved in plantation crops such as tea, rubber and coconuts. There has been some problems with subsistence farmers falling into debt and becoming little more than tenant farmers on their own land. Shopowners often serve as moneylenders. By demanding that farmers provide their land as collateral some have accumulated large amounts of land.

Modern land tenure policy dates from the Land Development Ordinance of 1935, which forbade the transfer of crown lands for purposes of cultivation except to enlarge the landholdings of near-landless or landless peasants. The intent of this ordinance was to help small farmers whose livelihood was seen to be at risk from the exploitation of rich peasants and urban landowners. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In 1958 the Paddy Lands Bill was enacted, mainly to benefit the tenant farmers of some 160,000 hectares of paddy land. The bill purported to assist tenants to purchase the land they worked, to protect them against eviction, and to establish a rent ceiling at around 25 percent of the crop. It also established cultivation committees, composed of rice farmers, to assume general responsibility for rice cultivation in their respective areas, including the direction and control of minor irrigation projects. Shortcomings in the law and official indifference in enforcing the act hampered its effectiveness, and many observers termed it a failure. In some regions tenants who tried to pay the lower, official rents were successfully evicted by landlords, and the old rents, often about 50 percent of the produce, remained in force. In the 1980s, however, the rent ceiling of 25 percent was effective in most districts.*

The Land Reform Law of 1972 imposed a ceiling of twenty hectares on privately owned land and sought to distribute lands in excess of the ceiling for the benefit of landless peasants. Because both land owned by public companies and paddy lands under ten hectares in extent were exempted from the ceiling, a considerable area that would otherwise have been available for distribution did not come under the purview of the legislation. Between 1972 and 1974, the Land Reform Commission took over nearly 228,000 hectares, one-third of which was forest and most of the rest planted with tea, rubber, or coconut. Few rice paddies were affected because nearly 95 percent of them were below the ceiling limit. Very little of the land acquired by the government was transferred to individuals. Most was turned over to various government agencies or to cooperative organizations, such as the Up-Country Co-operative Estates Development Board.*

The Land Reform Law of 1972 applied only to holdings of individuals. It left untouched the plantations owned by joint-stock companies, many of them British. In 1975 the Land Reform (Amendment) Law brought these estates under state control. Over 169,000 hectares comprising 395 estates were taken over under this legislation. Most of this land was planted with tea and rubber. As a result, about two-thirds of land cultivated with tea was placed in the state sector. The respective proportions for rubber and coconut were 32 and 10 percent. The government paid some compensation to the owners of land taken over under both the 1972 and 1975 laws. In early 1988, the state-owned plantations were managed by one of two types of entities, the Janatha Estates Development Board, or the Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation.*

Government Agriculture Policies in Sri Lanka

Government support for farmers takes several forms, including the provision of credit for producers, the setting of minimum prices for agricultural produce, the building of irrigation works, and the encouragement of internal migration to newly irrigated areas. Since the late colonial period, the government has played a growing role in the provision of credit to smallholders on favorable terms. Until 1986 the main instrument of this policy was the subvention of cooperative societies. Agricultural credit took three forms: short-term loans to farmers for the purchase of seeds and fertilizers; medium-term loans, intended for the purchase of machinery; and long-term loans for capital expenditure on storage, transport, and rice-milling apparatus. The long-term loans were not available for individual farmers, but were used by the cooperative societies to acquire infrastructural facilities. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The actual performance of credit provision through cooperatives generally fell short of expectations. Institutional credit did not displace the older sources of credit, such as the village moneylender, friends, and relatives. The inability to repay loans, procedural difficulties, and the existence of unpaid loans already taken from the cooperatives were some reasons given by farmers for preferring noninstitutional credit sources. Another problem with the credit furnished by cooperatives was the high rate of default. This rate may have been attributable partly to real difficulties in repayment, but it also was the result of a widely held impression that government loans were a form of social welfare and that it was not necessary to repay them.*

The New Comprehensive Rural Credit Scheme implemented in 1986 sought to increase the flow of credit to smallholders. The Central Bank guaranteed up to 50 percent of each loan in the event of losses incurred by banks lending under the program, and eligible farmers received a line of credit for three years. Loans were automatically rescheduled at concessional rates when crops were damaged by events beyond the farmer's control. In 1986 cultivation loans under this program amounted to nearly Rs257 million, about 74 percent for paddy and the rest for other food crops.*

Another important policy was the Guaranteed Price Scheme, which came into effect in 1942. Under this program the government agreed to purchase rice and some other produce at set prices. The intention was to support the farmer's standard of living. For a period in the early 1970s, when the island was threatened by food shortages, the government ordered peasants to market all of their rice through this scheme and at times set the price at a level lower than that of the free market. This policy had the effect of reducing the incentive to grow rice. The program lost some of its impetus in the 1980s. In 1986 the government set the price below the free-market rate for most of the year. As a result of the policy, purchases under the program accounted for only about 6 percent of the rice crop, mostly from districts where private traders were unwilling to operate because of the poor security situation.*

Since the 1930s, governments have promoted irrigation works and colonization projects in the dry zone in an attempt to increase rice production and reduce land pressure and unemployment in the more densely settled wet zone. The lack of infrastructure and the prevalence of malaria hampered these programs in the early years. After the near eradication of malaria, increased government investment in infrastructure and enhanced financial support for migrants made the new lands more desirable. Between 1946 and 1971, the proportion of the population living in the dry zone increased from 12 to 19 percent.*

At the end of 1968, about 352,000 hectares were under irrigation for rice cultivation; some 178,000 hectares under major storage reservoirs and barrages, and approximately 174,000 hectares in minor irrigation projects. In the 1970s and 1980s, governments pursued major irrigation programs, most notably the Mahaweli Ganga Program, which was lent added impetus and became the Accelerated Mahaweli Program in 1978. The increasing size of the Mahaweli project dwarfed its earlier endeavors. According to the plan, approximately 593,000 hectares of previously arid land would be brought under irrigation by 1992. In 1986 some 76,000 hectares of new land were under cultivation as a result of this project.*

Other long-standing government policies designed to help farmers included subsidies for fertilizer, seed paddy, and other inputs. Government efforts also partly contributed to the adoption of improved cultivation practices and high-yielding seed varieties in paddy farming in the 1960s.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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