Factors limiting rural agriculture potential

25 January 2016 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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According to a news item in Daily Mirror of January 22, 2016, (http://www.dailymirror.lk/103785/amunugama-stresses-need-to-bring-rural-agriculture-to-int-l-level), Minister Sarath Amunugama, at a meeting held in Peradeniya, has stressed the need to improve rural agriculture. This is very important as the agri sector plays a very critical role in the socio-economic development of the country. Nearly 30 percent of the labour force is involved in this sector and in 2014, we imported nearly Rs.215 billion worth of food, most of which can be produced locally. 
As the minister correctly pointed out, there is a need to uplift the rural agriculture. In this regard, it is important to consider the problems the farmers have to face in their efforts to produce crops. 

Marketing
One of the critical problems faced by the farmers is the inability to market their produce at a reasonable price. Very often the farmers are forced to destroy their produce due to the inability to market their produce at a profit. Marketing agricultural products at a profit has become a constraint to the farmer. The non-availability of efficient channels of distribution of agricultural produce is a key limiting factor in our attempts to develop the agriculture sector.  

Agro-industries
In any programme/plan for development of the agriculture sector, agro-industries is an area to be given much emphasis. A large number of crops cultivated in Sri Lanka have a considerable potential in various agro-industries. However, only rubber, coconut and a few fruit crops are used in industries. Crops such as cassava, horticultural and floricultural crops, medicinal herbs, cane, bamboo, sunflower, castor, Ayurvedic herbs, etc., have a considerable industrial potential but are not cultivated to any appreciable extent for want of better and improved varieties, technological know-how, relevant market information, etc. 

Even most of Ayurvedic herbs such as katuwelbatu are imported. Development of agro-industries will increase employment opportunities and hence, income in the rural sector. It will also increase the export income and will have a tremendous impact on the economy of the country. Thus, there is an urgent need to develop the agro-industries in Sri Lanka. The private sector can be involved in projects for which appropriate technical assistance need to be given by the relevant public organisations such as Industries Ministry, Industrial Development Board, Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), Board of Investment, Export Development Board and Agriculture Ministry. However, there appears to be no proper plan on developing agro-industries except for some ad 
hoc projects. 

Water shortage
In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water annually, frequent water shortages have affected crop production. One of the main reasons for water shortage in many parts of the country is high surface runoff. The amount of water available for irrigation, domestic use, etc., can be increased considerably by implementing appropriate soil/water conservation measures, which will reduce runoff and promote infiltration. Collection of rainwater would also increase water availability. 

Wild elephants
Almost daily we hear about the deaths of many people in the rural areas caused by wild elephants. They destroy crops and houses in these areas. The effects of wild elephants roaming in the rural villages not only aggravate the socioeconomic hardships the rural sector has to face but also generate several adverse long-run socio-economic impacts, which affect health, education and many other aspects of the rural population.

The farmer costs associated with risk reduction such as investment in guarding crops and property need to be considered. Erecting community-based electric fences to protect farm plots and home gardens from elephants is only a temporary measure. Long-term solutions to the wild elephant problem need to be developed. 

Chronic kidney disease
Around 200,000 people in many districts of the country are affected by a chronic kidney disease (CKDu). They are mostly in the rural areas of the country and the disease tends to have a disastrous effect on the rural economy. The patients in the final stages of CKDu have to go for dialysis every 10-12 days and they have to meet travel expenses and also the cost of the chemicals required for dialysis. Most of the patients are farmers and they have lost the last cropping seasons. Both parents of some families affected by CKDu have died and the children of such families are in a desperate situation. They are in dire need of financial assistance. 

Land degradation
One of the main factors attributable to the declining agricultural productivity of land in the rural sector is soil degradation evident in many parts of the country. Rainfall of high intensity and erosivity and inappropriate land management practices are the main factors attributable to soil degradation which tends to cause landslides causing death to a large number of people and destruction to property.

Most of these degraded lands are in the Central, Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces and constitute most of the central highlands of Sri Lanka, where the upper drainage basins of most of the rivers and all major hydropower catchments are located. The sustenance of water resource development and power generating projects that have been undertaken in the country depend to a great extent on the country’s major river systems. 

Recent press reports indicate that the capacity of Polgolla reservoir has decreased due to silting, caused by soil erosion. It is a common site to see the banks of Mahaveli and other rivers cultivated with annual crops which promote soil erosion. Hence, proper management of the central highlands is extremely important from the point of view of sustaining our capacities to produce food and generate hydropower and also reducing environmental pollution.

Plantation sector
Plantation sector, mostly in the rural areas, plays a very important role in the economy of the country. In 2014, tea, rubber and coconut earned around Rs.260 billion foreign exchange. Right now there are severe problems in the tea and rubber sectors. Research institutions related to tea – Tea Research Institute (TRI) and rubber – Rubber Research Institute (RRI) and the Tea Board need to take appropriate action to solve these problems. 

Coconut plantations in the southern province are affected by Weligama wilt and the Coconut Research Institute (CRI) has an important role to play in controlling this disease. We import sugar worth around Rs.40 billion annually and the Sugarcane Research Institute has a major role to play in increasing local sugar production. In view of these the four research institutes and the Tea Board indicated above need to be managed by professionals who are familiar with the respective crops. 

However, in spite of the importance of these crops in the economy of the country, the Plantation Industries Minister has appointed the chairmen who have no background in the relevant crops indicated above. For example, the newly-appointed CRI Chairman is an expert on elephants. The Tea Board is chaired by a former consultant to the Tourism and Sports Ministry and a medical person has been appointed as the TRI Chairman.

Labour shortage
According to a labour force survey in 2000, 36 percent of the labour force was working in the agriculture sector. In 2008, this value dropped to 33 percent and in 2014 it further dropped down to 29 percent. These data indicate that various factors have forced much of the labour out of the agriculture sector. 

It is common knowledge that at present there is a dearth of labour in the plantation sector and also labour shortage has been experienced during the harvesting of paddy. With implementation of the megapolis project, it is likely that the percentage of labour in the agriculture sector will decrease further.  
In our endeavours to increase the productivity of the agriculture sector, it is important that appropriate measures are taken to reduce the effects of the limiting factors indicated above. 
(Dr. C.S. Weeraratna can be reached though csweera@sltnet.lk)
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