Advocates call for recognition of farmers’ land rights to overcome Sri Lanka’s food crisis
by Melani Manel Perera

Between 30 and 35 per cent of Sri Lanka's population depends on agriculture. In June food inflation topped 90 per cent. For years, farmers have had their land taken away, first by the military and then by conservationists.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Sunday, 16 October, was World Food Day, and this year it came at a time of serious economic crisis in Sri Lanka.

Government officials and UN agencies met to promote farmers' land rights at an event dedicated to “better production, better food, better environment, better life”.

In the keynote address, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena noted that almost 30-35 per cent of the population depends directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood.

For this reason, Sri Lanka must invest in the modernisation and development of the agricultural sector. To this end, he said that his “government is fully committed to achieving this gigantic task. Agriculture and food security remain a national priority.”

Gerard Rebello, officer in charge at World Food Programme Sri Lanka, also highlighted the need for urgent action to safeguard the most vulnerable and marginalised communities from the impact of the crisis.

The “WFP has commenced its emergency operation to provide food and nutrition assistance to 3.4 million people,” Rebello said.

“We are also continuing to work with smallholder farmers to make food systems more robust and resilient to climate-induced shocks so that food travels uninterrupted from farm to table, even during times of crises,” he added.

According to government data, food inflation topped 90 per cent in June and the rise is expected to continue, along with shortages. However, Sri Lanka has the capacity to deal with this crisis thanks to local producers, who must be granted their rights.

“More than 1-5 million of the population of Sri Lanka are small-scale food producers,” said Sandun Tudugala a representative of the People's Alliance for Right to Land (PARL).

However, for more than 30 years, the northern and eastern provinces were taken from them, first by the military, and then for forest and wildlife conservation.

“Farmers are being removed from large-scale farmland for the development of tourism. Plantation workers, who have contributed to the country's economic development and food production for many generations, still do not have land rights," Tudugala explained.

Almost 40 per cent of the Sri Lankan population is engaged in farming or livestock.

At the People's Land Commission, convened by PARL in 2020-2021, small producers complained about the “loss of farmland due to militarisation, the acquisition of land for large-scale export-oriented cultivation, infrastructure development and tourism, urban expansion, the transfer of agricultural land to private entrepreneurs, and cases of forced acquisition by various ministries”.