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Our impact, their stories

Diversity brings prosperity in Northern Sri Lanka

The ILO and Australian government are working to reduce vulnerability and strengthen market networks for Sri Lankan smallholders.

Feature | Sri Lanka | 01 June 2016
Suppiramaniyam Thayalini and her family
BANGKOK (ILO News) – On the small farm behind their house, 42-year-old Suppiramaniyam Thayalini and her husband were digging out their first harvest of cassavas; five big, cone-shaped roots. An export company was booked to collect the cassavas, and the couple expected the crop to sell well. 

“I started to plant [cassava] in last December. I didn’t apply fertilizer or pesticide. All I did was to create water channels and irrigate every two days,” Ms Thayalini said. “When the plants get big enough, I remove leaves and branches. After eight months, I have the harvest.”

Growing cassava doesn’t only mean less hard labour for her and other farmers in Northern Sri Lanka; it also demonstrates their exploration of more sustainable ways to improve their incomes, livelihoods, and long-term development.

The Thayalinis survived the three-decade-long Sri Lankan civil war. After the war ended, in 2009, Ms Thayalini joined Vavuniya North Fruit Growers’ Cooperative Society, hoping to rebuild her livelihood. With the support from the International Labour Organization (ILO), the cooperative taught its members how to grow papayas. The idea was a great success, bringing considerable financial benefits to the farmers. But then, problems arose. When drought and blight struck the papaya trees the farmers were often left with nothing. They faced a new challenge – how to sustain their progress.

“Papaya growing improved the livelihoods of the war-affected people in Northern Sri Lanka. It was a big success,”  Donglin Li, the Country Director of the ILO Colombo Office, said. “But we needed to make the improvement more sustainable and we decided diversification was the way to go.”

With financial support from the Australian Government, the ILO worked with the cooperatives in Northern Province through the Local Empowerment through Economic Development project (LEED), to teach the farmers to identify alternative crops, select good seedlings and grasp new farming skills.

Ms. Thayalini has adopted the new approach with enthusiasm, and success. “In case if there is any disease outbreak in papaya, I won’t have any papaya or income. Therefore, I also grow cassava. If papaya failed, I would still have cassava,” she said. Apart from cassava, she also grows passion fruit and okra.

The ILO also linked the farmers to the markets, to reduce risk in selling their produce. “We developed partnerships between the producers in the north and buyers in the south and, at the same time, the government. We created and strengthened linkages,” said Devagiri Nihal, National Programme Coordinator of the ILO LEED project.

The north-south partnerships have delivered benefits all round. Particularly significant has been an agreement on a fixed price for the crops. Ms Thayalini’s 500 cassava trees should produce 1,500-kilogrammes of cassava. With a fixed price of 32 rupees per kilo, she knows she will be able to make about 45,000 rupees, (UD$310).

“From the income, after all the expenditures, we use for our daily needs and for children’s education,” Ms Thayalini said. “I have five children. They study A levels and O levels. We can still have a little saving. With the saving, we run my family.”

To be sustainable, development also requires care for the environment. At an enclosed sea area around the city of Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s National Aquaculture Development Authority, in partnership with the ILO, has created an environmentally-friendly aquaculture farm for sea cucumbers and sea bass. Farmed fish and seafood is a booming industry but it is very new to local people, so the ILO provided funding for training, conducted field visits and supported community-based corporate social responsibility activities.

“We are very happy to implement this project with the ILO,” said Selvendran-Salivan De Marian, the District Aquaculture Extension Officer of National Aquaculture Development Authority. “They are fully supporting us. The people are also very happy nowadays. From this aquaculture project they can get the harvest, and they have the sustainable income. They have made good livelihoods and they have uplifted their livelihood standards.”

As with the fruit and vegetables, the LEED project has also helped producers find markets for their farmed sea cucumbers and sea bass. This couldn’t have happened without support from the ILO’s social partners – Sri Lanka’s workers’ and employers’ organizations.

Kanishka Weerasinghe, Director-General/CEO of Employers’ Federation of Ceylon said, “We will continue to partner with the ILO. It has been a very positive partnership over the years.”

“Australia’s involvement with the ILO in LEED project in the north of Sri Lankan has been a great success and has exceeded our expectations,” said Robyn Mudie, Australian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka. “It’s sustainable and it is working with the market, which was very important for people who just a few years ago would have been extremely vulnerable with little economic opportunity.”