The big maize revolution in Kotiyagala | Sunday Observer

The big maize revolution in Kotiyagala

FARM LIFE: Farmer D.M. Karunapala in Karakolagaspitiya, Kotiyagala oversees his bumper maize harvest in his Chena.
FARM LIFE: Farmer D.M. Karunapala in Karakolagaspitiya, Kotiyagala oversees his bumper maize harvest in his Chena.

Come March, the sleepy hamlet of Kotiyagala, nestled in the Siyabalanduwa Divisional Secretariat area in the Moneragala district, turns a spectacular shade of light brown. It is the maize cultivation harvesting season in the area. In one of the maize fields, we met D.M. Karunapala, 54, a professional farmer, who pulls out a gunny bag amid the maize plants in his field. With a smiling face, Karunapala begins the exercise of plucking young maize seeds and dropping them into the gunny bag.

“As farmers, we have to pay constant attention to the crops. We have to harvest the seeds at the right time. Sometimes, we lose the harvest due to climate change,” he says. At times when the cultivation comes under threat of wild animals, farmers spend sleepless nights in the “Waadiya” (watch hut) chasing away the animals from the farmlands.

Now, it is time to harvest Karunapala’s maize cultivation, spread over five acres land, all turned brown in colour. “I want to fix a date and find labourers and machines to harvest. Finding laboures is not easy these days,”he says, when we visited his farmland two weeks ago in Karakolagaspitiya in Kotiyagala.

Like Karunapala, hundreds of farmers in Kotiyagala are busy in their corn fields, harvesting. Some of them harvest their crops as groups, in their fields and others are busy with ‘Sunami machine’ harvesting, and transporting tractor loads of maize from their fields to their homes. These are common scenes around Kotiyagala, these days.

Maize is the prominent crop grown in the Chena today, and is a highly profitable business. Two administrative divisions in the Moneragala district-Siyabalanduwa and Athimale, together, amount to 81% of the total maize producing area in the district. Maize is one of the main ingredients used in Thriposa food and the animal feed industry, which formulates around 500,000 metric tons of animal feed regularly.

Kotiyagala, a drought-affected village lies in the Moneragala district in the south eastern part of Sri Lanka. It has the largest land area among the districts, with 5,587 sq. kilometres and comes under two broad climatic zones: the dry zone in the south and east, and the intermediate zone in the northwest. Annual and seasonal rainfall varies widely. Nearly half of the district receives a mean annual rainfall of 190 cm. Generally, rain-fed cultivation is possible in the Maha season, while Yala cultivation is possible only with supplementary irrigation, especially, in the dry zone.

Chena cultivation is widely prevalent and serves as a major source of food and income in the area. Known as ‘Hen Govithana or Chena cultivation’ this method has evolved from the age-old cultivation system practised during ancient times in Sri Lanka. Traditionally, forest lands were cleared and burnt, and sown with a mix of seeds with minimum land preparation, at the onset of the rainy season. Crop protection from wild animals has become essential so that the Waadiya (watching hut) and poems were characteristic features of the Chena system. Without adding agro chemicals, the Chena was an important source of non-toxic food diversity.

The total land area of the Moneragala district is 558,898 ha. Wildlife sanctuaries occupy 63,967 ha. Only 60,728 ha are utilized for agriculture: 5,668 ha under forests, 25,910 ha under perennial crops, 10,242 ha under paddy, 12,955 ha under temporary crops, mainly chena and 133 ha are pasture land.

This district receives no more than 190mm of annual rainfall, compressed into a few days, and when it does rain, the farmland gets inundated with water as the impermeable layer of saline soil prevents water from percolating. For the rest of the year, marginal and small farmers face a drought-like situation: tanks, ponds and canals prove an inadequate source of irrigation.

“Our main cultivation is maize grown in the Moneragala district, both, as a pure stand and as mixed crops. Maize is cultivated in the highlands as well as the chenas. The chenas are mainly cultivated with maize, manioc, millet (Kurakkan) sesame, chilli, green gram and cowpea,” continues Karunapala sitting in his Waadiya. “We plant maize in rows or randomly, after the earth is prepared, using the tractor. In the highlands, half the farmers plant maize in rows. They get their new hybrid seeds from Siyabalanduwa. Sometimes, they cultivate maize as a mixed crop. Fertilizer is needed, but, is rare in maize cultivation,” continues Karunapala, burning a few maize seeds to offer us, as it is quite a delicious bite for a change.

We inquire about Karunapala, one of the few villagers who has inherited his own land from ancestral legacy in Karakolagaspitiya in Kotiyagala. We are told that there were only a few houses in the village in ancient times, and that his forefathers had fought in the Uva-Wellassa Rebellion in 1818 against British rule and settled down here, and lived as farmers. So, Karunapala’s family was one of the few who first settled down in the thick forest area of Kotiyagala. When the Kotiyagala colony was established in 1950, a large number of people from various parts of the country settled down as farmers.

In 1975, the road to Kotiyagala was through heavily wooded forest, infested by wild animals such as, bear, leopard and elephant. Over the last decades Chena cultivation has tamed the land and the forests have completely disappeared. The clump of boulders now lie in the middle of an isolated pocket of jungle and there are several ancient Buddhist cave shrines that date back to 5th century AC, located in the rock boulders in and around Kotiyagala, boasting that in the bygone era, Kotiyagala belonged to a thriving civilization in the Ruhuna.

“I can only grow maize in my chena, and I have some acres of paddy fields. I have two children, both educated, my wife stays at home helping with my cultivation,” says Karunapala.

“I planted maize crops, as they do not get destroyed by the drought and am able to grow some millet (Kurakkan) during Yala. The main threat we had to face was by wild animals such as, wild boar and monkeys,” says Karunapala. At Kotiyagala, crop loss is inevitable. A majority of farmers experience crop loss every year, due to wild animals and birds.

As Karunapala pointed out, the shortage of labour is another burning issue.The farmers use mostly family labour in their cultivation. If the land under maize is increased, farmers have to hire more labourers, since all the lands have to be prepared and cultivated at the same time.

At Kotiyagala, another issue is the shortage of land, as farmers lease highland cultivated with many crops, both seasonal and perennial. By law, new lands cannot be cleared for chena. Most of the lands suitable for chena have already been cleared and cultivated. Travelling in every nook and corner of Kotiyagala, we witnessed villagers burning jungles mercilessly for chena cultivation at the edge of the forest reserve, despite the regulations laid down in Land law and severe punishments by the government.

According to the Forest Department, the Kotiyagala- Wattegama forest reserve spreads over 29,000ha, of which around 5,000ha remain undisturbed and the rest already encroached for chena cultivation. The practice of chena is not limited to those living around the forest reserve. It is a profitable venture, also for the agri-businessmen from far-away places.

The cutting of the forest for Chena cultivation in the Kotiyagala area which acts as a buffer zone for the Yala National Park has a dire impact on wildlife.

Kotiyagala is a vital part of the important jungle corridor that connects the Lahugala National Park to Yala. The jungle corridor enables species to migrate from one National Park to the other and this link is particularly important for the breeding of species. Further, deforestation of this area could mean the permanent disruption of these links, which would have an adverse effect on animal life in the Parks.

Karunapala, one of the ancestral villagers in Karakolagaspitiya in Kotiyagala says, he gets a better yield from his five acres of maize cultivation each year. “I could grow any crop in my five-acre plot, mostly maize, and today, I am happy and content with what I get from my cultivation.” 

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