Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Little steps in conservation: farmer and wild animal welfare

Samantha, a Rathambalagama farmer, with 'wewa' in the background
Paddy fields supplied by rainwater from the 'wewa'

In Rathambalagama, situated in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, water is the most challenging factor for farmers, followed in a close second by elephant raids on their crops. Born Free Sri Lanka recently identified long term support for these farmers as a critical community project fitting within the overall plan for conserving elephants and their habitats around Rathambalagama.

As with subsistence farming throughout the world, rainwater in the Rathambalagama area is critical. Maha, the northeast monsoon, brings heavy showers from October to January and carries the hopes of farmers for the remaining year. From March to April is Yala, during which the area receives fewer showers, and from May onwards is the dry season.

Sri Lanka’s traditional irrigation system is a complex of huge reservoirs interconnected with smaller ones (wewa in Sinhalese, the local language) by mile-long canals which distribute the stored rainwater. For generations, this system has solved the issue of seasonal water scarcity in areas like Rathambalagama, successfully allowing the continuation of farming to support livelihoods.

Sri Lankan wewas are not only recognised as vital for agriculture, but are also potent cultural symbols. Traditionally, the rural way of life revolves around the wewa and some mega-reservoirs in the country are seen as divine, representing the backbone of Sri Lanka’s generations-old agricultural society.

A number of wewa exist around Rathambalagama but many of these now lie in ruin, no longer storing water. This means that from the Yala season onwards, the income of farmers in the area can be significantly threatened. To make matters worse, elephants from neighbouring Udawalawa National Park frequent the village and raid crops!

One such wewa is in the Degalara area, critical to supplying water to around ten subsistence farmer families, all of which have schooling children. The area is very close to the northern border of Udawalawa National Park and almost all these farmers are in the grip of conflict with elephants. One solution to such conflict is the growing of elephant-resistant crops such as black pepper and betel, which five of the Degalara families have been engaged in with support from Born Free Sri Lanka. However, since the farmers’ crops had been failing in Yala due to insufficient access to water, they recently joined forces to re-construct the wewa with support from Born Free and the local government.

The farmers recently completed excavating the 10 hectare base of the reservoir and reconstructing the encircling embankment - Degalara Wewa is now expected to store rainwater from the current season of Maha and distribute it to around 12 acres of paddy fields when needed, during Yala and later.

Wewas feed not only farmers’ crops but also support whole ecosystems with a variety of wildlife and elephants may now increasingly visit the surrounding area. However, a well-functioning wewa can support both people and elephants without adding to conflict between them, so long as farmers construct and keep a close eye on barrier fencing around their farmlands.

Born Free Sri Lanka is working with the farmers to achieve this win-win outcome for the human-elephant conflict in the area, as Samantha, a 31 year old farmer and father of three schooling daughters explained: ‘Elephants walk my farmland and the home garden pretty much every week and I lose my harvest to the elephants. It is substantial income loss. Water from Degalara Wewa will help me to cultivate in Yala, and that will increase my income despite elephant visits. I don’t mind elephants coming for water and I plan to construct a protective fence around my farmland and the home garden with the assistance of Born Free.’

UPDATE - April 2013

In Sri Lanka, it’s the New Year season and there is reason to celebrate for eight Rathambalagama farmers - for the first time in memory, they have access to water to feed their new rice crop at this time of year, thanks to the rainwater collected and stored in the re-constructed wewa during the rainy season. As the staple food of the villagers, having enough rice is critical and the ready supply of rainwater means they have now secured food for next season.

Since planting their last crop, they had been cultivating the fields as a team according to the traditional cooperative farming system of the country, the aththam, involving all the farmers pitching into one plot and then moving on to the next. The rice harvested weighed exactly 6278kg, a 35% increase on last year. The unused surplus will be sold to the government or to a middleman and the extra income will go towards buying household items such as clothes and paying for children’s school needs.

As Deepani Jayantha, the Born Free Country Representative, summed up: “By supporting the re-construction of a local wewa, Born Free supported village economy, ecology, culture and traditions. Happy farmers tolerate elephants more and all wildlife benefits from a proper functioning wewa.”

A happy harvest
A happy harvest
A rice paddy watered by the nearby wewa
A rice paddy watered by the nearby wewa
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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