The cultivation of subsidiary food crops along the large tracts of cleared forest lands is characteristic to South East Dry Zone of Sri Lanka (SEDZ). Locally termed as ‘hen govithana or chena cultivation’, this system has been evolved from the old-age cultivation system practiced during the ancient times in Sri Lanka. In the traditional system, forest lands were cleared and burnt and sown a mix of seeds with minimum land preparation at the onset of rainy season. The soil was disturbed only for planting of yams. Crop protection from wild animals became essential so that the watching hut and poems were characteristic to the chena system. Practiced with no added agro chemicals, the chena was an important source of non-toxic food with diversity and significantly contributed to ensure food security of the farm family and the community. Thus, the traditional chena system sustained certain features of sustainability.
The contemporary chena practice seen in the SEDZ differs from this traditional way of farming in many ways. Its prominence for mono cropping, annual burning of the vegetation followed by the mechanized land preparation, continuous land use with chemical pest control in certain instances begs the question of the system sustainability. Maize (Zea mays) is the prominent crop grown in chena today and is a highly profitable venture. Two administrative divisions in the Moneragala district -Siyambalanduwa and Athimale- altogether amounted to 81% of the total maize producing area in the district in 2104. This covered 26% of the national maize production (Census of Agriculture, 2015). Obviously, the contribution from chena cultivation to these figures is substantial.
According to the forest department, Kotiyagala-Watthegama forest reserve spreads over 29000ha of which around 5000ha remains undisturbed and the rest is already encroached for chena cultivation. The practice of chena is not limited to those who are living around the forest reserve. It is a profitable venture for the agri-businessmen from far-away places is a fact that held true. This leaves the room for further encroachment of forest reserves. Production enhancement of present agricultural policies seems to be added stimulant for the continuation of chena system. Does this system need to be sustained? What improvements are needed simultaneously or otherwise which alternatives would satisfy the social, socio-economic and environmental needs the chena system brought back to its diverse stakeholders.
A Large Track of Maize in the Middle of Kotiyagala-Waththegama Forest Reserve