Sugarcane cultivated in Sri Lanka since the 1840s was initially cultivated as one of the crops in the “chena or hena” a traditional rain-fed upland crop production system. The farmers select a patch of land (which was generally forest land) cleared the area of trees and undergrowth and sowed seeds of various types of food: grains, pulses, vegetables oil crops and sugar cane. Depending solely on the fertility of the soil and rains, crops were thus cultivated.
In the case of sugar cane, a cottage industry developed around the crop with the cane been used as a sugar source for the preparation honey and jaggery. With import restrictions set by the then government on sugar in the 1970’s the dry zone saw a large number of farmers turning to sugar cane cultivation on a commercial scale. With the increasing demand small farmers started growing sugar cane in homesteads. This also gave rise to a large number of private small scale sugar cane crushing mills in every village.
State intervention in this sector came about with the establishment of two state owned factories in the early 1980’s at Pelwatte and Sevanagala, which transformed most of the traditional chena areas and scrub jungles into sugar cane estates and out-grower’s plots. From a mixed cropping system sugar cane is now a mono crop cultivated in the dry and intermediate zones of the country and is presently cultivated in Moneragala, Ampara and Badulla districts with widespread cultivations in Kantale, Hingurana, Sevanagala, and Pelwatta areas.
In the SDEZ one of Sri Lanka’s largest manufacturer of sugar and other by-products from raw sugar cane is the Pelwatte Sugar Industries PLC. Situated in the Moneragala district and covering the DS divisions of Wellawaya, Buttala and Siyabalanduwa the industry produces 22,000 MT of sugar every year. The company has a Nucleus estate of 3631 hectares, settlement estate of 4024 hectares (with farmer plots of 1.75 ha/settler) housing 1700 farm families and an out grower scheme which covers nearly 8000 hectares with around 2000 farmers. All farmers (Settlement and out growers’ farmers) supplying cane to the factory are provided with fertilizer, seed cane and herbicides at competitive prices besides the extension services.
Grown both under rain fed conditions this farming system is besieged with a number of constraints from high cost of production, non-availability of quality setts, burning of cane fields and low water availability and farmers’ unhappiness at the labour intensiveness of the crop. Sugar cane production in the country fulfills only 7% of the country’s requirement. The question that needs to be answered, is this crop socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and does the country require to sustain such a crop.