A Sri Lankan village was offered help from the UN’s Green Climate Fund – now they feel misled

New research looked at an adaptation project funded by the World Bank & UNFCCC-run Green Climate Fund. Instead of helping farmers, it helped their corporate partners.
Farmland in Puwakpitiya Village, in central Sri Lanka. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige
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The village of Puwakpitiya in North-Central Sri Lanka was once famous for its onions – but in recent years, unpredictable weather patterns have threatened local livelihoods.

“We used to grow onions, but now we don’t,” says Gothami Seneviratne*, who has farmed in the village for decades and witnessed the changes. “There is too much rain; all the onions rot. We used to earn a lot of money. Now, because the climate has changed, it is difficult to grow onions. When we grow chili peppers they all fall to the ground. We have to grow something which suits the climate.”

Water management is at the centre of the farmers’ problems. Puwakpitiya is located in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone, and receives only one heavy monsoon season, in contrast to other parts of the country. Droughts are increasingly common, and in other cases unexpected heavy rain has led to fungal disease that decimates crops. 

In the past, less intense rainfall continued over longer periods of time. Farmers were able to retain water for crops, avoiding the impacts of drought. Now, rainfall is often heavy and lasts only for one or two days – it damages crops, and is difficult to anticipate or store.

Chena in the dry zone. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige
Map of Sri Lanka, with the dry zone in yellow. Image: ©️Geekeyanage & Pushpakumara, 2013

Since 2017, 30 women farmers in the village have been working to help farmers adapt, as part of the Climate Resilient Integrated Water Management Project (CRIWMP). Also known as the Wew Gam Pubuduwa project, CRIWMP is financed through the Sri Lankan government and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the UN’s central vehicle for international climate finance. The official website of the CRIWMP says that the project’s main objective is to “strengthen the resilience of smallholder farmers in the Dry Zone to climate variability and extreme events through an integrated approach to water management.” 

This all sounds great in principle. Unfortunately, CRIWMP has not solved Puwakpitiya’s problems. My recent research reveals it has suffered from a phenomenon known as Jevons paradox: technological improvements in efficiency can drive higher demand, negating positive impacts of the reforms. In this example, new sprinkler irrigation systems have not reduced overall water consumption as promised. Instead, irrigation led to more intensive and commercial farming.

Meanwhile, villagers still lack consistent, reliable water supply, part of which can be explained by the Jevons paradox – but there are other factors at play as well.

Climate resilience, or business as usual?

The North Central dry zone areas of Sri Lanka are composed of water harvesting and management systems which include a series of human-made tank cascades called a ‘weva’. The tanks are arranged in cascades and are interconnected by canals that are used to store, transport, and utilize water. 

The farming system connected to this irrigation system is three-fold. Rice is grown in the lowland area during the Yala and Maha monsoon seasons of the year, if enough water is available for irrigation in the tank cascade systems. The village hamlet (Gangoda) is on either side of the paddy growing area. The Wel Yaya is usually below the tank, and the lower elevations are used by villagers for the growing of fruit and vegetable crops. “Chena” is the third component of this system where farmers use rainfall directly for additional crops.

The small tank system in Sri Lanka. The centre of the village is the tank and houses are grouped in hamlets on one or both sides of the embankment on the higher area. Image: ©️Geekeyanage & Pushpakumara, 2013

Farmers cultivate chena and paddy lands according to the seasonality of rains, so they can try to get at least one successful harvest from cultivation. Before the GCF intervened, farmers used their home gardens on a small scale without the use of sprinklers or drip irrigation. This is now changing as a result of the CRIWMP project and other government interventions.

Digging deeper into the history of land-use in the community reveals a complex backstory to this transition. The village had once relied on chena farming more extensively, but local authorities ended the practice in upland forest areas, limiting people to their small home gardens. Claiming that farmers were causing deforestation and soil degradation, forest officers designated much of the land as conservation areas.

“In the past during the rains, we used to do a lot of chena,” said Rosa, a farmer in the village. “Now, they don’t allow us to. Forest authorities from the government will come and catch us. When we were young, we used to go to the chena with our fathers and work there, but for many years we only can work in our garden, we can’t go beyond that. In the past, we had made everything in the chena, things like thala (sesame), mung (mung beans), undu (urad flour), meneri (proso millet). Our children don’t know what these are like, they don’t know that in the past, we made all these things in the chena.” 

The crop diversity that Rosa remembers is still lacking in the area, with CRIWMP instead providing seeds and training to grow more commercial produce. Farmers are now encouraged to grow water-intensive crops such as jumbo peanuts and snake gourd during the dry season from June to August. This is in conflict with the original goals set out by the project, which focused on addressing water scarcity in the dry zone and the need to conserve water. 

The project has promoted jumbo peanut farming through the establishment of forward contract agreements (FCAs). The project identified FCAs as being beneficial to farmers as they are able to sell their crops at a fixed price, protecting them from market volatility. But the agreements farmers signed set this price at half the normal market value, in exchange for the provision of free jumbo peanut seeds. Farmers such as Ahinsa complained that they lost out:

“We received rata kaju (peanut) seeds from the project. We got them through an agreement. After we get the harvest, they take it. But they buy it for a low price, so it is unfair for us. It is hard.”

Prior to the introduction of commercial jumbo peanuts, farmers grew the local variety of peanuts in their home gardens for household consumption. The local variety was oriented more towards local tastes and promoted household nutrition. It was also cheaper to grow, needing less time, water, and electricity. Due to the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka and rising bills, farmers find it difficult to afford electricity for the irrigation systems.

Home garden in the dry zone. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige
Commercial peanuts growing in a farmer's backyard. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige

A commercial drive towards high productivity with low crop diversity comes at a cost for small farmers burdened by inflation and increased input prices. There would be more local benefit from returning to growing a diverse variety of crops, and foraging for daily consumption needs. 

The production oriented and scaling-up approach taken by the CRIWMP is little more than the business-as-usual model of commercial agriculture, repackaged as ‘climate resilient’. But it has not achieved its stated aims, nor taken local history and current economic conditions into consideration.

Other similar projects in the dry zone which emphasize climate smart agriculture among farmers such as the Climate Smart Irrigated Agriculture Project face similar outcomes unless they plan to take the impacts of the economic and climate crisis into consideration.

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has made it more expensive for farmers to adjust to the proposed techniques of agricultural modernisation and commercialisation often proposed by climate smart projects. Importantly, these technologies don’t necessarily result in the reduction of water usage, or other adaptation benefits, especially when they are carried out with the intention of increasing commercial agricultural practices. Recent reports have found that World Bank efforts to lend to farmers have largely failed because they have prioritised improving access to hybrid seeds and fertiliser without measuring whether this reduces farmer poverty or hunger.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) along with the Sri Lankan government should have taken the impacts of the financial crisis and current rainfall patterns into account when introducing water-intensive seed varieties among farmers. Before branding projects as boosting adaptation, or climate-resilience, the UN-affiliated body has a responsibility for risk assessment and due diligence. 

Puwakpitiya is a case study, not an outlier: GCF has come under criticism for managing risks in various projects. An independent report found that projects could result in maladaptation, worsening the impacts of the climate crisis in communities that were told they would better adapt to climate change. 

After this preparatory work, it is also important that the GCF measure the outcomes of its projects, in dialogue with project beneficiaries. They could begin by attempting to corroborate and broaden my research in Puwakpitiya – there is an urgent need to assess whether GCF agricultural projects have led to a reduction in farmer debt or  water use, and if not, to map out possible alternatives. At the moment, the signs are worrying.

* Farmers’ names have been changed.

Nethmi Bathige’s research on CRIWMP is ongoing, but you can read her previous study on Sri Lankan agriculture here.

Nethmi Bathige is a PhD student in geography at Pennsylvania State University. Her work focuses on political ecology, and currently involves research on agrarian livelihoods and climate adaptation projects in Sri Lanka. 

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