Environmentalists in Bittersweet Struggle with Academics and Bureaucrats Over Sugar Cane Cultivation Project in Uva Province.

By Chrishanthi Christopher

The Government plan to launch a sugar company in Bibile has drawn protests from environmentalists who say that, the cultivation of sugarcane will use up the ground water, depriving people of their source of legitimate drinking water. A Cabinet paper has reportedly been passed for the project due to commence in early December. Under the project, plans are under way to distribute 62,500 acres of land to 10,000 farmers in the Uva-Wellassa region, to cultivate sugarcane in the area.

Under the scheme, each farmer will get 2.5 hectares of land to cultivate sugarcane. It is claimed the project will eliminate poverty among farmers in the area. The Centre for Environment and Nature Studies claimed the Govt has given a human face to the project, following massive protests encountered in the past. Convener Raveendra Kariyawasam said an earlier attempt in 2006, by the then Govt to hand over the sugarcane project to Britain’s Booker Tate, was foiled by protesting people.

The farmers are expected to cultivate the land and sell the produce to the company. The land will be leased to the farmers, while farmers opting to withdraw from the project will have to return the land to the Govt. The company will be given only 149 acres of land on which to operate. Environmentalists fear that the cultivation of sugarcane will use up the ground water used by the area residents for drinking, as they claim that, sugarcane cultivation needs plenty of water hence, depleting the Uva-Wellessa water table.

Professor B. Marambe of the Peradeniya University’s, Agriculture Dept, said the crop does not use up ground water for growth. “Sugarcane belongs to the grass family, just like rice, maize and sorghum and, unlike rice, grows well in the highlands. Rice, on the other hand, is extensively cultivated in the lowlands and uses up plenty of water, while sugarcane, comparatively, uses less water,” he said. The Professor, who has done extensive research on sugarcane said the crop takes 9 to 12 months to yield, and needs continuous and adequate water right through the year and, because of its longer duration to yield, may use up more water. But, as the root system is fibrous, it cannot reach down to the ground water.

Further he discounted the argument that many sugar producing companies in the world are moving away from sugarcane cultivation because of the drain on ground water tables in those areas.

“They are moving out because of the agricultural chemicals used to kill the weeds in sugarcane cultivation,” he said. He maintains that, if a bi-annual crop is cultivated on the same land, the water usage will be very much higher. “It is only speculation that the water table will be exhausted. Sugarcane belongs to the C4 category of plants and uses up less water than the C3 category- maize and paddy plants.”

“In Moneragala, the ground water table is deep and the volume of water underground fluctuates according to the rainfall received in those areas,” he said.

Meanwhile, Director-CEO of the Sugar Research Institute, Dr A.P. Keerthipala also dismissed the argument that ground water will be depleted. “There is no scientific evidence to prove this,” he said.

“There is always opposition when a new project comes up. This project is designed to uplift the economic levels of the poor farmers who can earn up to Rs 250,000 a year. In addition, there will be several infrastructure developments which the residents of the area can enjoy,” he said. “Also, there are several other upcoming projects in Batticaloa, Maduru Oya and in the North,” he said.

Courtesy:Sunday Times