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Saving the farm

February 8, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sivagahanarathnam Yakalipudu and his 9-year-old granddaughter, Jaksena. "Before the tsunami, we had good harvests. We are still not back to that level." Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

We dipped our toes into the Indian Ocean late this afternoon after spending the day on small farms no more than a few hundred meters from the beach.

Here in Batticaloa District, along Sri Lanka's eastern shore, the tsunami sent a surge of water as tall as the palm trees into coastal communities. Only a couple of people died in the two that we visited today, Thettativu and Kaluthawalai II. But the real damage was to their farms, which for nearly 90 percent of residents here is their only source of income.

Hundreds of acres of vegetables including eggplant, chili peppers and bitter gourd were washed away. Worse still, the invading saltwater poisoned the soil for months afterwards. The farmers we talked to said nothing would grow until monsoon rains finally cleansed the soil eight months later. Even now, they said their crops seem more susceptible to disease and blight.

In recent months, we've supported more than 200 farm families by paying for fences to keep out wandering cattle and hungry goats; water pumps and fertilizers and sprayers to improve yields; onion seedlings; and trainings on how to prepare fields and get more out of their land.

These were all things that local farmers requested from their Community Action Group, the elected committee of 15 residents who prioritize projects that are then financed largely by Mercy Corps. As the group president in one of the villages explained, "After the tsunami, a lot of people did not have capital to improve their land. These are simple things we're providing, but they go a long way."

Fifty-seven-year-old Sivagahanarathnam Yakalipudu, for example, was distraught after the tsunami swept away his house and his belongings and ruined the acre of land he'd farmed for decades. "Farming is my only income," he says. "After the tsunami, we couldn't even fend for ourselves. We had to rely on others. I questioned whether it was worth living."

Since then he's received a temporary house from the government, some credit from a relief organization and most recently a backpack fertilizer sprayer from Mercy Corps. He demonstrated for us how he uses it to coax a better yield from the chilies, eggplant, okra and cowpeas he grows. The sprayer is a costly item — 10,000 rupees, or about US$88 — that saves him the hassle and expense of trying to rent one from another farmer or taking the time to do it by hand.

Squeezing the most out of the sandy soil is critical for families just scraping by. Sivagahanarathnam's wife, Paranjoti, says they're sometimes forced to skip meals because of recent spikes in food prices and the fluctuations in the health of their own crop.

There's no giving up now. Farming, Sivagahanarathnam says, is the only thing he knows. "I want to continue farming, and to lead a good life." His livelihood hasn't fully recovered from that fateful wave four years ago. But he still has hope.