To many it would seem that the death of Sarath Fernando, former convenor of MONLAR (Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform) earlier this month dealt a blow to the struggle of farmers and to the farmers’ rights movement in Sri Lanka. But in all likelihood Sarath, who gave 25 years of his life to [...]


Sarath – a tireless fighter for farmers’ rights


To many it would seem that the death of Sarath Fernando, former convenor of MONLAR (Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform) earlier this month dealt a blow to the struggle of farmers and to the farmers’ rights movement in Sri Lanka. But in all likelihood Sarath, who gave 25 years of his life to that organisation he founded, would not have seen it that way. Shortly before his death he wrote:

“I have now come close to the end of my journey but the journey is not yet over, others will continue,
Learning from my mistakes and encouraged by whatever successes, finding their own way,
……. And I will not die because my dreams and efforts will not die.”

Those thoughts from a verse written perhaps with a premonition of his own death, would no doubt resonate with the large number of people from diverse groups including farmer organizations, peasant groups, women’s rights groups, scientists, trade unionists, students and others who were associated with the activism he engaged in. From a small office in Rajagiriya, Sarath worked for the betterment of the working class in general, and the small farmers who form the mainstay of the rural economy, in particular.

The trait for which I for one will remember Sarath, is his humility. My interactions with him as a journalist, while they were sporadic, go back many years starting with the input he made to a piece I wrote for the ‘New Internationalist’ magazine for their issue on ‘Social Indicators of Health.’ This was at a time when farmer suicides had become a serious issue. Thereafter I would always seek him out whenever I needed expert comment on problems faced by farmers, land rights, environment and related topics. He would speak with authority, from a sound analytical understanding of the matter at hand, but never seeking to draw attention to himself — only to the problem, so that others may better understand.

Respected abroad
Sarath’s modest and self-effacing nature was such that many people would not know how well known and respected he was abroad, among international networks. One such organisation is La Via Campesina (LVC), a movement comprising around 150 local and national organizations in 70 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, altogether representing about 200 million farmers. On 8th Sept. LVC’s website posting the news of his death the night before said:

“He was one of the top leaders of La Via Campesina in South Asia Region. He was leader of Sri Lanka who advocated for agro ecology, land to the landless, and agrarian reform. Via Campesina South Asia pays tribute to Sarath Fernando. May his soul rest in peace.”
This was followed by individual tributes from representatives of many member organisations.

“Sarath Fernando was a man who spent his whole life sacrificing for the farmer community and played a wider role in the community as well. Person who stood up for the farmers community and fought against multinational companies through organic farming. It is our duty to see that his ideas are fulfilled …” said Ravi of Kerala Coconut Farmers Association.

” … Actually his approach to natural farming agrees with the agro-ecological farming method which is best answer to global climate change. He is no more but his visionary thoughts are with us. …” wrote Badrul Alam, Bangladesh Krishok Federation.

Food sovereignty
One of the ideas launched by LVC and advocated by Sarath was that of ‘Food Sovereignty,’ which refers to the ‘right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.’ It argues that the rights to use and manage land, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not the corporate sector.

It was not so long ago that there was an attempt in Sri Lanka to introduce a Seed Act which would have taken away some of these rights from the farmers for the benefit of multi-national corporations seeking to control the seed industry globally. At Sarath’s request, the internationally renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva critiqued Sri Lanka’s draft Seed Act for MONLAR, pointing out its dangers and deficiencies. Sarath and MONLAR were at the forefront of the campaign to abolish this pernicious law, educating farmers on what it meant and mobilising them against it. Later president Rajapaksa reportedly stated that this law will not be enacted.

Sarath always urged that land should be used so that it does not destroy nature’s capacity to regenerate itself. In a recent (unpublished) article on ‘Solving land problems in Sri Lanka’ he showed that this can be achieved through ecological agriculture, where soil erosion is reduced, organic matter is recycled, crops are diversified and the use of poisonous agrochemicals avoided.

In this article there is a message too for the people of Uva Wellassa, ‘land of a hundred thousand paddy fields,’ where the dust has barely settled after a hard fought provincial election. The farming community here went to the polls amidst drought and hardship. While there is more land available in this area than in other provinces, Sarath says much of it is not used owing to lack of water. He argues that ecological agriculture could be used to reduce drought losses and improve yields. Rather than growing single crops if, on a small plot many different plant varieties are grown, this would improve soil fertility and make the soil retain more water. “The way of solving water problems is not only by construction of reservoirs but by improving the water retention ability of the soil” he explains.

Sarath is gone, but the organisation he built up and the people he motivated by his example will bear lasting testimony to the good he did. His message was simple and yet profound. “Do not destroy nature for none of us know how to mend it.”

Right of reply

David Whaley whose name was mentioned in an interview with Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute published two weeks ago, has written to the editor of the ‘Sunday Times’ to complain about the manner in which reference was made to him in the interview. Dr Gunatilleke made a presentation at a side event of the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva earlier this month. The gist of Whaley’s email complaint which runs into 10 paras, is to record his disapproval of a brief description following the mention of his name among others at the side event. He writes:
“In the article, I am referred to as a participant at a Narrative iii side event at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) – as “a Britisher (seen as an anti-Sri Lanka).” I strongly contest this description.”

“… To be in disagreement with some of the more controversial aspects of the policy of a government, those that have brought a country and a religion that I and many other observers hold in great respect, does not make one “anti-Sri Lanka”. On the contrary, it is the duty of true friends to point out errors and behaviours that not only harm the image and reputation of the island and its majority religion, but also undermine the principles and standards established by the international community through the United Nations” says Whaley.

‘Sunday Times’ journalist Lasanda Kurukulasuriya who interviewed Dr Gunatilleke writes:
“David Whaley’s name was mentioned by the interviewee, Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, in response to my question “To whom did you make your presentation in Geneva, based on the Third Narrative?” He was mentioned among others said to have attended a side event. To say in brackets that he is ‘seen as’ anti Sri Lanka, is to convey a perception, not a statement of fact. That perception was conveyed to me by Dr Gunatilleke, it is not my own.”

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