Agriculture and Sri Lanka: An Overview

Sri Lanka has a rich agricultural history dating back for more than 6000 years. Agriculture contributes 14% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and provides directly for 30% of employment and is essential for food security of the population of 22 million. Two decades back, Tea, Rubber and Coconut contributed the largest sources of foreign exchange to Sri Lanka. But this has now been supplanted by expatriate remittances and labour intensive industries such as the Garment sector and other services such as IT.

The returns on Agriculture have diminished and as younger people turn away from Agricultural livelihoods, and there is a shortage of labour that is constraining. In plantations, the wages for workers have not kept up with the inflation. Environmental damage is also causing problems for farmers – whether it be through soil erosion, spread of invasive species or chemical contamination. Of late, farmers have been subject to unusual diseases such as Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology, Agriculture faces difficult due to a succession of droughts, floods and extreme events of late. Drought has the longer lasting impact.


Rice cultivation has been a way of life for Sri Lankans and shapes the culture, tradition, and economy, Rice is the single most important crop occupying 34 percent of the total cultivated area in Sri Lanka. About 1.8 million farm families are engaged in paddy cultivation island-wide. Sri Lanka currently produces 2.7 million tonnes of rough rice annually and satisfies around 95 percent of the domestic requirement.

Other Food Crops (OFCs)

In addition to rice, various other food crops are produced for local consumption. They include yams, pulses, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Most of these crops are cultivated in family gardens, except for potatoes and sugar. The cane sugar sector is organized state and private companies who maintain norms. Forms of sugar such as Palymaryah and Kitul are not as organized. Various types of Vegetables are grown – sometimes as there are water or labour shortages. There are home garden which contributes substantially to the nutrition needs. There is potential for employment, income generation and enhanced contribution to nutrition in these crops. Growing each of these crops anticipates a stable climate.


The major export plantation crops of tea, rubber, and coconut and exotic spices play a major role in the Sri Lankan agriculture. Extending over 839,000 hectares tea has been a dominant crop and contributes significantly to the exports. Sri Lanka exports around 23% the global demand and is the world’s single largest producer of orthodox tea. Sri Lanka produces tea throughout the year and the total tea production is about 340 million kilograms per annum and tea sector provides livelihood for 600,000 directly. Drought, high temperatures and frost are among the climate based factors that can compromise the Tea industry.


Rubber is grown in the ridge and valley country of the wet zone interior. Rubber was among the three main income earners for agriculture in the national economy and had a strong impact on the socio-economic conditions of thousands of people in the country. In 2015 the total rubber cultivation is recorded at 134,137 ha and the total annual production of 79.1 thousand metric tones.


Coconut, is grown mainly in the hinterland of the western seaboard and occupies 20 percent of Sri Lankan arable land and accounts for approximately 12% of all agricultural produce in Sri Lanka. The total nut production of coconut in 2015 recorded 3,056million nuts and the cultivation extent to 44,0450 hectares.


Sri Lanka has a well-established fishery sector. Much of the fishing is done in the informal sector. The total production of seafood in Sri Lanka was around 400,000 metric tons in 2010 and 5 % of this produce was exported in the same year equating to 171 million USD in the same year. Of late, the returns on fisheries have been limited. Sri Lanka allows shipping vessels of other countries to fish in its waters for a small fee and that may be hurting local fishers.


The livestock sector of Sri Lanka recorded 8% growth during 2015 with 0.6% contribution to GDP at present Livestock are spread throughout all regions of Sri Lanka with concentrations of certain farming systems in particular areas due to cultural, market and agro climatic reasons.

Forestry and Chena

Forestry and Chena (Slash Burn and Fallow) cultivations have been practiced widely in Sri Lanka and contributes to the Sri Lankan Agriculture at small percentages. Chena, or slash, burn and fallow cultivation, though it could be environmentally destructive, is also a major source of cereals and vegetables that have been subject to selection by farmers over time.

Crop distribution in Sri Lanka
Crop distribution in Sri Lanka

In ancient times village farming was centered around the northern plains around Anuradhapura and then Polonnaruwa, but they later shifted to the southwest. The extreme northern peninsula of Jaffna even though dry remains cultivated. The south western areas are densely clustered with little unused land and the Central Highlands around Kandy, faced with limited flat land have developed terraced hillsides where they grow rice.
With the British rule of the 19th and 20th centuries, the plantation economy came to dominate large sections of the highlands. This also resulted in drastic reduction in the natural forest cover and the substitution of domesticated crops, such as rubber, tea, or cinnamon. The common climate considerations for agriculture remains the drought and flood disasters.


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