Jasmine with a smallholder dairy farmer and the mother of a refugee she supported in New Zealand
I spent most of my time in Northern Sri Lanka where it is only in the last four years that travel restrictions have been lifted following three decades of civil war. It was a unique opportunity to visit this beautiful part of the country and learn about the lives of the people who live there.
My research is primarily concerned with people's perspectives of the New Zealand Government aid project, Wanni Dairy Regeneration Activity (WDRA), and its social and environmental impacts, although the development context in Sri Lanka is inextricable from the civil war and 2004 tsunami.
I visited rural villages to meet farmers and their families, visited integrated farms that model sustainable farming practice, visited a local children’s club (a social initiative run by the implementing NGO), met with NGO field staff, academics and locals.
The importance of meeting people face-to-face, and the connections that arise from that, cannot be understated.
A woman performing a puja (prayer ceremony) to Hindu deities at her family shrine
With the indispensable support of my interpreter and the NGO field staff (World Concern and Tearfund NZ ) I held in-depth interviews with five female farmers and spoke to numerous others who shared their valuable insights on rural development and livelihoods.
The lived experience of field research enabled me to appreciate some of the realities faced in the development context in rural Northern Sri Lanka, not only through happenchance conversations and encounters and my data collection, but also the weather!
I waded through waterlogged mud roads and flooded rice fields during monsoonal downpours to reach some of the women farmers living in rural villages. They shared with me stories of their livelihoods, empowerment, challenges, and their dreams for their children’s futures. Appreciating the significant impact that the monsoon has on farmers’ lives was highly relevant for building an understanding of their experiences.
Jasmine spent many hours on the road visiting often difficult to reach places
Seeing the struggles – and the progress – in the Northern region in the aftermath of war and tsunami was raw and disquietingly informative.
It was compelling to hear people’s stories of resilience, hardship and compassion.
One of the farmers I met had just held her son’s wedding. A marquee of sorts was set up at the front of her house. She had a small shrine to her favourite Hindu deities by her gate. The wedding venue was amidst everything: goats, chickens, cows, animal shelters, a blacksmith's shed, and the house she and her husband had built, with no help from the government or anyone else, she proudly told me.
Before the war she had 39 cows, but they had lost everything. With the end of the conflict she managed to acquire some local breeds, but their productivity is low. Through the WDRA project she had raised one jersey calf. She gets as much milk from her jersey calf as she does from her six local animals. It takes a lot of work, she tells me, but “everything is possible with hard work”.
As she showed me around her farm, she told me about her day. She wakes up at four in the morning to begin looking after her animals. By 10am, when she finishes her morning work at the farm and cooking for her family, she sets off for four hours to forage for animal feed. She returns to feed and look after her animals again and by 10pm she has finished her day’s work.
She told me she has difficulty milking now and showed me the lesions on her hands. She is worried that her jersey cow will become thin. She told me that before she dies she wants was to get more land and become a better farmer.
Jasmine: "Sri Lanka’s beautiful natural and cultural heritage, the warm people, and the special appeal of the North hold a special place in my memories."
As a foreigner, it is almost easy to remain oblivious to the underlying tensions in Sri Lanka. There was such a mellow vibe, the people are exceedingly friendly and genuine, and I felt very safe. But, some of my most valued learning came from engaging with people in the North and becoming better informed about the issues their communities face.
The warmth and hospitality of locals made for instant friendships and exciting excursions. Locals shared delicious fresh food, poured hot cups of tea, cracked opened quenching king coconuts and welcomed me into their homes.
It was a special moment when I met the mother and family of a former-refugee I supported through Red Cross who recently settled here in New Zealand. We talked about life in New Zealand, school, temples in Sri Lanka, and I was lucky enough to be there for a puja (prayer ceremony) performed at their personal shrine to the Hindu deities. It’s hard to describe how meaningful those exchanges were.
Visiting Sri Lanka was an experience that has inspired and challenged my thinking, not only on my research topic, but personally, too. Sri Lanka’s beautiful natural and cultural heritage, the warm people, and the special appeal of the North hold a special place in my memories.
Jasmine’s research project is titled A Sustainable Livelihoods Approach to New Zealand Aid and Development in Sri Lanka. Her research also received funding support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Field Research Award) and a Victoria University faculty grant (Asia Pacific Research Award).