Sri Lanka

In Northern Sri Lanka, Herders Are Running Out of Grazing Land

Local cattle breeds are accustomed to foraging in abandoned fields. But as farmers cultivate more land, ranchers’ herds — and profits — are growing thin.

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In Northern Sri Lanka, Herders Are Running Out of Grazing Land

Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Pilenthiran Mariyaseelan’s cowshed stands empty. He sold his 50 cows due to a lack of grazing land.

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VAVUNIYA, SRI LANKA — A shed once filled with the lowing of cows has fallen silent. The floor is cracked from the sun and disuse. The animals are gone — the casualties of a feed crisis that has pitted ranchers against paddy farmers in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Pilenthiran Mariyaseelan sold his 50 cows in December and shuttered his 30-year-old business.

“These cows are the reason why I am where I am today,” Pilenthiran says. “That helped me to educate both my son and daughter.”

Ranchers in Vavuniya district, like Pilenthiran, who once ran profitable businesses grazing local breeds in abandoned fields and selling them for meat, are disposing of their herds at steep discounts. They cannot afford to feed their animals as grazing lands fill with paddy. Farmers in Vavuniya district planted 25% more land during the 2023 planting season compared to the previous year, according to the Department of Census and Statistics.

Cowherders say they have to walk the animals many extra kilometers daily to find grassy patches, and the animals rush to wherever they see green — usually crop fields — causing trouble for their owners. Local ranchers say they have repeatedly asked the Vavuniya District Coordinating Committee, which oversees development, to set aside common grazing lands, but no action has been taken.

“If the situation continues like this, there will be no cows here. Farmers are selling their cows,” says Kirubananthakumaran Sivapathasuntharalingam, a veterinarian at the Government Veterinary Office in Cheddikulam.

One morning last December, Pilenthiran was shocked to find his cowshed empty. He turned the corner and saw a broken fence. His cattle, all small and thin, were enjoying his neighbor’s crops. An argument ensued, and Pilenthiran had to pay the farmer 75,000 Sri Lankan rupees (250 United States dollars) for his crop loss.

“Perhaps because the cows were not properly fed, they had entered the field,” he says.

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Since he sold his cows, Pilenthiran Mariyaseelan has turned to farming.

A fortnight later, he sold his cows to another rancher for 3 million rupees (10,036 dollars) — 40% less than he would have accepted in a better year.

He feels a profound sense of loss. He used to earn 70,000 rupees (234 dollars) a month from selling cow dung, milk and beef cattle. His days, once spent with the animals, now quietly waste away. And this business was once his father’s. He’d kept cattle throughout Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in 2009 after 26 years. Even when the family moved to the town of Madhu in 1989 to avoid the fighting, Pilenthiran recalls, the cattle went with them.

Cattle farming in Vavuniya required few inputs until recently, says government veterinarian Sivapathasuntharalingam. That’s because 94% of cattle in Vavuniya are local cattle, according to the Department of Census and Statistics, which are not fed indoors. They are small, resilient against disease and fare well in the local climate. They don’t provide much milk and are raised mostly for meat. Ranchers often own hundreds of cows, which they graze in fields that farmers abandoned during the war. Before 2009, farmers in Vavuniya planted paddy in less than a quarter of the area cultivated in 2023.

“Cows used to graze and breed in those places,” Sivapathasuntharalingam says.
But farmers have since reclaimed their lands. Last year, they planted nearly five times more area than they did during the war. As consumer prices, indicated by the consumer price index, increased by 53% in 2022, and the price of rice rose by 31% following the 2022 economic crash, people began growing more paddy and crops. The government, too, is encouraging people to farm on abandoned land to increase domestic food production.

The ponds are also being repaired, causing a severe shortage of pasture, Sivapathasuntharalingam says. In Vavuniya, 1,469 families have herds with more than 10 cows.

“The government should allocate some common land as grazing land,” he suggests.

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Sellathurai Jeyakanthan walks 89 cows many miles daily during the peak planting season in search of fodder.

Ranchers echo the refrain. Over the past two years, many have complained to the Vavuniya District Coordinating Committee during meetings, says Tharmalingam Thavalingam, a second-generation rancher who has attended the meetings. But he says the government has not taken action.

Kulasingam Dhileeban, chairman of the Vavuniya District Coordinating Committee, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Tharmalingam says he cannot recall a time when business was this hard. He struggles to feed his 89 animals. He only grazes them because he says the breed prefers to eat grasses on open pastures.

“This problem for cows is getting worse as there are no separate grazing grounds,” he says. “I am thinking of selling all the cows this year. I know three people who have sold their cows.”

During the peak planting season, he pays two men 150,000 rupees (500 dollars) per month to graze his cows.

Despite his efforts, 15 calves have died since November 2023 — a loss of up to 1 million rupees (3,345 dollars), he says.

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Thin cows hunt for grass on the roadside but find little.

He now sells his animals young because he cannot feed them, even though an older animal can sell for 200,000 rupees (669 dollars), more than twice the value of a calf.

In January, at the peak of the grazing crisis this year, Tharmalingam’s cowherd, Sellathurai Jeyakanthan, took the cows grazing. As the morning sun blazed and cars whizzed by, the cows fed on meager grass along the roadside. Some limped because they were accustomed to walking nearly 70 kilometers (44 miles) daily in search of food, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Sellathurai has tended Tharmalingam’s cows for 12 years. He says that land is fast getting converted to fields and home gardens, where his animals aren’t allowed. “They need to be carefully monitored so that they do not walk into the green fields,” he says.

In January, as one cow moved ahead of the herd, Sellathurai gently admonished her. She listened, as she has known him since birth.

“Hey, hey, Lakshmi, walk slowly,” he said. “You will tire if you walk fast. You still have a long way to go.”

Thayalini Indrakularasa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.


Lohith Kumar, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.