Although often depicted as victims of climate change, poverty, land dispossession or gendered violence, rural women from agrarian communities are active political agents who seek to dismantle gendered relations and structures of colonial power. From countries in Latin America, South Asia, East Asia, and the African Continent, rural women leaders struggle for justice by engaging in various forms of resistance within the rural economy. In this brief blog, we draw on our research in Monaragala, Sri Lanka, to highlight how women’s engagements in the 1980s and the 1990s in response to the introduction of the foreign-funded sugarcane industry in Pelwatta, led to the politicisation of women leaders. The leaders continue to work in that area today and we look at why women’s resistance is important and how it has continued to date.
Throughout the transition of the economy and ecology of Monaragala from subsistence-based agriculture to the commodification of labour, during the Pelwatta struggles and at present in their current work and leadership; women activists from Monaragala display both power and agency in agro-ecological initiatives. As identified by Li Zhang in China, “rural women are not merely passive victims of transformations” in agrarian society and economy, but they too are “leaders in struggles for justice and food sovereignty”. This observation is also relevant to the Monaragala district in relation to the activists politicised through the Pelwatta struggles. The Pelawatta struggle was a turning point in post-independence feminist activism in the agricultural sector and in general against state repression in Sri Lanka. As new challenges manifest daily with the ongoing flexibilisation of labour and the introduction of new development initiatives to the Monaragala district, women activists persist in challenging disempowering developments to obtain gender and ecological justice.
The labour systems of the Monaragala Agricultural Promotion Zone
With the establishment of the Agricultural Promotion Zone (APZ) in Monaragala in 1982, sugarcane cultivation became a targeted area for foreign investment. As part of the APZs, approximately 19,000 acres of land from Pelawatta, Monaragala was cordoned for cultivation. The Pelwatta Sugar Company (PSC) was established in 1981 as a joint venture between the state and international investors (the cultivation started in 1982 and the factory was built in 1986 and the formal operations began then). The ownership and management of PSC oscillated between a joint venture, to being state-run over subsequent years, to finally trading as the Lanka Sugar Company PLC (for more details see HERE). It is locally known as Lanka Sugar Company Limited–Pelwatta, or simply Pelwatta for short. Currently, Pelwatta produces sugar and molasses.
Socio-Economic and Environmental Impact
Livelihoods and lifestyle associated with traditional cultivation practices such as chena and paddy changed with the introduction of sugarcane (chena is a method of cultivation used in Sri Lanka where shifting cultivation is used by clearing the fields through ‘slash-and-burn’). A key change with land dispossession, the move away from subsistence and the introduction of the stratified labour system, was widening gender inequality as documented by Nandini Gunawardena. Women not only lost the main means of their livelihood but were also drawn into the field labour force of the PSC. Within this system, women’s jobs were subordinate to men, impacting their roles, agency, and the “valuation of their productive contributions to society”.
By 2019, villagers noted severe environmental impacts as local ecosystems were altered, largely attributed by them to the clearing of forests for PSC. They contended the rivers dried up and there was a water shortage (interview with villagers, July 2019). The resulting low yields made farmers dependent on agrochemicals which the farmers and activists believe to be a cause for the high numbers of Chronic Kidney Disease of an unknown aetiology (CKDu) cases in the Pelwatta area mostly among men. There is an increasing dual burden on women as they become the sole breadwinner of the families and with their care burden increasing attending to the sick in the households (based on interviews with Nanda in 2018).
“Accumulated vision and consciousness”: Women’s resistance against dispossession and better labour conditions
As noted by Sunila Abeyesekera in Law & Society Trust Review (1991), organised resistance against the PSC emerged in the 1980s with the involvement of Mehta International, another private investor which had been allocated 12,000 acres of land which included the Haddawa forest. This affected 625 families. Further, environmentalists outside of Pelawatta also began to protest the destruction of the commons. Access to common land was important for women as it enabled them to generate some form of livelihood.
The women took a prominent part in the agitations. As documented by Abeyesekera, women had distributed petitions, conducted meetings and confronting the Mehta International officers. They had protested, preventing the workers from bulldozing the land and had been part of the delegation who met state officials to discuss the issue. In 1985 around 200 people including the women had walked 2 miles to where the company’s nursery was and had uprooted the sugar cane plants and had planted banana instead. As women were at risk of losing access to common land, they were prominent in the protest.
In addition to this leadership, as noted by Abeyesekera women also gained experience in organising struggle, mobilising people, networking with other groups and also in confronting authorities. She refers to the following as “the accumulated vision and consciousness” of Monaragala women, framing them as agents rather than passive victims of land dispossession:
The women of Monaragala who were at first reluctant to even participate in a small village meeting, gained maturity, strength and self-confidence through their exposure to struggle. In the process, they learned not only about the role of women in such agitation campaigns, but went on to broader discussions regarding the question of women’s subordination and the experiences of women’s struggles in the other parts of the world.
In the 1992 struggle, farmers did participate, and this time, they received countrywide publicity. This struggle was led more by the trade union activism of the United Agrarian Services Association (Eksath Krushikarmika Sevaka Sangamaya). By this time the company had become established and people including villages and settlers were also working with Pelawatta. On 13th February 1992, the farmers held a peaceful protest in Buruthahandiya, Pelawatta with more than 10,000 people. Prominent politicians, lawyers and activists had joined this protest and travelled from various parts of the country. As a response to their demands, PSC made available grants for technical support to recover from the damage of harvest, drivers were absorbed into the permanent cadre, the price for a metric ton of sugarcane was increased from LKR 1000 to LKR 2500 and the daily wage for workers was increased from LKR 33 (1986) to LKR 55 and then to LKR 110 both during the 1990s.
Both protests were notable because of the context in which they unfolded. The protestors were not just resisting private capital. Activists were also facing and challenging the state and its authority. The exercise of state power at that moment in time was brutal and has led to the disappearance of two activists attached to the Pelawatta struggles.
Women’s agency and importance to feminist movements
These protest are a forgotten but important moment for the Sri Lankan feminist movement as they lead to the politicisation of a number of women leaders continuing to organise in the area today. Four activists, Chandra Hewagallage, K.P.Somalatha, Gunawathi Hewagallage and R.G. Premalatha, who engaged in the Pelawatta struggles in their youth, recalled and shared the stories of how the establishment of PSC contributed for them to becoming activists in their areas and mobilised women against the PSC. Two of these activists shared their experience on how they took leadership of the women’s sections from Wellawaya and Buttala. They began to work with the Community Education Centre (CEC). All four activists eventually worked with the CEC, and later founded three women’s organisations in the Monaragala district – Vikalpani Women’s Federations in Monaragala, Uwwa Welassa Women’s Organisation (UWWO) in Wellawaya and Community Resource Protection Centre, Monaragala. These activists are currently leading these organisations. Remaining in their local communities, they report their activism is always grounded in their local political and social realities. UWWO was formed in direct response to the issues which women had to face as a result of the establishment of the PSC.
Over time, other women also engaged in resistance. Fighting against labour exploitation, and against gender-based violence, both individually and collectively led to them joining the women’s groups above. One of the women who worked as a daily wage earner and a group leader in the PSC is now an activist attached to UWWO, promoting organic farming. Another woman who lost land due to the establishment of the PSC is also working as an activist attached to UWWO. She too is working with women farmers, facilitating the processes of selling organic produce to buyers from Colombo.
The Pelawatta struggles were turning points in feminist activism in the agricultural sector and in general against state repression in Sri Lanka. The core group of leaders who emerged from the struggles of the late twentieth-century, continue to be at the forefront of struggles, whether it is against land grabs, against the use of agro-chemical and fighting against the spread of CKDu, fighting for the rights of workers in agro-companies, or in challenging the patriarchal norms and structures of society. They represent women on both national and international platforms and raise issues facing mainly women farmers in Monaragala.
Increasingly, women leaders are seeking alternatives to large agricultural development projects. As a form of resistance, both UWWO and Vikalpani Women’s Federations are promoting organic, ecological farming and subsistence agriculture among women resonating with the global push for alternative or diverse economies.
The set image is a photograph from the collection of Mr J. A. Sumanadasa from Wellawaya. Women’s participation in the peaceful protest held on 13 February 1992, in Buruthahandiya, Pelawatte. First row – Ms Gunawathi Hewagallage (second from left), Ms R. G. Premalatha (fourth from left), Ms K. P. Somalatha (fifth from left) and Ms Chandra Hewagallage (sixth from left).