Introduction 
Welimada area in the Badulla district is one of the main vegetable cultivation area in the central highland of Sri Lanka and farming is the main livelihood of the majority of the people.  
However, due to geographical factors as well as unsustainable farming practices soil erosion is a serious issue in the area that makes farming less profitable and attractive. Uvaparanagama DS division in Welimada has been identified as the area with highest soil erosion in Sri Lanka by studies. 
The other factors caused for soil erosion are lack of awareness of the farmers on soil erosion, its consequences and conservation technologies and cultivation of unsuitable crops for the terrain.
 
The farmers in this area encroach government lands in the steep mountain slopes and cultivate potatoes during the North Eastern monsoon season from October -January. This farming practice is called chena cultivation (slash and burn) and it is a temporary rainfed cultivation method that lasts around 3-4 months with the end of the monsoon rains. 
Farmers tend to cultivate seed potatoes which fetch higher price but unsuitable for the terrain. After harvesting the crop, they abandoned these lands and during the rest of the year the lands become pasture for cattle and are exposed to bushfires in July and August, another cause for land degradation. 
Due to this farming practice the farmers never think of soil conservation or long-term sustainability of the land. On the other hand, during the monsoon rain period, they loosen soil in the land at three times; at land preparation, earthing up and harvesting.  This leads to severe erosion of lands. 
Since the land has been using over long period under this unsustainable cultivation method, now they have seriously degraded and unfertile. Hence the farmers have to use excessive chemical fertilizer and pesticides. This again leads to another form of land degradation, soil and water pollution. 
This vicious cycle continues every year making these farmlands less and less productive and causing lot of environmental, social and economic issues. According to studies, around 30% of total lands in the area are subjected to this unsustainable farming practices. 
The approach 
Rehabilitation of Degraded Agricultural Land Project (RDALP) together with relevant government agencies attempted to introduce a solution for this issue.
The rationales behind this approach are; shifting to perennial crops and stop frequent land preparations required for annual crops. Introduce tea cultivation with proper conservation methods. Reduce use of agrochemical. Prevent damages by stray cattle and bushfire in the fallow period. Ensure higher income for the farmers throughout the year. 
 
Awareness and Training programs were conducted to educate farmers on unsustainable farming practice and importance of conversion to perennial crop.
Implementation
RDALP started this initiative with 10 farmers in Welimada and Uvaparanagama DS divisions. This approach faced several challenges. The high cost of conversion is the main obstacle. The cost of land preparation, planting and maintenance of a new tea planation is relatively expensive to potatoes or vegetable cultivation. Also, it takes 3-4 years to get an income from a new tea land if the farmers follow the recommended land preparation process by the Tea Small Holdings Development Authority (TSHDA) the government agency supports the tea smallholdings development. 
Considering the gravity of soil erosion issue in the area RDALP together with the stakeholders decided to be flexible and change the procedures to make the conversion less burden to the farmers. Accordingly, tea was cultivated in the same beads prepared for potato cultivation. Skipped the 6 months grass planting process in the land preparation and introduced organic fertilizer application instead.  
Orange and pomegranates were introduced as intercropping. Tephrosia plant was introduced as a land cover to reduce erosion and now the farmers use them as a wind barrier as well. 
Success story 
Chandrasena Rathnayake of Mahahena,Uvaparanagama is one successful farmer now reaping benefits of this crop conversion approach. He said that now he is sure of getting regular income from his tea and it is profitable to potatoes cultivation. 
“Within two years now we have started tea plucking and still the income is low but definitely it will increase in coming years with the plants are matured. Fruit plants are still small and I have cultivated orange and pomegranate and they will give extra income in the future” he said. His land has been conserved with appropriate conservation technologies.  
“The issue in this transformation is high cost. I spent over 200,000.00 for this ½ acre land and THSDA provided a cash grant and tea seedlings. RDALP provided fruit plants and technical advice is provided by TSHDA”, he said.

 

A farmer training program conducted in Welimada
The Rehabilitation of Degraded Agricultural Land Project (RDALP) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations introduced the conversion of unsustainable annual crops cultivated lands to perennial crops.
This new Sustainable Land Management (SLM) approach is introduced to the annual crop farms in unsuitable steep slope terrains in Welimada in the Badulla district.
In this approach RDALP works with the Tea Small Holdings Development Authority and Provincial Department of Agriculture – Uva. The objective of the approach is to stop severe soil erosion and other forms of land degradations. 
A potato cultivated land successfully converted to tea cultivation
 
The approach is one of the land degradation neutrality targets of Sri Lanka in the national action programme 2015-2024 of the United Nations Conventions for Combating Desertification (UNCCD).
The rationale behind this approach is;
 Shifting to perennial crops will stop frequent land preparations for annual crops
 Introduce tea cultivation with proper conservation methods
 Reduce agrochemical usage
 Prevent damages by stray cattle and bushfire in the fallow period
 Ensure higher income to farmers throughout the year
Pictures show a farmer training program conducted in Welimada and a potato cultivated land successfully converted to tea cultivation.
 
Pambadeniya is a village in the Doluwa Divisional Secretariat Division, Kandy District. It is a model village that implements Sustainable Land Management (SLM) practices. There are many farmers in Pambadeniya who now reap the benefits of applying SLM in their lands. 
The Rehabilitation of Degraded Agricultural Land Project (RDALP) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2018 introduced SLM programmes for the severely degraded tea small holdings and home-gardens.
Sriyani Gunasekara joined the project and developed her home-garden according to the instructions she received at the training and awareness programs organized by the RDALP. She has a 15 perch block of land where she grows vegetables and other crops for family consumption. She also maintains a small vanilla cultivation in it.
“Home- gardening gives fruits and vegetables for family consumption and supports the family’s budget. I did not know anything about vanilla cultivation. After joining the project, I learned all about it. We do not receive an income from vanilla yet, but expect a good income in the future,” she said.
Sriyani has applied SLM technologies, especially soil conservation methods in her garden. She uses all degradable solid waste for compost production. Materials such as dry leaves, saw dust and straw are being used as mulch in her garden. She and other vanilla farmers in Pambadeniya are struggling to protect their crops from the drought. Water scarcity is the serious issue they have faced. However, she says that the plants in her home-garden are now more resilient to the drought due to the SLM technologies used.
FAO conducted Farmer Field Schools (FFS) to educate farmers on SLM. A farmers and field officers at the harvesting day of a potatoes cultivation carried out under FFS in Welimada.

05 December 2020, Kandy – Every year the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) marks World Soil Day on 05 December to educate and create awareness on the importance of soil and highlight threats and issues faced by global soil resources. Each year the World Soil Day theme is selected to highlight a specific soil related issue.

This year’s theme "Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity" focuses attention on the workers belowground - from tiny bacteria to agile millipedes and slimy earthworms - all of which contribute to processes that are indispensable to life on Earth.

Today biodiversity loss is a worry which means soil is also affected.  Soil is home to more than 1/4 of the planet’s biodiversity. Yet, we only know 1% of this universe. 

Soil is a living resource. There are more living creatures in a single teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth. Plants and animals above and below ground depend on the complex processes and interactions taking place in the soil. Unfortunately, the attention mainly goes to those species that are visible to the human eyes, while we tend to ignore those under our feet. Plants nurture a whole world of creatures in the soil that in return feed and protect the plants. But soil biodiversity is under pressure. Unsustainable soil management affects life belowground.

Food security

“Soil is an ecological system and it is a finite resource, meaning its loss and degradation is not recoverable within a human lifespan. Conservation of soil biodiversity and soil organic carbon through sustainable farming practices is essential to improve soil health and agricultural productivity,” said FAO Representative for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Dr Xuebing Sun.

Dr Sun reiterated that fighting loss of soil biodiversity is key to global food security and the achievement of more than half of the Sustainable Development Goals. Soil biodiversity plays a vital role in the soil ecosystem as soil organisms are responsible for nutrient cycling, regulating the dynamics of soil organic matter, soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions, and allowing soils to function properly. Soil biodiversity plays a central role in preserving human health through a range of pathways including water purification, climate stabilization, and nutrient and food security. Plants surrounded by biodiverse soils also have a greater resilience against pests and diseases.

In Sri Lanka, programmes are being implemented to support Sustainable Land Management (SLM) through Sustainable Soil Management (SSM) practices. Promotion of site-specific fertilizer application which was piloted in 2017 by the Department of Agriculture with funding from FAO is one initiative. A vast majority of farmers apply inorganic fertilizer and agrochemicals indiscriminately to their crops. This leads to environmental pollution such as soil pollution, and contamination of surface and groundwater sources which impact human health. Soil test kits and plant test kits were introduced to encourage farmers to test their soil fertility level before fertilizer

application. This has resulted in a nearly 40 percent reduction in inorganic fertilizer application in areas where site specific fertilizer application was practiced, and steps are being taken to make these test kits widely available across the country.

Approximately 50 percent of agricultural lands in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka are in a degraded condition which has adversely impacted the livelihoods of farmers. Soil biodiversity losses has been recognized as a main issue in the Central Highlands especially in farmlands and estates. The Rehabilitation of Degraded Agricultural Land Project (RDALP) implemented by the Ministry of Environment, the Department of Agriculture (DoA), and FAO with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has introduced various initiatives to protect and improve soil biodiversity in the Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts.

RDALP replicates soil test-based fertilizer application. The dairy farming and crop cultivation integrated model encourage farmers to apply organic fertilizer and reduce chemical fertilizer. Home garden programs of the project support farmers in compost production and the application SLM and SSM practices. A range of SLM technologies have been introduced in the tea smallholding sector including organic fertilizer application, shade management, intercropping and soil conservation.

Partnerships among government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Agrarian Development, Tea Small Holdings Authority, Department of Provincial Agriculture and private sector organisations have been strengthened to promote SLM and SSM practices. RDALP also supports the Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) program of the DoA and Cargills Ceylon PLC supermarket chain. Under this program farmers are encouraged to use Sustainable Land Management, Sustainable Soil Management and GAP practices and produce agro products that meet quality standards, are environment friendly, socially acceptable and economically profitable. Farmer Field Schools (FFS) are being conducted in the Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts to educate and encourage vegetable farmers to adopt these practices that are aimed at the protection, conservation and sustainable use of resources (soil, water and biodiversity) and the restoration of degraded natural resources and their ecosystem functions.

Secretary to the Ministry of Environment Dr Anil Jasinghe noted that the Ministry together with FAO is working to establish a national land information sharing platform: “Sri Lanka Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (SriCAT)” under the Land Degradation Neutrality Programme. “SriCAT will enable all stakeholders responsible for land resource management to share land information and combine their efforts to reduce land degradation and desertification,” said Dr.Anil Jasinghe.

“The strong collaboration between stakeholders in the agriculture sector towards conserving natural resources sends a clear signal,” said Dr Xuebing Sun. In the past 50 years, advances in agricultural technology led to a quantum leap in food production and bolstered food security. However, this intensive crop production has depleted the soil, jeopardizing our ability to maintain production in the future. To feed a growing population, it is important now more than ever to ensure that farming is done in an environmentally friendly manner, where not just livelihoods but our natural resources are placed in the center” he emphasized.

Ends/