Dry Zone Peasantry and Chēna Transformations in Sri Lanka

Gerald Peiris [i]

Chēna is an anglicized rendition of the Sinhala term hēna. Chēna cultivation is widely regarded as being equivalent to ‘shifting cultivation’ which is described as a form of agriculture engaged in by people living in sparsely populated areas with easy access to scrubland or forest that could be used as venues for rainfed farming which may, depending on circumstances, constitute their only, main, or supplementary source of livelihood. In conventional perceptions, moreover, ‘shifting cultivation’ is a subsistence-oriented economic activity of poverty-stricken peasant communities. It should, however, be noted that in most parts of Sri Lanka, the term hēna connotes a plot of land devoted to rainfed cropping, regardless of whether the farming practices pursued on the plot involves “slash-and-burn” and/or “land rotation”.

  Precipitation & Irrigation Map of Lanka — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Sri_Lanka

The hēna label also disregards other diversities such as the length of fallow (if any); the location of the plot in relation to the homestead, paddy field, scrubland or forests; conditions of land ownership and usufruct, the form and intensity of inputs; and the level of commercialisation of transactions. In many respects, the Sri Lankan hēna thus represents a fairly broad and diversified segment of a continuum of agricultural landuse with its periphery in one extreme represented by ‘land rotation’ in a forest or scrubland, and its opposite extreme merging imperceptibly with intensive forms of sedentary farming. The diversity of views found in scholarly writings on aspects of this subject such as the ecological consequences of chēna cultivation, its tenurial and agronomic practices, its inputs and returns, and its importance to the peasant economy (Abeyratne, 1956; Tennakoon, 1972; Gooneratne et. al., 1974; Domros, 1976; Kuchelmeister, 1987; Sandika & Withana, 2010), could be attributed largely to the fact that different writers have portrayed different exemplifications of chēna found within a segment of this land-use continuum.

On the basis of field observations, it could be said that in many areas, chēna cultivation involving any kind of ‘land rotation’ (shift of operations from one site to another) is giving way to sedentary forms of agriculture. This process has been in operation at least since the mid-19th century and is now more or less complete in the wetter parts of the country. In the Dry Zone, extensive tracts of land formerly used as chēna sites have been absorbed by irrigation-based settlement complexes developed from about the mid-1930s. In that part of the country, the progressive shortening of fallow has also resulted in chēna cultivation being converted to sedentary forms of land use. This is much in evidence in areas located in proximity to the older settlement schemes, along the eastern foothills of the Central Highlands (Bintenna and Vellassa areas of lower Ūva) where sugar cane growing has made headway during the recent past, and in the lowlands of the southeast in proximity to the planned settlements established under the Uda-Walavē and Lunugamvehera project.

The classic agro-economic features of ‘shifting cultivation’ have also been fast disappearing from many areas. Detailed socio-economic surveys conducted in the northern Dry Zone plains which rank among the foremost chēna areas of the country (ARTI, 1979 & 1980) indicate, for example, that chēna sites are almost always private property (legally or otherwise) and not communally owned by village communities, and that the employment of hired labour in chēna cultivation is not uncommon. These surveys, and certain earlier studies conducted in the Dry Zone (ARTI, 1974 & 1975), also show that chēna cultivation has hardly ever been entirely confined to production for subsistence, that chēna operators respond readily to market incentives (as, indeed, some among them have done in the clandestine growing of cannabis), and that there is an increasing focus of chēna on relatively high priced saleable commodities such as chillies and several varieties of pulses, in preference to the ‘dry grain’ produced mainly for subsistence.

The trend of commercialisation of the chēna culture has meant that in several areas of the Dry Zone the control of the related operations has shifted from the poorer segments of the peasantry to ‘intermediary’ operators producing marketable crops such as chillie, banana, sugar cane and certain varieties of pulses on a large scale, using hired labour, agro-chemical inputs, and even farm machinery. In certain forested localities the former chēna venues are being used for clandestine but commercialised growing of Cannabis sativa from which the narcotic ‘ganja’/’kansa’ is produced.

 example of commercialised chena farming

Commercialised chēna farming has undoubtedly increased the returns per unit of land. For example, according to a study conducted in the Thanamalvila Division of Monaragala District (Sandika & Withana, 2010) ⎼ an area described as having the largest number of chēna farmers in the district, producing crops such as sesame, cowpea, millet and maize ⎼ the net returns in a sample of 92 farms was Rs. 36,935 per hectare. The exact income effects of the changes referred to above on the rural poor in the drier parts of the island are not known. But TODAY two other directly observed features are of contextual relevance:

  • one, the disincentives and dangers of the intensifying ‘man-elephant conflict’; and
  • the other, the fact that the command over this physical resource which the impoverished peasantry had in earlier times (subject, of course, to government controls) is being severely curtailed, and in several localities, the peasant is being totally debarred from chena venues.


When surfing the internet, I came across a file that might contain images that are illuminating – including some of Galle. Note this photo of a bullock cart and a number of villagers on a typical country road ……………. VISIT https//elakiri.com/threads/historic-images of sri-lanka-1432549


 Villagers and cart in rural Sri Lanka, circa 1910 …..Courtesy Library of Congress

VISIT https//elakiri.com/threads/historic-images of sri-lanka-1432549

REFERENCES on CHENA added by GERALD PEIRIS,  8 June 2021

ABEYRATNE, E (1956) ‘Dry Land Farming in Ceylon’, Tropical Agriculturist, 58:191-227

ARTI, Agrarian Research and Training Institute. Colombo. Research Study Series(1974)   

Agrarian Situation in Hambantota District, RSS No. 6

(1975) Agrarian Situation in Polonnaruwa District, RSS No. 8

(1979) Mahavilachchiya, RSS No. 28

(1979) Mahakandarawa, RSS No. 31

(1980) Pavatkulam, RSS No. 38

(1980) Vavunikulam, RSS No. 47

(1980) Padaviya, RSS No. 39

SANDIKA A L & WITHANA N R P (2000) ‘Economic Analysis of Chena Cultivation in Monaragala District, Sri Lanka, Proceedings of the International Forestry and Environment Symposium, <www.researchgate. Publication 277825637>

DOMROS M (1974) The Agro-Climatology of Ceylon, Franz Steiner Verlag, GMBH, Weisbaden

GOONERATNE W (2004) ‘Rethinking Sri Lanka’s Regional Development: Concepts, Policies and Institutions’, in Karunanayake ed. (2004): 131-178

KUCHELMEISTER G (1987) Trees and People in Sri Lanka, Edition Herodot, Monographica 8, Aachen

TENNAKOON M U A  (1986) Drought Hazard and Rural Development, Central Bank, Colombo

(1972) ‘A Note on Some Social and Economic Problems of Subsistence Farming in Rural Settlements of the Dry Zone of Ceylon’, Staff Studies, Central Bank: 1-5


LAND COMMISSION (1929) Final Report of the … Sessional Paper XVII – 1929, Government Press, Colombo

LAND COMMISSION (1958) Report of the …, Sessional Paper XI ~ 1958, Government Press, Colombo

LAND COMMISSION (1987) Report of the …, Sessional Paper HI – 1990, Government Press, Colombo

LAND UTILISATION COMMITTEE (1968) Report of the …, Sessional Paper XI – 1968, Government Press, Colombo

BIBLIOGRAPHY compiled by The Editor, Thuppahi

Brow, James 1978 Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura, Seattle, University of Washington Press.

Brow, James 1990 “Nationalist Rhetoric and Local Practice: The Fate of the Village Community in Kukulewa,” London, Routledge, pp 125-44.” in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of the Conflict, London, pp. 125-44.

De Silva, Prabath 2016 Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon: A British Civil Servant as a Judge in the Hambantota District of Colonial Sri Lanka, 1904-1910, Pelwatte, Neptune Publications.

De Silva, Prabath 2020 “Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon,” 20 November 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2016/11/20/leonard-woolf-as-a-judge-in-ceylon/

 Farmer, BH 1957 Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon. A Study in Asian Agrarian Problems,Oxford University Press …. now also at Majestic Books, London

 Fernando, Chandra 2019 “When Solar Light reaches the Disadvantaged Udagaldebokka Hasalaka,” 28 September 2019 https://thuppahis.com/2019/09/28/when-solar-light-reaches-the-disadvantaged-udagaldebokka-hasalaka/

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Pul Eliya. A Village in Ceylon. A Study of Land Tenure and Kinship,  CUP.

Le Mesurier, CLR 1893 Manual of the Nuwara Eliya District of the Central Province, Colombo, Govt Printer.

Le Mesurier, CLR n. d. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Le_Mesurier-49

MacIntyre, Ernest 2021 “Ernest Macintyre’s Silindu of Baddegama,” 27 June 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/06/27/ernest-macintyres-silindu-of-baddegama/

Moore, Mick P. 1985 The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka, Cambridge University Press.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2021 “Leonard Woolf’s WELIWEWA and Its Terrain,” 7 July 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/07/07/leonard-woolfs-weliwewa-and-its-terrain/#more-52909

Roberts, Michael 2018 “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s,” 2 October 2018, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/nationalist-studies-and-the-ceylon-studies-seminar-at-peradeniya-1968-1970s/

Roberts, Michael 2020 “under sCrutiny: Edmund Lech’s PUL ELIYA,” 31 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/31/under-scrutiny-edmund-leachs-pul-eliy

Russell, Jane & Ruth Allaun 2014 “Leonard Woolf: His Political Vision – From Innocent Imperialist to Pragmatic Internationalist,” 28 May 2014,  http://thuppahis.com/2014/05/28/leonard-woolf-his-political-vision-from-innocent-imperialist-to-pragmatic-internationalist-2/

Thuppahi 2020 “Introoducing Pul eliya by Edemund R. Leach,” 21 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/21/introducing-pul-eliya-by-edmund-r-leach/

Woolf, Leonard 1961 The Village in the Jungle, London, Hogarth Press.


[i] Gerald Pieris sent this MEMO to me in the context of discussions about Leonard Woolf’s writings and my inquiries about agriculture in the Dry Zone within Sri Lanka. The nature and character of rural housing was/is a strand in our thinking ….. and had been underlined by images of a wattle and daub hut that had been built way back in time beside the Museum at Polonnaruwa ,,,, images I captured on my amateur camera and sent to some of my friends. These snaps were taken in July 2020 and the images are all the more impressive of poverty and difficulty because nature and neglect has debilitated the hut.

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