The bethma practice: promoting the temporary redistribution of lands during
Bethma is a practice that temporarily redistributes plots of land among
shareholders (being paddy landowners) in part of the command area of a
tank (reservoir) during drought periods. It is practised when there is
not enough water available to cultivate the entire command area or "purana
wela" (oldest part used as command area, usually located close to the
Bethma might be practised in combination with field rotation and the
farmers may decide to cultivate either paddy or other field crops. This
decision usually depends on the water level in the tank. In some cases
land distribution is proportional to the land size (usually 1/4 acre
per acre of landholding) but in most cases it was found to be non-proportional
(usually 1/4 acre per landowner, regardless the original share of land
owned). Allocation of the plots is usually done by either the vel vidane
or the farmer organisation.
The success of the bethma practice depends on several factors:
In a number of cases, the Vel vidane, Chairman of the FO, or Divisional
Officer put some pressure on the decision making process by explaining
that the sluices would only be opened in case the farmers would decide
to cultivate under bethma, and that the only other alternative farmers
had was to leave the land barren, thereby saving water for the next cultivation
season. This, of course, can only work if the farmers cannot open the sluices
There must be sufficient water in the tank for bethma, even if there is
not enough water for the entire command area.
Farmers or office bearers must have past experience with the practice of
The farmers must be willing to apply bethma. This usually depends on whether
their past experiences were positive or negative, and to what extent large
landowners (who are usually opposed to bethma if not-proportional) are
able to dominate the decision whether or not to practice bethma.
Farmers must be committed to complying with the rules and decisions made.
The plots must be large enough for cultivation from a cost-benefit perspective.
If the land distribution is proportional, some people with very small landholdings
were found to abandon the land because the investments for cultivation
were considered to be too high in comparison to the eventual profits.
There must be some leadership to prevent/solve conflicts and ensure that
the bethma practice functions well.
LAND TENURE, FARMERS, SHARED WATER RESOURCES, DROUGHT, WATER MANAGEMENT
COUNTRY: SRI LANKA
Region: Anuradhpura District
Neighbourhood: cascades around Paddikkaramaduwa, Nallamudawa, Indigehawewa,
Punchikuluma, Wellamudawa, Walpola, Kulikkada (and many other cascades
in Anuradhapura district)
Bethma is an old indigenous methodology, still practiced in some areas
in Sri Lanka, which aims to provide opportunities for farmers to cultivate
during drought situations when there is some water in the reservoirs, but
not sufficient for cultivation of the entire command area. Local Farmer
Organizations (and sometimes local government organizations) drew upon their
past experience with bethma, especially regarding the water level at which
bethma can be carried out, to revitalise this old practice.
In few cases, the divisional officer or project officer helped stimulate
and support the bethma practice in areas where the Farmer Organization
was not strong enough to get commitment from all farmers to carry out the
bethma practice. Without this support, and without the knowledge and experience
of this practice, farmers would not have been able to do any cultivation
in the drought season in the command area. However, in most areas, this
practice is still known among the farming population, and will be applied
during yala season if there is sufficient water in the tank for cultivation
of part of the command area (quite rarely though).
Economic sustainability is realised by enabling cultivation (food
supply and income) and optimalising the possibilities for individual landowners
to benefit from the system.
Environmental sustainability is realised by using water more
efficiently by practising bethma in combination with rotational distribution.
Other: social sustainability: this methodology can improve food
security and maintain equity among shareholders/landowners of lands in
the command area of the tank.
STAKEHOLDERS AND BENEFICIARIES
The average village consisted of approximately 150 families, where between
70 and 95% of the families were landowners of paddyland in the Command
Area belonging to the largest tank. In general, several tanks can be found
within the administrative boundaries of a village, but only those landowners
who have land in the Command Area of the tank where bethma would be practised
(usually only the largest tank) have rights to landallocation under bethma.
Since most farmers have lands in the command area of more than one tank,
including the largest tank, most paddy land owners have access to the bethma
The primary initiators of the project were -- in some cases -- the leaders
of the Farmer Organization or the traditional irrigation headmen (the ‘velvidane’).
They proposed the practice during the cultivation meeting at the start
of the season, explaining its benefits and the rules involved. They also
acted as mediators to smooth things out during potential conflicts. In
few other cases the farmers themselves proposed bethma, and sometimes it
was even arranged among the farmers without a cultivation meeting at the
start of the yala season. However, in some other villagers, farmers complained
about not practising bethma, which would have been possible according to
them, but which was obstructed by office bearers of the FO, or by the Vel
vidane (usually also large landowners).
The divisional officer and/or the project officer acted as a catalyst to
help realise the project, but can also (in few cases) do the opposite by
supporting the office bearers of the Farmer Organisation or the
vel vidane, in case they have a certain (private) interests to obstruct
cultivation under bethma.
In all cases, only the shareholders or landowners of paddyland in the command
area of the tank (reservoir) have rights to allocation of land under bethma.
In some villages, people without paddy lands in the command area of the
tank also had indirect access to some of the land due to individual arrangements
among farmers. After the allocation of land under bethma, some landowners
exchanged part of their paddy land under bethma for water (from agrowells
in homegardens), for seedlings, or for money (cultivation rights for the
entire plot allocated under bethma during one season for a particular amount
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Sharing land temporarily creates equity between landowners.
Land productivity increases, providing a partial food supply or some income.
Water from the reservoir is used efficiently.
The practice decreases dependence on slash and burn (chema) cultivation.
The practice decreases the need for landowners to work as day labourers
outside the village.
IT IS CONSIDERED TO BE SUCCESSFUL BECAUSE :
Sometimes large landowners are able to finish the harvesting and threshing
of their yield earlier than others, because they have their own tractors,
and because they don't alway wait with their harvesting and threshing activities
until the dates which are set collectively for harvesting and threshing.
By doing so, they might use this opportunity in their advantage by preparing
their land for the yala season (dry season), thereby making it impossible
for the other farmers to practise bethma, and claiming water for cultivation
of their lands afterwards, if necessary with political support or support
from the Divisional Officers.
Some of the landowners do not comply with the rules/decisions of the practice,
and cultivate other plots, claiming water for those plots as well. By preparing
those plots and sowing these fields, they bring the office bearers of the
Farmer Organisation or the Vel vidane in a difficult position, because
everyone agrees that - once a field has been sown - a crop should not be
left without water to dy. This can cause conflict between the landowners.
There is a difference of opinion about the 'fairness' of the land redistribution.
In case of proportional distribution, the investment costs become too high
for small landowners in relation to the final profit, and for large landowners,
non-proportional distribution is not fair, because they get the same share
as someone with a much smaller landholding. The amount of land available
under bethma for each farmer is often not more than 0.25 or 0.50 acres,
which is very small.
Some large landowners try to manipulate the system (in case of non-proportional
land allocation) by dividing as much land as possible within their family
(to their wife and children), thereby ensuring rights to land for each
landowner within the family.
There is a risk of losing crops or yield because the bethma practice is
so sensitive to rainfall conditions.
There were complaints from people who were excluded from participation.
(These were people who do not have paddyland ownership in the command area).
SUCCESS EXPRESSED IN QUALITATIVE OR QUANTITATIVE TERMS:
It proves the viability of a practice in a different economic and socio-cultural
system, compared with the past.
In some areas it demonstrated how local leadership, inside and outside
the farmer organisation, can function as a catalyst.
It shows the adaptivity of the water resource management system. It also
shows how creatively the involved organisations can overcome particular
Success was achieved in terms of:
POTENTIAL FOR REPLICATION
output: from no yield to a small yield (the exact number of bushels is
process: participants showed initiative, commitment, the ability to adapt
the final implementation, and cooperation;
legitimacy: successfully applying bethma is likely to enhance support for
and legitimacy of the farmer organisation/local government organisation.
The bethma practice can be transferred to other areas with a few modifications.
The following conditions increase the chances of success:
presence of small-scale irrigation systems
a homogenous population from the same caste, family, religion, etc.
a group that has close relations with each other to enhance solidarity
and prevent conflicts
high rate of farmer participation in decision-making
situation by which most of the landowners have the same amounts of land
in the older parts (usually easiest to irrigate) and in the newer parts
of the command area
The bethma practice has been replicated in a dry and wet zone of Sri Lanka.
insufficient rainfall to practice bethma
inequity among farmers (in terms of decision-making, land and water distribution)
problems and conflicts emerging as result of bethma: farmers asking for
more land than what they are entitled to; farmers preparing lands outside
the bethma area, by ploughing, levelling and sowing ground, and then asking
officials to issue water to their field because they have invested so much
in preparing the ground.
Some farmers decided that the time, labour and expenses required to develop
a piece of ground are too high. They abandon their fields to take advantage
of other income opportunities, but are not willing to let other farmers
take advantage of using their fields. This obstructs the system.
lack of commitment
"free rider" behaviour, farmers who want to benefit from bethma without
doing the work
influence from landowners who wish to cultivate only some areas of land
without temporarily redistributing lands
if the office bearers (of velvidane) are big landowners of old parts
or newer parts of the command area (in which case they will prefer to cultivate
their own fields)
Bethma can be practised differently in medium- or large-scale irrigation
systems, which have more centralised decision-making.
From: 1996 to present
Irna van der Molen (provider of this information)
University of Twente - School of Management Studies - Technology and
Development Group; P.O. Box 217, 7500 AE Enschede, The Netherlands
List of local contacpersons:
Agrarian Service Centre Yakalla
Mrs. Shaanthi Kumari Jayewardene
(responsible also for Padikaramaduwa, in office since April 1998),
International Water Management Institute
Mr. Ian Makin / Mr. Senaka Arachchi / Mr. Somaratne / Mr. Jinapale
P.O. Box 2075
(all were involved in SCOR project in Padikaramaduwa)
Mr. Anando Karunasiri
Former Divisional Officer
Agrarian Service Centre Eppawala
(transfered, but no information as where to)
Agrarian Service Centre Eppawala
Mr. E.G. Semaratne
Department of Agriculture
Mr. Gunadase Wickramarachi
Agrarian Service Centre Ipolagama
telephone (at bank close to office): 94-25-64279
For Wellamudawa and Punchikuluma:
Mr. Sarath Perera
Agrarian Service Centre Thirappanee
For Walpola and Kulikkada:
Mr. Premaratne Abeysinghe
Agrarian Service Centre Medawachchiya
telephone (res.): 94-25-66689
Mr. Anuradha Amaratunghe
Government Agent Medawachchiya
AGA's Office (Divisional Secretariat)
For the projects of FFHCB:
Sri Lanka national programme of the Freedom From Hunger Campaign Board
(technical assistant at time of the project implementation: Mr. Gamini)
Freedom from Hunger Campaign Board
Chairman Freedom from Hunger Campaign Board
17 Malaksekera Mawatha
For information about the WFP:
Mr. Weerakkody or: Mr. Mahir
Regional Department of Agrarian Services
For information about projects by the Irrigation Department:
Deputy Director's Office
Mr. M.A.G.S. Wijayawardhana
Irrigation Engineer's Office
telephone: 94-25-22587 / 94-25-22499
Irrigation Engineer's Office
Provincial Irrigation Department
Agrarian Service Department
Yakalla - Sri Lanka
International Irrigation Management Institute
Sri Lanka Country Program
Telephone: 94-1-50800 upto 7
Agrarian Service Department
Eppawala - Sri Lanka