Sri Lanka gamble on fertilizer leads to crisis, emerging controversy over monk
By Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO– Unlike previous years, 64-year old Wijesiri* is not busy late in October this year.
He loiters with his sarong and bear body in his home town area of Mullegama, a rural village in the border of Ambara-Monaragala district in Sri Lanka, instead of engaging in his usual hard work of producing to feed the nation.
The traditional farmer in the village which even does not have access for mobile phone signals from any of the network, has decided not to cultivate rice during this Maha cultivation season because he has not received basal fertilizer needed at the onset of the paddy cultivation,
“If the government wants us to go for organic farming, then it should help us to get the fertilizer they recommend,” Wijesiri said while sitting outside his daughter’s house.
“Paddy seeds are responsive to fertilizer. If we are to cultivate with organic fertilizer, then the government should also give us the paddy seeds compatible with organic fertilizers.”
“Otherwise there is no use of using the current paddy seeds which are responsive for chemical fertilizer. That is a waste of time and money.”
There are many farmers like Wijesiri who are struggling with their cultivation in Monaragala district because of lack of government help in receiving organic fertilizer on time.
Some farmers are worried about their livelihood in the future.
“It is not only our future that is at a stake, but it will also create a food crisis next year unless the government can import rice,” said Hemesiri*, 54, another farmer from Hulandawa South in Monaragala district.
“But I am cultivating even without fertilizer because my family needs rice.”
“I did not have time to take part in the protests demanding for chemical fertilizers. But what I can say is this is a policy implemented without any preparation. Now we have neither chemical nor organic fertilizers.”
He expects a lower yield this year because of lack of weedicide and pesticide usage.
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy of no chemical fertilizer has backfired, resulting in strong opposition to the ruling coalition.
Rajapaksa, the most powerful president in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, banned agro-chemicals overnight in April as money printing triggered a forex crisis, citing the move was to save foreign exchange and reduce non-communicable diseases.
Many of his allies and government ministers like Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage and State Minister for Organic Food Shashendra Rajapaksa have justified the decision saying that the policy will be a huge success in the time to come.
Sri Lanka’s Government Medical Officer’s Association which has policy influence has said according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, ancient Sri Lankans had lived for 140 years and life expectancy had now halved.
The GMOA has claimed that agro-chemicals which came into use after 1960 has triggered non-communicable diseases like kidney disease and cancer. The trade union of doctors has also rejected the principle of Codex Alimentarius food standards of minimum permitted levels.
Both the GMOA and Athuraliye Rathana, a Buddhist monk legislator had been campaigning against agro-chemicals for some time.
Sri Lanka’s descent into ad hoc state interventions without evidence began with the last administration when glyphosate was banned by then-President Maithripala Sirisena, leaving exports like tea without a globally accepted alternatives.
Now, farmers are visibly disturbed and struggling due to the fertilizer ban.
The farmers’ protests are growing mainly in the paddy cultivation area including Polonnaruwa and it has become a key concern for the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which is predominantly voted to office by farmers. It promised to give free fertilizer.
In his policy document just before President Rajapaksa was elected nearly two years ago, he pledged to “promote and popularize organic agriculture during the next ten years”, under the agriculture policy.
However, his announcement for a complete chemical fertilizer ban came overnight.
Officials speaking to Economy Next said the ruling coalition saw the earlier protests against the ban being politically motivated and exaggerated by a private television channel.
However, after the lockdown was eased last month, farmers have gradually increased their agitation which compelled a weaker opposition to use the opportunity to rally around.
However, all of it is not politics.
“He actually promised to implement organic farming gradually,” Wijesiri said referring to the President’s policy. “We never expected a leader like him to do this. We were never consulted on this.”
The President’s policy document under agriculture had planned a revolution in the use of fertilizer.
This includes replacing the existing fertilizer subsidy scheme with an alternative system, providing inorganic and organic fertilizer both free of charge, converting traditional farming villages into users of only organic fertilizer, and developing 2 million home gardens using organic fertilizer.
It also includes initiating a program to produce all essential fertilizers domestically, production of bio-fertilizer and organic fertilizer of high standard using the forests and wetlands, and initiating a proper waste management system.
Shashendra Rajapaksa, State Minister for Organic Food last week said there was no truth in protestors saying that farmers were not cultivating now.
“There is a small reduction (in cultivation). I can tell you without fear that farmers will prepare for this with necessary action,” he told a media briefing last week.
“This season, we might see only 80 percent of organic farming. But after the next two seasons it will be 100 percent organic farming. Of course. We will be cursed for what we are doing. But after two seasons, we won’t be able to even force our farmers to get rid of organic farming.”
Agriculture Minister Aluthgamage believes that there is a big force working behind to revoke the government’s organic fertilizer policy.
“There was chemical fertilizer in the last Yala cultivation season. But still farmers protested,” he told a media briefing last week.
Controversial Imports from China, India
The fertilizer crisis had also spilled over to international relations and hit the banking system.
Attempts to import organic fertilizer from China has brewed another storm with the shipment failing to meet safety standards on bacterial contamination.
A court order by the importing state-run firm not to pay on a letter of credit has led to the blacklisting of People’s Bank by the Chinese embassy.
Imports of alternative fertilizer from India has also been mired in corruption allegations which have been denied.
When President Rajapaksa banned chemical fertilizer, Sri Lanka was not ready for only organic farming.
After heavy protests and deformed outputs, the Agriculture Secretary is now permitted to import some pesticides and weedicides on discretion.
“The concept is noble but the operational mechanism is full of blunders,” Buddhi Marambe, a senior crop scientist from University of Peradeniya told EconomyNext after being sacked by Aluthgamage last week for criticizing the government organic fertilizer policy.
Many agriculture experts and academics also have said the sudden shift to organic fertilizer was wrong.
No country in the world has completely shifted to fully organic agriculture, they say.
“I think this is an unnecessary government intervention,” Jeevika Weerahewa, Senior Professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics of the Faculty of Agriculture at University of Peradeniya told a television talk show last week.
“This is something like doing research at the expense of farmers. I feel this decision is totally wrong. We should have at least assessed what the other countries have done on this.”
“The environmental concern due to chemical fertilizer usage is also there in all the countries. But did those countries ban chemical fertilizer? No country has banned it. Bhutan once tried in a futile effort,” she said.
Agriculture experts have said nano fertilizer, which the government is now looking as an alternative, will cost around 30,000 rupees to get 1 kilogram of Nitrogen as opposed to only 300 rupees for the same amount through urea and 3,000 rupees through compost.
“Through changing the policy, we have just increased the cost,” Weerahewa said.
“We need to go for precision agriculture while using optimum fertilizers. If somebody wants to use organic fertilizer, let them use it, but why all others are forced to do that?”
Opposition parties have criticized Rajapaksa’s move saying that he was trying to implement a policy that will have an impact on entire population without much thoughtful assessment.
Rising Criticism Over Monk’s Appointment
While President’s overnight fertilizer policy has earned him farmers’ wrath and becoming unpopular, his decision to appoint controversial hardline monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera to lead the Presidential Task Force for One Country, One Law last week has drawn more criticism.
Gnanasara Thera was released by a presidential pardon in 2019 while serving a prison sentence for contempt of court. The monk is among groups that have been linked to anti-Muslim campaigns since 2011.
Gnanasara’s appointment to head a 13-member task force including four Muslims and nine Buddhists comes as the administration is facing rising protests over the ban on agro-chemicals and rising inflation with money printing, worsening the fallout from a Coronavirus pandemic.
Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) in a statement this week said it was gravely concerned of the presidential power to be used to appoint a pardoned person to head a panel that will recommend laws.
The BASL noted that serious doubts also exist over the qualifications, expertise, and suitability of Gnanasara Thera and of many of the Task Force’s members to engage in the functions described in the Gazette.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka also expressed its opposition to the appointment of Gnanasara Thera.
In a statement, Catholic Bishops’ Conference said the government had lost the opportunity to implement the concept of one law in one country by ignoring the Tamil, Hindu, Christian and Catholic minorities in Sri Lanka.
Gnanasara in public has said “Allah” is the main brain behind the 2019 Easter Sunday bombing. Over 100 complaints have been lodged against him over his hate speech and there are already ongoing legal cases against him for his actions in public.
This week the monk said he wants to include everybody in the ‘One Country, One Law’ recommending process.
But he also said the recommendations will be primarily focused on what had been discussed earlier by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an ultra nationalist body which was demanding the government to close down all the Islamic ‘Madrasa’ schools, ban cattle slaughtering, and burka.
“This is an attempt to divert the attention of the public who are furious due to lower quality fertilizer being brought, the country’s agriculture being destroyed, and power plants being sold to the US,” opposition legislator and former minister Champika Ranawaka told a news briefing this week.
“The government’s aim is to provoke Tamils and Muslims against this task force and then to divert the attention of the Sinhala Buddhist who have been asking for rice, gas, and milk powder.”
He said the government has to consult with all the ethnicities on this and appoint qualified legal professionals for the Task Force.
A groups of 24 Muslim organizations also has said the move was an embarrassment for legal professionals.
“The appointment of many individuals with questionable personal biases to be part of the said Task Force…is in itself is an affront to the dignity and self-respect of all law-abiding and peace-loving citizens of Sri Lanka,” the group said in a statement.
-This article was originally featured on economynext.com. Names changed to protect identities of those interviewed