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Sri Lanka prized tea industry under threat from Rajapaksa’s organic utopia

Sri Lanka’s world-renowned tea industry--accounting for almost ten percent of its total exports--is staring at a disaster, industry players believe, as they anticipate a failing crop by next month due to the blanket ban President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has put early this year on the use of chemical fertilizers

Sep 16, 2021
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Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka’s world-renowned tea industry--accounting for almost ten percent of its total exports--is staring at a disaster, industry players believe, as they anticipate a failing crop by next month due to the blanket ban President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has put early this year on the use of chemical fertilizers. 

“The (tea) crop will start to crash by October and we will see exports seriously affected by November or December,” Sanath Gurunada, who manages tea plantation in Ratnapura, a district 100 km southeast of the capital, Colombo, was quoted as saying by AFP, if the government continues the ban. 

The industry brings around $1.25 billion to the country which is seeing its worst-ever economic crisis. In July, the country’s foreign reserves dropped to as low as $2.8 billion.  If tea exports dwindle in the coming months, it will further deepen the forex crisis. 

In his obsession to make Sri Lanka’s a  100 percent organic state, Rajapaksa in April this year had announced a ban on chemical fertilizers, claiming its harmful effects on people’s health and environment. 

What Rajapaksa, however, failed--or never tried--to understand is the consequences the ban will unleash on an already struggling economy. Crops started failing, creating a shortage which further fueled panic in the country. The end result was an economic emergency announced early this month by the government to manage the utter chaos. 

Herman Gunaratne, one of the most successful tea producers of the country, speaking to Al Jazeera, said, “The ban has drawn the tea industry into complete disarray.” The production, he warned, will be slashed by half if the government doesn’t reverse the policy. 

“The consequences for the country are unimaginable,” he added. The tea industry is Sri Lanka's main net foreign exchange earner and source of income for the majority of its laborers. 

The Tea Factory Owners Association warns if the industry collapses, “the jobs of three million people will be in jeopardy.”

Significantly, Gunaratne was among 46 experts handpicked by Rajapaksa to steer the country to a 100 percent organic utopia. Reports claimed he was recently fired from the team, allegedly due to the differences with Rajapaksa.

 “A dream with unimaginable social, political, and economic costs,” is how a former central bank deputy governor, WA Wijewardena, described Rajapaksa’s organic quest. The country’s food security, he said, had been “compromised” and that without foreign currency it is “worsening day by day”.

The economic crisis--long been in making--was only accelerated by a series of missteps--rather foolish -- by the current government, which came to power in 2019. A country already struggling with its foreign reserves should have never compromised with its domestic food production in the first place. 

Hemakumar Nanayakkara, former state minister for agriculture and renowned expert on organic farming in Sri Lanka, said that the government had done “more harm than good” to the “expansion” of organic farming by “ issuing such an extreme proclamation without "a shred of scientific analysis" into how these concepts could be practically implemented in Sri Lanka.”

The government, he added, “jarringly halted all progress on efforts to develop these critical sectors.”  

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