By Mathew Carr
July 12-14, 2022: It’s understandable that Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is under attack, given evidence of economic mismanagement and too-generous tax cuts.
Yet those baying for his blood should remember that the country’s problems stem partly from his attempt to do something innovative.
In April last year, urged on by huge companies, influenced by ideas touted by Prince Charles and encouraged by elite groups such of the World Economic Forum, Rajapaksa banned chemical fertilizers to transform his island nation into the world’s first 100% organic food producer.
By doing so he was attempting to cut costs — the fertilizers are expensive — and prevent a mysterious kidney disease, which was surging. Undisciplined use of the chemical fertilizers might be a cause of the disease.
The problem was he sought to go too far too fast, failing to think through the consequences of his policy. He also failed to hear loud, immediate feedback, according to a BBC WorldService radio program on the subject on July 14. For instance there was a massive shortage of organic fertilizer (manure).
The country, which is lucky to have two rice harvests a year instead of one, went from bounty to scarcity, quick time.
The rice yield dropped to 2.92m tonnes in 2021-22, down from the previous year’s 3.39m, and the speaker in parliament last week warned of imminent starvation among the island’s 22 million people, the Guardian reported in April.
Still, it’s far better to fail while trying to do something clever and interesting, than fail because you didn’t try anything.
Rajapaksa deserves some credit.
Emerging countries are not the playthings of the elite.
They carry no blame for the Russia-Ukraine war (unlike Putin, NATO and the EU).
The nature of the country’s economic problems underscores why Sri Lanka needs financial help from richer nations and the G20, so it can now recover.
(Updates with BBC, rice yield)
This from “Modern Farmer” (March 2022, unedited):
Last spring, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa put a ban on agrochemicals. His goal was an ambitious one: to transform Sri Lanka into the first nation with 100-percent organic agriculture. Less than a year later, the country is left in an economic and supply shortage crisis as a result.
The transition to fully organic agriculture was a pillar of Gotabaya’s 2019 campaign, during which he proposed the move be phased out over a 10-year period. Just a few months after his election, the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world. That didn’t stop Gotabaya from implementing a complete ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on April 26, 2021. What was intended to be a positive move ahead for Sri Lanka’s nearly two million farmers soon backfired.
The consequences of the decision were apparent quickly. Al Jazeera reported that nearly a third of all agricultural land in the country remained dormant due to the ban.
[RELATED: Farmers Struggle to Keep Up With the Rising Costs of Fertilizer]
Within six months of the ban, rice production in the country—a once very sufficient industry—dropped 20 percent, forcing Sri Lanka to import $450 million of rice to meet supply needs and surging rice prices rose nearly 50 percent.
Now, Sri Lanka will pay farmers across the country 40,000 million rupees ($200 million) to compensate for their barren harvests and crop failures. In addition to the funding, the Sri Lankan government will pay $149 million in price subsidies to rice farmers impacted by the loss.