There are a lot of media people (for example: , , ) claiming that one failed ‘experiment’ in Sri Lanka means that we should never change to organic agriculture or follow any Green policies. Sri Lanka is, they say, a dire warning to everyone about becoming Green.
However, that Sri Lanka failed to solve a problem, does not mean the problem is not real, or that chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weed killers are not having “adverse health and environmental impacts” as ex-president Rajapaska said to the UN. Industrialised agriculture does degrade the soil, pollute the waterways (poisoning fish and people), and is a major contributor to greenhouse gases – it releases 13% of the total GHG in Australia. On top of which “Global pesticide use has steadily increased from an estimated 2.3 million tonnes of active ingredient in 1990 to 4.1 million tonnes in 2016“. This could be why there is a world wide collapse in insect populations, and the populations of creatures and plants that depend on them. [See also]
In the UN speech quoted above, Rajapaska also talked about “a wider programme that includes enhancing market oriented inclusive food value chains to reduce rural poverty.” The commentators do not talk about this wider programme. It seems likely a whole collection of policies caused the problems but these particular commentators only focus on the organic farming policies.
it is important to acknowledge that the root cause of the current economic crisis is because of Sri Lanka’s decades long neoliberal programs. And that is what a majority of the Western media won’t cover.Pitasanna Shanmugathas Sri Lanka Is A Neoliberal Failed State. Columbo Telegraph 22 July 2022
As that article attempts to document, Sri Lanka, went through cutbacks in social welfare and social expenditure, privatisation, expansion of military spending, dependence on exports and imports rather then ‘inefficient’ local trade, increase in wealth inequalities, and so on.
Sri Lanka could be a dire warning, but it could also be a ‘useful’ warning about bad policies and the consequences of external pressures.
The Obvious Mistakes
In terms of food production, Rajapaksa banned all imports of agricultural chemicals in April 2021, some claim without any warning at all.
Unless you have total faith in the market to make up shortfalls with acceptable chemical or ‘natural’ substitutes manufactured locally, this is obviously foolish, and going to lead to shortfalls of food. It is also likely to throw some importing companies out of work, making you enemies.
On top of this the Government did nothing to increase the production of substitutes, or make the money available for purchase of local substitutes, which could be expected to increase in price due to the shortage, perhaps because of its faith in the market to supply people. Others have suggested these moves were deliberate to break small farmers and leave their farms open for purchase by wealthy farmers, which is not an unusual market tactic. An organic farmer is quoted as saying
Prior to this policy, the government had unsuccessfully tried to commercialise farm land, which is the biggest commercial asset the country has. So many of us think this was another way to try and get farmers to leave their land, or to weaken the farmers’ position and enable a land grabEllis-Peterson ‘It will be hard to find a farmer left’: Sri Lanka reels from rash fertiliser ban. The Guardian 20 April 2022
Others allege it was an attempt to greenwash the country’s inability to afford fertiliser, because of the existing financial crisis.
Furthermore, the government did not put in place any educational programs to help farmers learn composting techniques, or give them time to build up soil quality after their intensive use of chemical fertilisers. Essentially it withdrew aid to small farmers. With diesel prices more than doubling, many farmers could also not use their farm equipment.
These actions were followed by (or caused) a collapse in rice yields by about 30%. Sri Lanka’s primary export, tea, declined by nearly 20%. This was predictable.
The government eventually yielded to farmers protests and relaxed the ban, but removed subsidies after the price of fertilisers had increased due to the war in Ukraine “because other countries have long-term contracts that have tied up supplies,” according to a retired Indian diplomat Neelam Deo. So the strain was not released.
The Financial Crisis
Rajapaksa also had made the classic neoliberal error of borrowing to fund infrastructure projects while cutting tax revenue. It is hard to evaluate infrastructure projects, but it is possible some were dubious, or ended up being controlled by the lender. By 2020 Sri Lankan debt had reached 101% of its GDP. One ratings organisation remarked: “the Sri Lankan government will have to allocate around 29 billion USD between now and 2026 to service debt repayments alone.”
The resulting debt, together with currency depreciation, led to overseas organisations removing money from the country, and further depleted the government’s coffers. This caused the financial crisis.
In April 2022 it was reported that:
The country barely has any foreign currency reserves left, leading to dangerous shortages of food, gas and medicines as it is unable to import foreign goods, while people are enduring power blackouts of up to eight hours a day.Ellis-Peterson Sri Lanka facing imminent threat of starvation, senior politician warns. The Guardian 7 April 2022
The collapse in medical supplies means that many people will die or cease to be self supporting.
As well as the debt, Sri Lanka’s economy had been simultaneously affected by Covid and terrorism, with a decline in tourism. Then the war in Ukraine increased fuel prices (Russia and Ukraine are also apparently its best source of tourists) and then the government defaulted on 51b of debt before negotiating anything with the IMF.
The previously mentioned collapse in electricity supply meant that many shops and local industries cannot function. This was primarily connected to fossil fuel energy supplies, not to any renewable development.
The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) lost 65 billion rupees ($185 million) in the first quarter and sought an 835 percent price hike for the heavily-subsided smallest power consumers, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) said…. Domestic rates have yet to be decided, but prices will go up by 43 to 61 percent for commercial and industrial usersSri Lanka electricity firm seeks 835% price rise. France 24 27 June 2022
Sri Lanka’s primary energy supply mainly comes from oil and coal. Almost 40% of Sri Lanka’s electricity came from hydropower in 2017 but coal’s shares in power generation has been increasing since 2010.IEA Sri Lanka
Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 517% since 1990, and it appears there are no large scale incursions by renewables – possibly because the grid is not adequate. So there is no resilience, or challenge, provided by local renewables, and Sri Lanka has little to no coal deposits and its oil company has been losing money, the problem is running out of supplies.
At the end of June 2022, the government suspended all sales of fuel to anyone other than essential services, due to lack of fuel supplies. They also closed down schools, and reduced the government workforce to reduce commuting.
There were mass protests calling for Rajapaksa to resign and almost all the cabinet resigned, in protest over Rajapaksa’s behaviour.
There is some evidence the government was corrupt and disconnected from the people, such as the appointment of family members to important positions where they fought each other,
Since he was elected, Rajapaksa, who hails from Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty, has worked to concentrate power in the hands of himself and his relatives.Ellis-Peterson Sri Lanka facing imminent threat of starvation, senior politician warns. The Guardian 7 April 2022
and the luxury of the homes revealed by the riots. The Government suppressed criticism of their policies in general. As defense minister, Rajapaska may have overseen the death of 40,000 Tamils, and others accuse him of having stolen billions from the country (I have no evidence).
World Crisis, not Local Crisis
Sri Lanka is not the only place in the world likely to suffer crisis. A UN Global Crisis Response Groups brief from 8th June 2022 warns that:
people globally are facing a cost-of-living crisis not seen in more than a generation, with escalating price shocks in the global food, energy and fertilizer markets – in a world already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change….
An estimated 1.6 billion people in 94 countries are exposed to at least one dimension of the crisis, and about 1.2 billion of them live in ‘perfect-storm’ countries which are severely vulnerable to all three dimensions…
the war [in Ukraine with the resultant food shortages], together with the other crises, is threatening to unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution, leaving social and economic chaos in its wake,
Today, about 60 percent of the world’s workforce is estimated to have lower incomes than before the pandemic. More than half of the world’s poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it.War in Ukraine threatens to unleash “unprecedented wave” of global hunger and destitution, warns UN Chief. UN Press Release 8 June 2022.
The World Bank has said almost 60% of the lowest-income countries are in debt distress. The President of the World Bank stated:
I’m deeply concerned about developing countries… They are facing sudden price increases for energy, fertiliser, and food, and the likelihood of interest rate increases. Each one hits them hard…. People are facing reversals in development for education, health, and gender equality… They’re facing reduced commercial activity and trade. Also the debt crises and currency depreciations have a burden that falls heavily on the poor… Food crises are bad for everyone, but they are devastating for the poorest and most vulnerable.
The inequality gap has widened materially, with wealth and income concentrating in narrow segments of the global population. Rate hikes, interest rate hikes, if that’s the primary tool, will actually add to the inequality challenge that the world is facing.Spring Meetings 2022 Media Roundtable Opening Remarks by World Bank Group President David Malpass. 18 April 2022
The chances are high that other countries will default or suffer considerable food distress. Sri Lanka just happened to be the first. It was not a problem of organic agriculture but of general economic failure and external pressures. Even this badly executed process of organic transition could possibly have been met with food imports or suspension of food exports, the monetary and external crises made it impossible
Predicted cuts in aid by Western powers, trying to glide over the crises they face, will likely make things even worse.
Initial source Time Magazine