Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads with plans to transition from the use of artificial to organic fertilizer hanging in the balance.  Earlier in the year the government said it will ban the import of artificial fertilizer which is used widely in agriculture including in the cultivation of cash crops. The President’s party members claim the ban was pursuant to the pledge in their electionmanifesto to move to organic fertilizer. Opposition members have brushed this explanation aside, saying the reason for the ban is a nose dive in the country’s foreign reserves.Sri Lanka spends around 400 million US$ a year on fertilizer imports.

In his speech to the nation yesterday, the President explained that the contamination of groundwater  stemming from the use of artificial fertilizer could lead to Chronic Kidney Disease and cancer and committed the government once again, to staying the course and for the change to go ahead. According to the President 300, 000 metric tons of fertilizer and eight metric tons of organic fertilizer have already been distributed to farmers for next season’s cultivations.

The move to use organic fertilizer hasnevertheless unsettled the agriculture community who say the transition is taking place too soon, with too little or for that matter hardly any preparation for it. They want the government to rethink its decision. A realistic time frame for the change, if at all, would have been to allow for a preparatory period of about two years.

Sri Lanka is not the first country that wants to switch to organic fertilizer. In 2014, the Bhutan government declared it will transition 100 percent to organic agriculture by 2020.  However, despite a strong commitment to their vision and research and preparation of nearly 17 years which started in 2003, Bhutan failed to realize its ambition and has extended the timeline to 2035.  In the initial target period they were able to convert less than 550 acres of arable land to organic farming, which is only 10 percent of their objective. A research study they conducted found that the yield from organic farming was 24 percent lower than with conventional farming. In 2018, Bhutan had to import 63, 21 and 23 percent respectively of their rice, maize and vegetable requirements due to the drop in the yield.

Among the worst hit by the change, with an anticipated drop in yield of up to 50 percent,will be the tea industry. It will be a deep cut for Sri Lanka’s tea export earnings and will bringuncertainty to the operations of tea plantations and the livelihoods of their estate labour.

‘A sudden transition from conventional to organic agriculture will result in the removal of all the synthetic inputs that had previously been applied’, said a well placed source who is currently advising the government on the transition.’ With the soil not having the fertility it should have and soil fertility taking several years to reach acceptable levels, this would naturally lead to substantial crop losses which in turn would seriously affect the country’s economy as well as result in food shortages’.

Tea industry insiders say one of the reasons the switch to organic fertilizer needs time is because of the volume of fertilizer that is required and the time it will take to produce this quantity.

According to the recommendations of the Tea Research Institute, an upcountry estate yielding between 1300 – 1500 kgs of tea per hectare will need 160 nitrogen per hectare which can be provided with two applications of 200 kg per hectare of artificial fertilizer and a one timeapplication of 150 kg per hectare  of plain urea in the year.  This brings the requirement to a total of 550 kg of artificial fertilizer per hectareper year.

Nitrogen is a key nutrient for the tea plant without which its leaf turns yellow and loses its tenderness.  Years of cropping have depleted nitrogen levels in the soil which gets replenished when the urea is added in prescribed quantities. Urea is a petroleum by product which in the past was produced by the Sapugaskandaoil refinery.

However, with a ton of organic manure said to contain only 2 % nitrogen, 80 tons of organic fertilizer per hectare will be required to provide 160 nitrogen per hectare in a similar field. There is skepticism in the tea industry whether such volumes of organic fertilizer are available in the country, or for that matter even abroad, at present.  The local production of these quantities will also take time.

Unlike artificial fertilizer, the application of organic fertilizer is more labour intensive. Based on the current basis of three workers applying between 150-200 kg of artificial fertilizer per hectare, per application, the application cost for the year will be 9000 rupees. This is calculated at the rate of nine workers being paid the current daily wage of 1000 rupees. The application of eight tons of organic fertilizer to a similar field will require 400 workers at a cost of 400, 000 rupees.

Tea industry experts have recommended several interim measures until the transition to organic fertilizer can take place.  They recommend that artificial fertilizer is made available to regional plantation companies and tea smallholders on confirmation that the quality of the soil is improved by carrying out the required soil and foliar analysis to ascertain the nutrient content such as the carbon and pH value of the soil, and where necessary the deficiencies are corrected by applying the recommended quantity of dolomite. They also make the provision of artificial fertilizer conditional on forking and de silting of drains in the land the fertilizer is to be applied.

The other recommendations include a change in the way in which fertilizer is applied.  The Deep Placement Fertilizer method while increasing the yield by 18 percent will also reduce its use by one third.

A popular herbicide in the use of tea cultivation is Glyphosate, which is absorbed by weeds through their roots.  Its residue is suspected of remaining in the soil and polluting waterways. The recommendations also include the reversal to another herbicide, Paraquat, until a contact herbicide can be sourced.  

According to this source yet another important factor that needs to be considered, is the need for research, demonstration and training to support organic agriculture. This requires a collaborative effort to research and produce optimized seed material, understand soil and methods including agroforestry/multi-cropping and crop rotation for major crops in Sri Lanka, and the realignment of agrarian research agencies to develop a plan for adoption of sustainable organic agriculture.

It has become customary for the president to grant a pardon to prisoners on key dates in the Buddhist calendar. On Poson poya day too 93 prisoners were granted a presidential pardon.  Among them were 16 former LTTE detainees and Duminda Silva, whose release from prison under a special presidential pardon, has raised questions about the need for a more judicious approach to granting such pardons to avoid arbitrary and selective choices.  In 2016, Silva was sentenced to death after a trial at bar in the Colombo High Court found him guilty of unlawful assembly and the murder of SLMP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra.  The Supreme Court affirmed the verdict given by the High Court.  

Two others who along with Silva were sentenced to death for their involvement in the murder continue with their prison sentence. Soon after Silva’s release, death row prisoners in the Welikada prison where Silva was, started a rooftop protest.  They wanted their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. In the Mahara prison about 150 prisoners who are on death row started a hunger strike. They too want their death sentences reduced to a life sentence. Sri Lanka has about 500 prisoners who are on death row.  

Silva is close to the president.  HirunikaPremachandra, the daughter of BharathaLakshman Premachandra, wrote an impassioned letter to the president on the day Silva was released.  In it she wrote how all the MPs of the Opposition went to pay their respects to her late father but that he had not. She wrote what Gotabaya Rajapaksa did first was to get a helicopter to send Silva to Singapore for treatment. Writing further she said Mahinda Rajapakse, his wife and sons had also paid their respects to her father but that he had not. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been with Silva at the Sri Jayawardenepura hospital she said.

Silva’s release comes as no surprise. It was preceded with sporadic bouts of speculation about an imminent release. The question rather was when, not if, Silva will be released.  The special presidential pardon President Gotabaya gave army sergeant Sunil Ratnayake who was on death row for killing eight Tamil civilians had already set a precedent.  

Silva’s case was also considered by the Special Commission of Inquiry into Political Victimisation despite doubts whether a case which had been determined by the country’s highest courts could have been brought before it. A special gazette notice was issued to extend the term of the Commission by 16 days for it to especially hear Silva’s case.

The complaint to the Commission was brought on behalf of Duminda Silva by his father Lal Silva even though according to the Commission’s mandate complaints could only have been brought by members of the armed forces and public officials.  After hearing the complaint the Commission recommended that in light of the new evidence presented before it, the attorney general requests a larger bench of the Supreme Court to review the death sentence against Silva. It also recommended bringing charges against the respondent for fabricating evidence and for corruption.

Article 34 (1) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution gives the President the prerogative to exercise a presidential pardon.  The proviso to it is that the president has to call for a report from the judge who tried the case where the offender was condemned to death, that the report has to be forwarded to the attorney general for advice and that this opinion has been referred to the minister of justice who is also required to submit a recommendation to the president.

Following Silva’s release the Bar Association of Sri Lanka wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asking for details about the basis and circumstances under which Silva was granted the pardon.  They also asked for reasons why Silva’s case stands out from that of others who are currently sentenced and whether the report of the trial judges, the advice of the attorney general and the recommendation of the justice minister were obtained prior to his release.

Others who raised their concerns about Silva’s release were US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz  and the UN. Tweeting about the release Teplitz said the US welcomed the early release of the PTA prisoners but the pardon of Silva, whose conviction the Supreme Court upheld in 2018, undermines the rule of law. Accountability and equal access to justice are fundamental to the UN SDGs to which the GoSL has committed, she said. The UN human rights office which also tweeted said the presidential pardon of Duminda Silva, a former MP convicted of the murder of a fellowpolitician, is another example of selective, arbitrary granting of pardons that weaken the rule of law and undermines accountability


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