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Fertiliser testing and MONLAR’s claim

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According to a news report (Island, 2-11-20), Mr. Chinthaka Rajapakshe, who is said to be the moderator of an organization known as the “Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR)” claims “a high probability that the fertilizer currently released to the market were of low quality and high in heavy metals, as the National Fertiliser Secretariat had stopped testing samples at local labs”.

It seems that these labs are currently non-functional because of the Covid crisis, and so foreign labs are used. Testing has not stopped. The non-analysis and lack of testing of compost fertilizers are ignored by MONLAR as they are tacitly supported by MONLAR! Here I will show that even if one of the world’s worst rock phosphates, e.g, Nauru phosphate from New Zealand, containing very high amounts of heavy metals (occurring naturally) were imported, it will still have NO TOXIC effect if applied to Sri Lankan soils for agricultural purposes. This is based on the research I have published in peer-reviewed journals. For instance, Mr. Rajapaksa should consult my publication in Environmental Geophysics and Health, August 2018 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-018-0140-x where a detailed discussion is found. Here we will explain all this more simply in the following.

However, first we must look at the political agenda of MONLAR itself. Although I am not aware of the current political strategy of MONLAR in detail, I personally knew some of the initial founders of this movement. They were Marxist militants who decided to launch a movement to capture and control the peasant farmers and convert them into a “revolutionary political force”. A key tactic was to rouse the farmers into opposing “big capitalist agricultural multi-nationals” and their genetically modified (GM) products and seeds. Imported fertilizers sold by “capitalist multi-nationals” were also targeted. The opposition to GM products and high-yielding hybrid seeds led them to back “traditional seed varieties”. These yield about a fifth of the harvest from modern hybrid seeds created by the rice scientists at Bathalagoda and other research Institutes. They were the real unsung heroes who have kept the exponentially increased population of the nation away from famine since World War II. A return to traditional seeds will mean a return to shortages, famines, and re-importing “milchaard haal”.

But MONLAR and other backers of “traditional seeds” and compost fertilizers etc., are either mesmerized by false claims and fake science, or are cynically using them to further their political agendas. They want to negate the good work our scientists. Even the Minister Pathirana seems to have been tragically mislead into presenting a motion for “traditional seeds” in place of hybrids (Island, 02-11-20). The motion states that “this Parliament resolves …(to).. educate the public on the nutritious value of the traditional, local rice varieties available in the Sri Lankan market at present, of the new rice varieties consumed at present, and of the varieties of rice that should be consumed by people with various diseases, and also to provide facilities for farmers to cultivate those varieties of paddy.” So the minister wants to cure diseases with rice, while 30% of kids come hungry to school! Unfortunately, it is the minister who has to be educated. This may be a case where the minster’s scientific and medical advisors dare not contradict the minster and put him right!

The opposition to imported fertilizer led these groups to support the use of compost whose composition and quality are never subject to analysis. But MONLAR rushes to claim that imported triple phosphate is full of heavy-metal toxins profiting from a lapse in local testing due to an epidemic! This cry had already found resonance with the “Natha Deviyo” group led by Ms. Senanayake of “Hela-suvaya” together with Dr. Nalin de Silva, then at the Kelaniya Science faculty, and Ven. Rathana, then an MP from the JHU. They claimed that many illnesses, e.g., Kidney diseases in the Rajarata, are caused by arsenic and other toxins in imported fertilizers and herbicides, even though these claims were, and are now found to be completely contrary to exhaustive investigations by several independent research groups. For instance, strong evidence now suggest that the Rajarata Kidney disease is contracted by people who drink water from wells containing excessive amounts of fluoride and hard water, both of geological origin (See: Imbulana et al., Science of the Total Environment, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140716 and references therein ); in contrast, those who drink water from agricultural canals, rivers and tanks carrying fertilizer runoff are free of the disease!

Why do I say that even if one of the cheapest and “worst available” mineral phosphates, e.g., Nauru phosphate were used in agriculture, it will have no effect on our health? Let us consider this in detail.

Cadmium (Cd), arsenic (As) and lead (Pb) are some of the dangerous metal toxins found in minerals.

We will take the example of Cd, as the discussion for other toxins follows the same lines. Nauru rock phosphate contains some 90 mg of cadmium per kg of phosphate, where as a more expensive phosphate fertilizer may contain less than 20 mg of cadmium per kg of fertilizer. European “green” activists who are much like their counterparts in Sri Lanka have clamored for lowered amounts of cadmium (and other such toxins) in fertilizers imported to Europe.

Let us consider that we imported the Nauru phosphate that has been used in New Zealand, and containing some 90 mg of Cd per kilo of rock phosphate. A farmer usually applies some 30 to 60 kg of phosphate fertilizer per hectare of land in planting rice, depending on the soil. The fertilizer is ploughed into about a depth of about 8-12 inches (20-30 cm). Taking a figure of 30 cm depth in a hectare of land, the 60 kg of fertilizer containing 60 x 90 mg (i.e., 0.54 g) of cadmium are dispersed in a soil volume of 3000 cubic meters, or about 3900 metric tonnes of soil of density 1.3 g/litre. So, 0.54 g of cadmium are dispersed in this volume of soil, increasing the soil cadmium concentration by a mere 1.38 micrograms/kg, i.e., 1.38 parts per quadrillion. This is an utterly minuscule amount as the ambient level of cadmium in the soil may be as high as 0.4 mg/kg even in virgin forest soil (Chandrajith and Dissanayake 2012), and this is similar to values known for European soils. NO LEACHING what ever was assume even in estimating the 1.38 parts per quadrillion, and of course this is not true. The monsoonal rains can wash off many many times more than the 1.38 part per quadrillion.

So, when MONLAR claims that substandard fertilizer probably containing dangerous levels of toxins is being imported to Sri Lanka and that no chemical analysis is done, this is just fear-mongering and nothing else. The calculation that I presented needs only a knowledge of simple arithmetic and MONLAR, claiming expertise in agriculture should be able to do this before raising alarms.

This does not mean that EXCESS USE of fertilizer does not pollute the environment. The excess phosphate fertilizer gets washed off into the aquatic ecosystem via rivers and canals and create Algal blooms and weed growth. They de-oxygenate the water and asphyxiate aquatic organisms. The seasonal increase in phosphate levels in the Rajarata tanks is given in Table 1 of a research publication that I authored with other collaborators in Environmental Geochemistry and Health: Volume 37, Issue 2 (2015). This applies to macroscopic components like phosphates contained in the fertilizer, but NOT to the microscopic components (trace amounts) like Cd, As, and Pb. The metal toxins largely come into the environment from other sources (e.g., mining, burning of fossil fuels, acid rain, burning garbage, smoking cigarettes etc) as discussed in relevant publications.

 

Chandre Dharmawardana,

National Research Council of Canada.

 

 

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Opinion

Import substitution in Covid-infested Neoliberal World

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Covid-19, which has taught many a lesson to the rich and the mighty, is causing unparalleled turmoil in the neoliberal economies of the world. It has made governments and economists think of alternatives to the market driven dependent economies that most poor countries practice or are forced to practice. Sri Lanka too is trying its hand with options like export control, import substitution, taxation, protective tariffs, etc. Most countries are forced into it due to the disruption of several aspects of the system, such as foreign exchange earning capacity, international transport, and local export oriented industry. Sri Lanka is faced with considerable decline in its main sources of foreign exchange, such as foreign employment, tourism and garments. The foreign exchange thus earned are, in the main, spent to import food items, textile, medicines, fertilizer, etc., that could be locally produced. Is there any logic in advocating the continuation of this policy – Covid or no Covid?

Yet there are people including parliamentary bigwigs, who criticize the present government policy of controlling imports and attempting import substitution. They say such policy would antagonize Western countries who buy our products, like tea and rubber. Yes, it would make them angry but then that is how they pursue and perpetuate the practice of neoliberalism and exploitation of our resources. They say Western countries would stop extending preferential treatment and favourable terms to us in trade. Yes, they may do that but we must know that these are only tools they use to trap us into their system of neocolonialist exploitation. These people who talk like this in parliament must be tools of the neocolonialists.

It may be worthwhile to look at other countries which had adopted import substitution, in the past as well as recently and see how they have fared in their effort. This concept and policy could be traced back to the 18th Century German economist Friedrich List who proposed a “National System” of political economy where tariffs were to be imposed on imported goods while free trade would operate for local products. Later in the 1950s and 60s the Global South, particularly Latin America, adopted this policy and came to be known as Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). ISI is based on the premise that a country should attempt to reduce its foreign dependency through local production. It envisaged industrialization of production for greater efficiency and mass production. Most of the Latin American countries, like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras employed this system, the larger countries with big populations were benefited to a greater degree than smaller countries.

African Socialism, which started about the same time with leaders like Kwome Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania giving it leadership, took up ISI as its economic policy. These movements were socialist and nationalist and naturally anti-west and the Western powers did not view these developments kindly. In the 1980s with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the IMF and the World Bank gaining immense ground, the Global South abandoned ISI policy and turned to the West and again became the servant of neoliberalism.

However, there is a country which recently adopted these ISI measures with great success. Russia has managed to save several billions of Dollars by vigorously following ISI policies in the industrial sector, mostly in the areas of agriculture, automotive, chemical, pharmaceutical, aviation, etc. In 1914, their cost of food imports was 60 billion dollars, it was brought down to 20 Bn by 2018, in 2012 the pharmaceutical industry was negligible and by 2017 it has developed into a 50 Bn industry. These achievements were mainly due to subsidization of vital industries, import restriction by heavy taxation and other protective trade policies.

There may be lessons for Sri Lanka from what has taken place in the above mentioned countries. First and foremost the essential food items that could be produced here should not be imported and everything required for this endevour such as land, water, seeds, fertilizer, machinery should be made available. Every effort should be made to manufacture locally these things necessary to achieve self-sufficiency in food. If we are self sufficient in food, medicine, clothes and housing we need not be afraid of economic warfare that imperialists resort to when they want us to do their bidding. We must get assistance from friendly countries like China and Russia to achieve self-sufficiency in essential items and not for mammoth projects that politicians think would enhance their image.

As mentioned above, ISI policies employed for heavy industrial development had succeeded in large countries like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina but in smaller countries like Ecuador and Honduras such attempts at industrialization had failed. This was the experience in Africa too. Development of one industry at the expense of others or one crop like tea for instance could also lead to failure.

Therefore Sri Lanka must not go for heavy industries. First it must achieve self sufficiency in food and other essentials. Later it could start small machinery like power looms, electrical and electronic items. Industrialization should be at the manageable level of agriculture, clothes and such items and perhaps not heavy industries like automobiles, etc. The threat posed by Covid-19 must be converted into an opportunity and made full use of to make the country’s economy and politics independent of external factors.

 

N. A. de S. Amaratunga

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Opinion

Light a lamp for ‘Maha Viru’ national tragedies

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“Wiggy vows to light lamps in every Jaffna household to commemorate dead LTTE cadres” was the heading of a news item carried in The Island on 27.11.2020 with the cartoon of the day, depicting ‘Wiggy’ lighting a lamp with a flame in the form of a tiger head.

The JVP commemorate their fallen comrades in November ‘Il Maha Viru Samaruma’. The ‘LTTE’ also commemorate their fallen cadres in November ‘Maha Viru Day’. Both of these groups are viewed, according to different perspectives, as either terrorist groups or liberators. When it comes to terrorism, it seemed, the JVP was on a much smaller scale of a home grown variety of terrorism; with no international support or training, targeting a select set of people on a specific ideological basis. On the other hand, the LTTE was on a massive scale that earned them the title of being one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations of the world. The LTTE had an enormous amount of international support and training, with killings and massacres of an unprecedented scale. When it comes to liberators, the difference is that the JVP was interested in liberating the entire country, regardless of ethnicity or religion, from what it perceived as a ‘pro capitalist government’, supported by an international base that was exploiting the masses of this country. The LTTE on the other hand was interested in liberating a specific part of the country exclusively for the Tamils, which they felt were being exploited.

Nevertheless, the truth is that both these groups were made of the youth of this country- the future of this country – who were ‘forced’ into this ‘terrorism’ through sheer desperation as a result of being ignored by ‘us’. When one considers the JVP, in their case at least, they were on their own. In the case of the LTTE the tragedy is much worse, as this group’s frustration was hijacked and exploited by a set of power-hungry politicians, who were in collaboration with ‘an international agenda’ with no regard to the loss of life and destruction caused.

A Colombo-based Mr. C.V. Vigneswaran, is demonstrating from his actions that he is indeed one of those politicians who has no scruples in continuing to exploit the Tamils for his own personal agenda. But we as a nation should rise above this. We as a nation should all light a lamp for the ‘Il Maha Viru Samaruma’ and the “Maha Viru Day’ — not to commemorate those who lost their lives but to remind ourselves of the meaningless destruction that we as a nation were/are responsible for.

The government should organise events for both these days that involve a serious socio- economic/political discussion that analyses the factors behind this national tragedy. Let us stop lighting lamps that symbolize the rebirth of terrorism and destruction, but light ones that symbolize a rebirth of a nation.

 

Dr. SUMEDHA S. AMARASEKARA

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Opinion

Killing the proverbial goose

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I am an investor in tourism, in the southern province beaches. Along with me there are about 50 other, mostly foreign and a few local entrepreneurs who have put in huge amounts of effort and money into a stunning bay in Tangalle, called Mawella. This article is to highlight how ill-thought out and self-serving plans of government ministries and officials can jeopardize and ruin your investment. Suddenly we find out the fisheries ministry/department has come up with plans to develop it as a fisheries harbour/anchorage!! An outdated plan done without anybody’s knowledge or consultation. Not even the fishermen!!

This is one of the most pristine of beaches in Tangalle, untouched by any commercialization or destruction, or pollution. It’s a quiet, peaceful and secluded long stretch of a bay. It’s what the high-end tourists crave for, when they look at places like Sri Lanka and the Maldives for holidays. The unique features of Mawella bay are – the whole bay is swimmable, shallow and crystal clear calm waters almost all year round, a unique and natural long cliff outcrop in one corner of the bay protecting it (I don’t think there’s anything like it in the whole of Sri Lanka’s coast line). A wide and long perfect crescent of a beach (an hour long walk, one way), white powder sand all year round lies like a white carpet of welcome to everyone who visit it, from fisherman to tourist, and Mawella still remains untouched by ‘development’. Whatever tourism developments that has taken place here is well concealed, unobtrusive, low profile, luxury villas situated all around the bay. Majority of these are foreign investors making their home here or investing in tourism. Large amount of foreign investments have been poured into this bay. This is after the fishermen who owned these properties sold them. These lands and houses remained ruined, derelict and abandoned for nearly 10 long years since the tsunami destroyed them. When tourism began reviving after the end of the war in 2009, demand for these properties went up and the fishermen made a tidy sum out of selling them, having themselves been housed inland, by the government.

Now the Fisheries Department has unearthed some plans from a bygone era for the bay, to build a fisheries harbour/anchorage and is going ahead pell-mell with implementing it, with scant regard to the current developments already happened there. With their blinkers on, they have no inkling nor care for the current economics or the future potential of the bay. This harebrained plan was probably mooted by the ‘yahapalana’ government in 2017. But to go ahead with it, would spoil (if not ruin) the prospect of continuing high level tourism on one of the finest and largest beaches on the South Coast. This type of tourism is exactly what Sri Lanka needs and exactly what tourists want , in this fiercely contested international market.  Such tourism provides both local jobs and brings more tourists to Southern Sri Lanka who will be spending big money. Its prospect has recently been further enhanced by the completion of the Southern highway. But no tourist will want to visit a stinking mess of a fisheries harbour. It will be the end of tourism for one of the most stunning bays in Tangalle. People who fell in love with this island especially Mawella bay, have brought their investment to Sri lanka. They are the people who have already responded to the government’s call to ‘Invest in Sri Lanka’ launched by the tourism ministry. They have trusted in the Tangalle tourism zone hype made by the heads of government. All this is now in jeopardy, and risk of ruin because of the shortsighted action of another government department. This comes while tourism is reeling from the impact of Covid-19. In spite of expensive advertising it will be very hard to find investors in these unprecedented times. If adverse publicity of this debacle gets broadcast to the rest of the world, it would kill all investments that the government is trying so hard to woo.

The sad part is most fishermen of the Mawella bay are against this development project too. The fisheries officials have had several stormy meetings and clashes with them. Some fishers have already made their complaints/objections to higher officials and ministers of the fisheries department. ‘Maadal’ Fishing, the most ecofriendly and sustainable form of fishing happens here. The Anchorage project will kill this instantly. But in spite of the uproar, the project seem to be steamrolling ahead regardless. Why is this unnecessary and forced development? May be it’s because some funds are available for fisheries development and it needs spending? Or pocketing ?! Rumour has it that an area politician has already got the contract to supply quarry to the project.

If the planed fishing harbour or anchorage happens all our years of effort of development of the bay for tourism will get washed out to sea. Our input to Mawella has been not just large amounts of money, but time and passion. We the investors, are not the only victims of this man made catastrophe. A vibrant environment, a proliferate ecosystem, a lively wildlife, a stunning beauty and the very nature and characteristics of this bay stands to be changed. For the worse. Forever. Thus our urgent appeal to all decision-makers of the government to intervene and prevent this destruction of a perfect bay, and the scuttling of a thriving tourist industry. There is no shortage of fisheries harbours and anchorages in this part of the coast. Matara to Tangalle boasts of the highest concentration of fisheries harbours in the island. New ones are to be added soon. There is a dedicated fisheries bay (Hummanaya bay) right next door to Mawella, if they need to shift this project to a more suitable alternate site. So a solution to this looks very simple, easy and most of all, accommodating for all. There is no reason why both industries can’t exist side by side. They may even complement one another someday in the future – Fishing as a tourist activity/attraction.

Tangalle is not just about beaches. Yes, Tangalle beaches are the next big thing in the tourism map of the world. But then there is Cricket. F1 (If Namal Rajapakse’s projects take off). Mawella Lagoon airport. Expressway connectivity. MIA, Yala, Kumana, and Udawalawe wildlife. Blowhole (By the way, ours is the only one in all of Asia!), home to unique landform – coves, bays, lagoons, cliffs, and headlands not found in any other beaches of Sri Lanka, New heritage and historical sites being discovered which could rival Anuradhapura. As such what facilities do you have to cater to all this? How many rooms? What kind of rooms? Everything is poised for Tangalle to be the gateway to high-end tourism in Sri Lanka.

But we have reason to hope. Because from what we’ve seen of the government so far, It has stuck to its vision. Hopefully there are knowledgeable people installed in the right jobs by now. Especially in environmental, tourism, investment, and economic portfolios. That is President Gotabaya’s secret for success. We hope this will catch the eyes of such. If not the government will be definitely killing the goose that lays the golden egg as far as foreign investment is concerned.

 

Citizen S

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