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Palm oil ban ill-conceived

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Open letter to the President

Whilst appreciating and congratulating Your Excellency on much of the new thrusts proposed in the policy statement, the writer was thoroughly dismayed by your decision to totally ban oil palm cultivation. By contrast, for example, Premier Narendra Modi, two years ago, on the advice of the Technology Commission of India (NITIAayog), decided to expand the cultivation of oil palm in India to 2 billion hectares to meet the national vegetable oil demand, in fact, replacing some low income generating arable crops. Irrigated lands are being used for part of the oil palm cultivations. It would appear that you have not consulted appropriate technocrats and academics in making this vitally important decision. I should kindly urge Your Excellency to also create a similar body as that of India here, a National Policy Commission of experts, to advise on policy matters of national interest.

It would appear that you were driven to this decision largely by the outcry of villagers living in the oil palm cultivation areas of the Southern Province that oil palm is the cause of drying of water bodies in their settlements, and some highly biased so called ‘environmentalists’, who have failed to look at the total picture relating to this highly productive and most profitable oil crop. It is the number one and most widely used global vegetable oil, producing 42% of the global oil demand from only 14.8 million ha as against soybean, the number two, which produces only 29.8%of the global oil demand from 103.8 million ha! Economic benefits of oil palm far outweigh that of coconut, tea and rubber in that comparative annual returns/ha for raw produce being Rs 612,0000, 175,000, 88,000 and 80,000 respectively, as per an estimate made by some scientists.

 

Misleading CEA report

Unfortunately, a scientifically highly erroneous report produced by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) on the matter added ‘fuel to the villagers’ fire’! The report has been heavily criticised by the Coconut Research Institute and numerous other independent well-informed scientists. However, the criticisms had little impact on the Yahapalana regime which, having suspended its initial decision to expand the oil palm cultivation to 20,000ha, vacillated for years without generating a final decision!

The CEA supported the contention that oil palm dries up the soil, incorrectly arguing that whereas a rubber tree transpires only 63 litres/day, oil palm transpires 500-600 litres; the oft quoted figures, however, are 1,300 and 1100 mm/year for oil palm and rubber respectively, in the literature, or 120l/rubber tree and 300l/oil palm tree/day. The mean annual rainfall in the wet zone, where both these crops are grown, is as high as 3000 mm, well in excess of the crop requirements! The CEA seems to be unaware that evapo-transpiration rates of crops are calculated on unit area basis and not per tree or plant basis! Whereas the standard tree density of rubber is 520/ha that of oil palm is only 143, implying then that the two crops transpire comparable amounts of water per unit area of land based on our above cited per tree values. Furthermore the reported green water footprint of oil palm, that is the component of water received from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and is evaporated, transpired or incorporated into plants, is 19,148 cubic metres/ha for oil palm as against 32,410 for rubber.

It is more than evident that over the years, global warming leading to climatic changes as well as increased water use by the increasing population caused this situation. In my own experience, a beautiful stream that ran across my farm in Kandy which I bought in 1992, dried over the years and by 2015 even traces of its existence disappeared! As excessive water consumption is the main argument against oil palm cultivation, it is vital that a hydrological study be conducted, comparing history and current status of water bodies in an exclusively rubber growing area, as against an oil palm areas in the wet zone to convince the concerned parties.

Coming back to the CEA report referred to above, some 12 points had been cited there critical of oil palm, but nearly all of them have been refuted by the CRI, the organization mandated for R & D on oil palm and a host of independent scientists well versed in the science of oil palm. It is unfortunate that you failed to consult them before making the vital decision.

 

Palm oil and health

Some concern has been expressed over some bi-products formed during palm oil processing supposed to be carcinogenic, but the latest research has established that consuming palm oil in moderation hardly poses a health risk. Whilst some saturated fatty acids in palm oil may be cholesterol elevating, coconut oil it can be argued to be worse in that regard, in that the cholesterol elevating saturated fatty acid content is more. Of course coconut oil has numerous health benefit too, and although it was downgraded as an ‘artery-clogging tropical oil’, several decades ago, it has now become ‘the darling oil of the west’. Further, apart from others, the high (38%) monounsaturated fat content in palm oil has a distinct health benefit, in that it decreases the LDL (bad) cholesterol.

 

GMOA’s letter

It is ridiculous that the GMOA, which often pokes its nose into matters that it is not thoroughly conversant with, has thanked you for banning oil palm. Have they studied all aspects of the issue: economics, environment and health in-depth before making such utterances? I should refer to an exhaustive review that appeared in an issue of the journal ‘Nutrients’, 2019, on the subject of oil palm by Eva Gestiro and nine co-authors which has discussed the health effects and other matters thoroughly. On a previous occasion too the GMOA had strongly advocated reverting to traditional rice varieties, little realising that they yield only 25-30% of the new improved varieties; and in doing so we will be compelled to import bulk of our rice requirement! Moreover, we have many new rice varieties with similar health and nutritional benefits as the traditional ones, but yielding several fold more!

 

Alternative lands for oil palm

or other uses

There are some 60,000 ha of uncultivated paddy fields essentially in the wet zone which can be used for other purposes. They are left fallow as returns on investment in rice farming are low. One option is possibly oil palm cultivation, after draining the excess water. In such lands the excess water could be collected in ponds at the bottom of the catena and used for fish culture or irrigation. Raised beds can be prepared, as done for cultivation of coconut in Thailand and Indonesia, in highly ill-drained soils, and used for coconut, oil palm or market gardening. The current provisions of the Agrarian Development Act prohibit alternative use of these lands, but, surely, the Act can be amended.

 

Coconut oil alternative

It has been suggested by many that we should promote coconut oil as an alternative to palm oil, and the extent under coconut be expanded for the purpose. At the current mean national yield of coconut oil (0.8 M/ha) and the global mean palm oil yield of 3.8-4.0 Mt/ha, we would need five times more land to produce coconut oil than palm oil; and where is the land? With global warming and air temperatures rising, especially in the dry months in the dry zone, there is a serious problem of pollen germination and nut setting in coconut in this area. Hence land expansion for coconut is very limited therein. There is little or no land in the intermediate and wet zones for additional coconut growing. One option, however, appears to be cultivation of coconut as a shade tree for tea in the low and mid countries, and the CRI & TRI research has established that this is feasible. The demand, however, for both virgin and conventional coconut oils appears to have decreased since 2015, whereas that for coconut water is rapidly increasing. In fact the forecast for coconut water demand is to double over the next five years from 2. 25 to 4.5 billion USD. Consequently, the demand for our king coconut is growing, and it would appear more prudent to cultivate king coconut in available lands than producing nuts or oil!

 

Moving totally to organic farming

Promoting organic farming as far as possible is desirable, but achieving the above target stated in your speech is far- fetched, given the fact that global organic farm cover is increasing only by about 10% of its current extent, which is only 2% of the total global farm cover! Of this 66% is in pastures, and only the balance is in crops! There is much ongoing research in organic farming, especially in the field of microbial fertilizers. However, widely applicable technologies are yet to come. As regards microbial fertilizers, the soil medium should have the nutrients for effective uptake by microbes, implying that the soil should anyway be replenished regularly with nutrients, chemically or organically, except for nitrogen, which legumes and certain other crops can fix from the atmosphere.

So conventional farming cannot be easily replaced. What is more important in the short term is to correct the shortcomings thereof. One important area is judicious use of agrochemicals for which a massive farmer training effort is needed. This necessitates an effective extension service, the current one being in shambles! So please get the government to address this issue. At the same time research and technology output is rapidly declining, mainly because qualified technocrats from research institutes are leaving for greener pastures, especially to the universities where the total remuneration package is more than double for many comparable posts. This lateral brain drain now appears to be more serious than the vertical!

We trust you would give serious consideration to the issues cited above.

 

Dr PARAKRAMA WAIDYANATHA

 

 



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Opinion

Change is good: Provided it is for better and not for worse

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Aragalaya

by Jayasri Priyalal

Many Sri Lankans may have joined in commemorating the 2568 years of Buddha Parinirvana with much discourse about the fundamental truth, the core teaching of Buddhism about impermanence, last week. As we all realise the fact, that there is nothing permanent in this world; everything is subject to change. Change is the only permanent constant in the universe. This essay focuses on change from socio, political and economic angle.

Sri Lanka is undergoing its worst ever economic crisis without any hope of getting it into a recovery track soon. There is a clarion call from the masses aspiring for a system change as a springboard towards chalking out a recovery path to overcome the crisis. Yet, no one knows or discusses what that system should be to put in place.

One fact remains as an acceptable analogy. Those who cannot cope with change will never be able to initiate change in any circumstances. This applies to all stakeholders including those who caused and contributed to the current crisis. Fair share of responsibilities falls on the electorate who got carried away with populism engineered by a few; with an ultimate aim of state and regulatory capture for their advantage leaving the country into a dire state grappling with debt. Therefore, capacity and capability to initiate that essential change is absent in the DNA of politicians who deceived their constituents.

This year 2024, is remarkable for those countries where representative democracy functions. Over 2 billion voters are expected to cast their votes at polls. As per predictions in 70% of the elections a change in government is anticipated. Some elections are already over and results are known. In Sri Lanka there are two main elections in the pipeline namely the Presidential and parliamentary polls.  The UK gets ready for polls on 4th July 2024. Change is the campaign theme of the Labour Party led by Sir. Keir Starmer. Chase or change dilemma will be an option for the electorate in the USA to test in upcoming presidential elections in November 2024.

Change and the Chase Countercyclical in Sri Lanka

In the last presidential election in 2019 Sri Lankan electorate rallied with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving him an absolute mandate with 6.9 million votes, anticipating a change for the better. It was too late for Sri Lankans to realise that their bet was on the wrong horse.  That change triggered the public to rally towards a chase. People’s power proved greater than those who come and hold political power.

The so-called people’s movement Aragalaya forced the Prime Minister to resign with the ipso facto resignation of the cabinet of ministers. Amongst many wrong doings President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nominated an unelected PM to lead the cabinet without dissolving the parliament with the reluctance to test the pulse of the people to secure the right mandate to govern. Rest is history, and finally the people’s power chased out President Gotabya Rajapaksa culminating the grand achievement of the GoHomeGota campaign. Thereafter, people’s aspiration and hope for a change short lived and shortchanged, widening the mistrust between policy makers and electorate further.

Have we learnt from similar power struggles from the past?

Our present has direct links in many ways to the past. The island nation has been deceived by many egocentric figureheads -as they cannot be named as true patriotic leaders- misjudged the public sentiments and aspirations and surrendered the sovereignty of the country to Colonial Masters. Does history repeat itself? Have we forgotten the bitter lessons learnt from history is what is discussed in the next few paragraphs?

This writer is enthusiastically influenced by the historical knowledge shared by Prof. Raj Somadeva via Neth FM radio and the YouTube programme. Due credit should be given to the Professor for all his extensive historical studies and the efforts to share them with the rest of the Sri Lankans in and outside the country. Prof. Somadeva narrates the stories very well with an appeal to draw parallels to the contemporary political power struggles with a warning not to repeat the past mistakes.

Coronation of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, last King of Kandyan Kingdom   1798

Having defeated the British Army battalion sent by the Governor Frederick North badly in 1803, the powerful Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British by 1815. Internal power struggles between the Kandyan elites to capture the throne from the Nayakkar clan paved the way for colonials to step in effortlessly to end the 2300 of historical royal lineage, to govern. Finally, Ceylon became a colony of the British Empire under King Gorge III.

Maha Adikaram Pilimatalawe engineered the coronation of Kannasamy Naidu a nephew of Sri Rajadhi Rajasinghe over the legitimate claimant to the throne Muttusamy. Pilimatalawwe was ambitious of becoming the Kandyan King, worked closely with the British and installed Kannasamy in the throne assuming he can control the King to meet his egoistic goals.

The change he anticipated never happened. Then he conspired to kill the King. Pilimatalawwe and the conspiring gang were beheaded by the King. Pilimatalawwe engineered the change and had to work on a chase and he got eliminated by the person whom he elevated to power.

Power crazy Maha Adikaram installed a weaker character in the throne so that he could overthrow him with the help of the British. The whole strategy backfired ultimately sacrificing the nation on a platter to the British ending a royal lineage of over two millennia.  The miscalculations of those close to political power to serve their selfish needs have ruined many countries bringing in misery, hardship and colossal loss of lives and property to its citizens. The island nation has many such cases throughout its history.

Putting a Wrong Guy in a Critical Position – Are we repeating the same mistake?

Throughout history we Sri Lankans have repeated the same mistake and disrupted the nation’s progress leaving the plight in the hands of outsiders.  Although there aren’t any competing empires in the current context, there are clear indications that the local political expectations are gravitating towards the emerging geo-economic-political centres.

The current political leadership or the conventional thought processes are not spurred with an organic strategic growth trajectory with originality backed thought process. None of the political parties have identified the right causes that led to the current crisis.

Moreover, they are getting ready to deceive the electorate to secure the mandate to govern to continue to repeat ill-conceived policy tools without coming up with viable policy options to break the vicious debt trap. Adage goes on to remind that – right diagnosis is half of the solution. Instead, many are getting ready to prescribe the failed remedies with a strong dosage as prescribed by the defunct cold war institutions. It appears that the healer itself is the disease leaving the patient bewildered and leaving the disease into an uncontrolled debt pandemic. We Sri Lankans need to think locally and act globally and not the other way around. In the absence of original ideas and remedies, local politicians are happy to swallow the bitter medicines prescribed on the basis of diagnoses.

Since Independence the ideology of various political parties were developed based on systems and discourses practiced in other countries introducing a welfarist socio economic system. Now, it has turned towards the aspirations of the emerging geo-economic centres. Sri Lankans need to forge a unique turnaround strategy to serve the best interest of its people, and not to become subjects of other countries.  Therefore, the Sri Lankan electorate needs to collate its political mandate in the hands of a leadership who will change the destiny of the country for the better and not for the worst.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

Colonial masters connived with the power crazy Kandyan elites and captured the last King of Ceylon, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, dethroned, imprisoned and deported to India. Once you fast track the historical events, we can extrapolate the current situation drawing many parallels. Unlike in the past, the leaders who mislead and mismanage the future of the nation without any original thinking and being subservient to foreign advice will never be deported. They will be facing a prisoner’s dilemma remaining on the island, having given away ports, harbours, airports and other critical infrastructure to foreigners to manage and own.

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Opinion

A poser to Sajith and Anura

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Sajith and Anura

Just one question to both of you. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to the country if both of you set aside your political ambitions and personal differences and make a bold decision to join hands to face the forthcoming presidential elections as an alliance?

You are aware that the present government will leave no stone unturned to introduce controversial legislation, irrespective of the fact whether they are constitutional or not. It engages in controversial projects, on the pretext of privatisation, detrimental to the interests of the country. It suppresses protests through high-handed undemocratic actions. It abuses democratic practices to further its interests.

Politically your views may differ but your goals are the same. As things stand, both of you enjoy popular support. You have talented intellectuals in your parties. Most of the current corrupt politicians are in the process of forming either with or in support of the incumbent government with a view to hoodwinking the masses.

Your unity will certainly be advantageous to the country but divided you both could fail in achieving your ultimate goal.

Let’s hope that wisdom will prevail over their political ambitions.

WILLIAM PHILLIPSZ 

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Opinion

Death of a people’s doc

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by Krishantha Prasad Cooray

The Buddha, elaborating on the notion of sorrow (dukkha) in the first sermon he delivered after attaining Enlightenment, observed that having to associate with those who are repugnant is sorrowful and being apart from those who are loved is also sorrowful — appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho. So, we choose to avoid and insulate ourselves from the distasteful while we seek the company of people we find agreeable. When they leave, we are saddened. When they depart, never to return, we are distraught.

A few days ago, I realised that while any kind of separation from someone who is likeable is never a happy thing, there are instances when it is devastating. I had just received a text from my friend Prof Arjuna De Silva, and he wanted to know ‘if the story about Dr Siri was true.’ I called two of Dr Siri’s closest friends, Ranjith Page and Dr Harindu. Both confirmed that he had passed away in Dubai. I am shocked and saddened beyond belief.

Dr Siri Kannangara was a rheumatologist, best known by Sri Lankans for the immense services he rendered in sports medicine. To me, he was either ‘Doc’ or ‘Siri’. But I know for a fact that this was how almost all Sri Lankans, whether patients or otherwise, addressed or referred to him. He was a physician who made his patients believe that he was a friend. He was always self-effacing and treated all Sri Lankans as though they were close relatives in an immense extended family.

He never charged any of his Sri Lankan patients. Even when he visited Sri Lanka, he treated patients free of charge and was particularly concerned about the welfare of patients of modest means. In his case, it was not only about diagnosis and prescription; he would always follow up.

I can never forget how he responded to an urgent request regarding the son of a close friend. He didn’t know the patient or the father. When I called, he was with a patient but promised to call me back. He did, and having got all the details, told me that it was a serious matter. I told him that I was sorry for imposing, but he interjected, ‘Putha, you can call me any time; if it is urgent, I will walk out of the room and talk to you.’

He told me that it was not his subject but he would get an opinion from doctors who were experts on the subject. Thereafter, he consulted surgeons who could offer expert opinions and advice. Subsequently, he would call me to inquire after the boy. He would ask, Kolla kohomada? or Podi kolla kohomada (how is the little boy doing)?’ He went further, wanting to know how the boy’s father was doing. He made me realise how easy and normal it is to be kind to someone you know, a friend or a relative, but that it is very rare for someone to go out of their way to be kind and generous to a total stranger, and rarer still to inquire after that person.

Perhaps he will be remembered most for the way he supported Sri Lankan sports, especially cricket. Arjuna Ranatunga, speaking at a felicitation dinner for Siri, recalled how he had treated a wrist injury and gave the assurance that he would be able to play and field — ‘don’t worry, I will be here all five days.’

‘I know for sure that he sacrificed his practice to be with us,’ Arjuna remembered. Those were tough days, without money or sponsors, and Dr Siri used to keep, feed, train, and give them medical advice. ‘It was a home away from home for all of us.’ Arjuna also recalled how Dr Siri was instrumental in obtaining the services of specialists to help clear Muttiah Muralitharan’s name during the infamous no-balling episode in Australia.

Aravinda de Silva echoed his skipper’s sentiments. ‘Whenever we visited Australia, Dr Siri would treat the injured. He kept them in his home and was like a father to them.’ Indeed, every single member of Arjuna’s team and dozens of others would probably concur. He was appreciated, respected, and loved.

Dr Siri was very well known outside of Sri Lankan circles as well. He was the first Australian to serve on the FIFA Medical Committee (1999 to 2006) and was also involved as the Physician and Consultant to the Australian teams at the Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) Olympics. He had the honour of carrying their flag at the last event. He was inducted into the Football Australia Hall of Fame in 2002, and in 2013 he was honoured with a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for significant service to medicine, particularly in sports medicine and rheumatology.

He was nevertheless a Sri Lankan through and through. He never forgot his roots. He loved visiting Sri Lanka, meeting Sri Lankans, and helping them in whatever way possible. He always had time to train Sri Lankan doctors. I have myself taken many friends and acquaintances to him when he happened to be in Sri Lanka. He checked them out and offered advice. Advice that changed lives. There have been occasions when patients who had been prescribed surgery consulted him. He advised them against it, and he was right, saving many from the knife.

He thought a lot about Sri Lanka. He worried about his countrymen. He would ask me, Mokadda ape ratate venne? Mokadda venna yanne? (What’s happening to our country? What will happen to our country?).’ He did what he could, and that’s a lot more than most chest-beating patriots have done or do. He would volunteer without reservation to offer any favour to any Sri Lankan. In an interview given to News First more than ten years ago, he explained simply, ‘yuthukama (duty).’

‘My mother and father did much for our village. I prospered thanks to their pin (merit acquired). And so it is my duty to do whatever I can for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans,’ he once said.

Having first attended the Bandaragama Rambukkara Vidyartha Vidyalaya, he joined Royal College, Colombo and left for Australia in 1971. He left his heart behind, it seems, for he would often say ‘mama game kollek (I am but a village boy).’ He added, ona ekakata lasthiy (I’m ready for anything!)’ This great man, if I took time responding to a text, would write, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Hi! I must have done something to annoy you!!!?’ He was such a bubbly personality, and this is probably why I find it so hard to come to terms with his sudden demise.

I will always remember that he could be sensitive at times, but he was someone who would stand by his friends in a crisis. He appreciated loyalty and friendship. He was constantly in touch with me in the most difficult times. I read again a text message he sent me regarding my father’s illness and am moved all over again by his kindness, compassion and humility.

‘We hear that father is unable to recognise the grandkids. We hope he would somehow improve by grace of God. Please keep your chin up as the thinking person leading the team now. Count on us for anything we may be able to help you with. Keep your chin up and keep batting the best way you know. — Siri’

He always said, ‘Krisha, anything I can do for you anytime, please let me know.’ He has done all he can. He has gone the extra mile. Most importantly, he left an indelible mark on my life. He will continue to inspire me.

We have to bat now without the insurance of knowing that Siri is there in case anything goes wrong. I try to console myself by thinking that Siri has, simply by batting well, taught us all the strokes that truly matter in life — friendship, loyalty, kindness and humility. But he’s gone and got himself out. The stadium is in shock. All his friends are devastated.

But what an innings it was; his healing and teaching permeate every stroke those who knew him play. While being apart from those we love is sorrowful, in Siri’s case we have the comfort of knowing we are never fully apart, for his healing and teaching remain within us.

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