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Palm oil ban ill-conceived



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.





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Ragging, human rights and Aragalaya



In Sri Lanka, there are two enduring issues that annoy all those who detest blatant use of ‘institutionalised’ repression, as it were. The first is the torturing of the new entrants to universities, which is customarily called “ragging”, which conveniently camouflages its perverseness behind a mask of pseudo-intellectuality. The other is the abuse of power by our so-called representatives to amass fabulous wealth, engaging in every form of corruption with impunity and resorting to strong-arm tactics when the public come to the streets to voice their discontent- all behind a façade of democracy.

For the raggers, the confines of the campus provide immunity to harass the hapless newcomers at will. Our politicians rattle off the mantra of “law and order!” to make any of their excesses appear legitimate and get the people to toe the line. Now, the raggers have taken their cue from our politicians and chant “human rights!” to defend ragging! They are now asserting their right to rag without being videoed! Believe it or not, they are scandalised by anyone who dares film their harassing the freshers. “How dare you do it without our permission? Do you know you are violating our ‘Human Rights’?”

Tigers might as well talk about their right to kill deer. All tigers unequivocally agree that they have that right; their claws have made the “Deer’s Rights”, i.e. to live unharmed, to enjoy freedom of movement, not to be killed, totally irrelevant. So the rights of the new entrants to start their academic life happily in a pleasant and peaceful environment without being persecuted by a depraved gang of so called ‘human rights warriors’, go the same as the rights of deer to live without being mauled by the ‘rights conscious’ tigers in the jungle.

Here, we have the Aragalaya– a union of many sections of society including the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF). The IUSF itself is said to be composed of students with different political affiliations. They seem to have shed their differences to be a vibrant part of the Aragalaya– fighting tooth and nail against the excesses of a regime bent on using strong-arm tactics to stifle dissent- which has been facing stiff resistance from the police and the armed forces, in addition to being the victims of goon attacks as it happened on May 9, at two agitation sites in Colombo. The point is, aren’t the raggers in universities, who are bullying the hapless new entrants, aware of the thousands of their colleagues participating in the Aragalaya against state repression are seriously undermining the authenticity of the latter, by their acts of barbarity? Can they be so loutish as to act as if they are living on another planet?

Let’s come to the more hilarious part of the raggers’ concern for their own ‘human right’ to rag without the inconvenience of being filmed by concerned onlookers. They not only protest against their being videoed without their permission but they also display their brilliance by asking some profoundly disturbing questions like- whether the ‘busybody’ had ever bothered to film how they had suffered in life, how they had managed to make ends meet, under what taxing conditions they had studied, how much their parents had sacrificed to educate them, etc. No, the nonplussed voluntary-cameraman had not lived up to their expectations! Having successfully snubbed him for failing in his ‘duty as a concerned citizen’, they demand that the ‘busybody’ delete what he has recorded.

What defies comprehension is the total lack of empathy of these self-proclaimed ‘human rights activists’ with the pitiful condition of their victims. Haven’t the new entrants come from the same land of woes? Haven’t they experienced the same deprivations which the raggers claim they had experienced? Do they expect to exorcise the consequences of inept politics by terrifying the newcomers? What kind of perversity drives them to traumatise their own younger brothers and sisters, who had already been equally victimized by an unjust system against which thousands of their own colleagues fight on the streets?


activists, including the IUSF, have never protested against the numerous instances of their being harassed- being teargased, pounded by water cannons and manhandled by law-enforcement officers and also wanton attacks by thugs. In fact, using cellphones to capture any instance of harassment or even any intervention by the police, for instance, for traffic offences, has become an established practice. After all, it is strong evidence that can be used by the ‘victim’ when resorting to legal action.

Usually, it is not the victims- it is the tormentors who are worried about being captured by cameras and cellphones. The video footage on the now famous Mihintale Sermon showed some government VIPs, caught in an unexpected tragicomic misadventure, making valiant efforts to appear nonchalant- even affable, but squirming in their seats all the while. Today, cellphone has become the sworn enemy of those who feel guilty of what they are doing. If the raggers are so pious, they should encourage their being videoed instead of crying foul.

All these years the raggers have had no reason to pretend to be serious about human rights because they had been so well-organized to make them irrelevant. However, now cellphones have become the most useful companion of the vulnerable in society, in its potential role of being an “eyewitness” of any excesses. In a twist of irony, today raggers, who have thus far managed to thwart all efforts to neutralise this barbaric practice, have been outraged by being videoed in action. After all, the cellphone is becoming a liberating agent in our troubled paradise. Ragging should be condemned as a shameful relic of a barbaric civilisation. It can have no justification in a society fighting against all forms of depravity, injustice and suppression. The raggers must be sternly told that all that nonsense about building fellowship, ‘guiding’ the ‘novices’ and the rest can only expose their lack of rudimentary civility and sophistication.

Susantha Hewa

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Now is payback time



Some thoughts about electricity bills of religious places

BY Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya

News this week that the electricity bill of a temple has increased from Rs 58,000 to Rs 300,00 per month, shows the weaknesses in the pricing structure that prevailed for decades, and the weakness that is propagated into the future by the new price structure announced from August 10th.

Year 2015 is the last year in which electricity prices approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) almost matched with the costs approved by the same PUC. Since then, the gap between costs and prices has been widening. So, in 2015, the national average price was Rs 16.84 per unit of electricity. For a retail customer like a temple, church or a house, the cost is about 20% more than national average cost. Why? Because they are retail customers. So, retail customers should have been charged Rs 20 per unit of electricity since 2015.

However, owing to the decades-old practice of providing subsidies to various customer groups through the electricity bill, temples, churches, kovils were required to pay only Rs 9.40 per unit. That explains why lights are hardly ever switched off in many such premises!

So, while costs increased year by year, partly owing genuine increase of expenses, electricity prices were not increased. Increased costs were partly because of loading energy suppliers with more and more employees, and partly owing to decisions on not to build various power plants (do remember the politicians and others who delayed and cancelled Sampur, Norochcholai No 4, Kerawalapitiya and more recently, numerous wind, solar, hydro power plants) that would have produced cheaper electricity.

Count if you can, the number of times the PUC and energy ministers have boasted that they will not allow prices to be increased. Now is the payback time for that short-lived comfort. According to the electricity act, the Minister has nothing to do with electricity pricing.

So, coming back to the temple in question, to be billed Rs 58,000 each month in July, the consumption at Rs 9.40 per unit should have been about 6,200 units of electricity per month. Sri Lanka’s national average household use of electricity (typically for a household of 4 persons) is 78 units per month. So, the temple in question has used an amount of electricity used by 80 households or 320 people. It appears that commercial-scale activities may be taking place in this religious premises.

If that is the case, the temple should have requested the commercial sector electricity pricing of Rs 22.85 per unit. Then the monthly bills since 2014 until July 2022 would not have been Rs 58,000 but Rs 141,000 per month. If the temple remains “religious”, at the new price of Rs 65.00 per unit, the new bill is most likely to be about Rs 401,000, which is higher than Rs 300,000 stated in the media. So, the temple should expect a higher bill in September !

However, if the temple declares that it is “commercial”, the electricity bill will be about Rs 197,000 even after the increase.

Be that as it may, for religious or whatever customer, increasing prices from Rs 9.40 to Rs. 65.00 per unit in one go, has never been heard of. Pricing reforms are welcome but it is the PUC’s job to smoothen the price increases. Looking back at the “public consultation” in June 2022, CEB proposed the prices for high-user religious customers to be increased from Rs 9.40 to Rs 19.00. It appears PUC increased it to Rs 65.00 per unit. Was it a mistake ? A typo ?

The bottom line is that everybody is asking for subsidies, while no one likes to contribute to subsidies. If everybody is required to pay what it costs to supply, nothing more, nothing less, the electricity bill of the temple would have been Rs 163,000 until July and Rs 236,000 from August onward. Still a hefty increase, but a rational distribution of costs among the customers.

Surely, there will be requirements to support specific religious premises and indeed other types of customers, too. That is the job of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the respective Ministries, not of the CEB and LECO. Now that it appears the politicians have let go their seven-decade old habit of interfering in electricity pricing decisions, what is required now is a strong, professional, respected PUC, which know its subject, to use the stick and bring the costs down. These costing and pricing anomalies are not of recent origin, but they need solutions.

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Rendezvous with Patrick and Diplomacy



Visiting the University of Sri Jayewardenepura with Prof. Patrick Mendis (left) and the writer’s wife, Jayantha.

Illustrious Alumnus of Sri J’pura Wins the Lifetime Achievement Award in the United States

by Dr. Sunil Nawaratne

The Sri Lanka Foundation in California has selected Prof. Patrick Mendis for its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award among Sri Lankan professionals living overseas. He is among the youngest to receive this honour for his distinguished academic career, award-winning diplomatic service, and philanthropic activities in the United States and Sri Lanka.

Prof. Patrick Mendis is widely known to thousands of alumni and educators for his eponymous annual financial prize at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. In the United States, he has also established scholarships for students at the University of Minnesota and Harvard—two of his other alma maters.

Patrick and I are alumni of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Over the years, we have stayed connected, crossed our paths during my postgraduate studies in Japan, and often got together with our friends and alumni whenever he visited his family in Sri Lanka.

In the late 1970s, Patrick won a highly selective American Field Service (AFS) scholarship to study at Perham High School in Minnesota. Upon graduating with a U.S. diploma, Patrick returned to attend the University of Sri Jayewardenepura where we first met in the early 1980s.

He earned the coveted First Class Honours degree in Bachelor of Science from the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce. As he completed his secondary education in the United States, Patrick often sought counsel and guidance from his Canadian and American Fulbright professors who visited our university. These visiting professors offered him scholarships for postgraduate studies in Canada and the United States. But Patrick returned to his AFS family in Minnesota, which he proudly considers his “birthplace” in America.

Minnesota is one of the coldest and snowiest among the 50 states; the tropical Sri Lanka by comparison is one-third the size of this beautiful “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Patrick evidently fell in love with “Minnesota Nice,” as he described the generosity of its industrious and gentle people.

Patrick progressed to work at the Minnesota House of Representatives. He later received the Hubert Humphrey fellowship and the Notre Dame scholarship to complete his master’s and doctoral degrees at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the University of Minnesota.

While teaching at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, Patrick endowed two annual scholarships at Sri J’pura. These scholarships were later combined into the Dr. Patrick Mendis Prize to reflect his own outstanding achievements in management studies, leadership accomplishments in sports, and numerous contributions to the World University Service as its president in Sri Lanka. Patrick would explain that the annual prize is a fulfilling way to give back and to inspire the next generation of leaders and managers to do things better than he did.

In the subsequent years, I focused on my career in the fields of business management, government service, and higher education in Sri Lanka while Patrick ventured into international diplomacy, teaching, and conducting research at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, and other universities. At Harvard, he finished his mid-career Executive Leadership Programme at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. As a visiting faculty member, he later returned to serve as a Rajawali senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a research associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.

More importantly, however, Patrick blended his academic pursuits with public service in the United States government, the World Bank, and the United Nations.

While studying in Minnesota, the government of Sri Lanka appointed Patrick to the United Nations as its first Youth Ambassador to represent Sri Lanka at the First UN International Year of the Youth (IYY) in New York. Ambassador Karunasena Kodituwakku, then the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, recommended Patrick to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, then the Minister of Education. For his leadership at the United Nations, the UN Secretary General honored him with the UN Medal for the IYY.

Patrick began his American government service in the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Ronald Reagan administration. Congressman Gerry Connolly, a former Senate colleague and now his congressional representative from Virginia, writes: “Dr. Patrick Mendis is a highly respected foreign policy scholar, an award-winning public servant, and American diplomat. Patrick and I served in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

After government service, he returned to academia. Patrick then served as a distinguished senior fellow and affiliate professor of public and international affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government at the George Mason University in Virginia. While serving as the Vice President of the Osgood Centre for International Studies and a visiting foreign policy scholar at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, he authored books, published articles, and lectured on UN affairs.

At the U.S. Department of State, he was assigned to serve as the chairman of the interagency policy group on science and technology in the Bill Clinton administration. Under the George Bush administration, the late Secretary of State Colin Powell appointed him to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as its secretariat director to manage the Fulbright, Humphrey, and other international exchange programmes. Patrick also served as an advisor to the United States Delegations to the United Nations.

During the Barack Obama administration, Patrick was appointed as a Commissioner to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the Department of State. His tenure ended when the Donald Trump administration withdrew from the UN.

United States Senator Chris Van Hollen, who grew up in Sri Lanka but now represents Maryland, describes his friend: “Patrick has contributed years of dedicated service to our country, and has been recognised for his academic achievements, outstanding government career, and important philanthropic work.”

During his service at the Department of State, Patrick also taught MBA courses at the University of Maryland. Through the University of Maryland Global Campus, Patrick previously worked as a military professor in the NATO and the Indo-Pacific Commands of the Pentagon with a range of teaching tours in England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, South Korea, and Turkey.

After returning to Washington, D.C., Patrick has also worked in various federal agencies in the United States government.

Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, a former presidential candidate, explains her fellow Minnesotan this way: “Dr. Mendis is a respected leader and award-winning public servant, teacher, and diplomat” who has served in “the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Defense, and State.”

Over the years, the University of Minnesota has recognised Patrick with the Alumnus of Notable Achievement (ANA) Award, the Harold Stassen Award for UN Affairs, and the Hubert Humphrey Leadership Award. The Minnesota Magazine described the illustrious American as “a scholar and a diplomat” for his leadership in government service. Patrick was honored with the Benjamin Franklin Award by the U.S. Department of States and the USDA Graduate School

Award for Leadership and Service by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Patrick has worked in—and travelled to—more than 130 countries. His lifetime achievements are yet to come. Patrick is currently serving as a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw in Poland as well as a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He is a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

Patrick has also lectured at the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University and other Sri Lankan universities in Colombo, Jaffna, Kelaniya, and Sri Jayewardenepura.

As highlighted in this narrative, it is truly a distinct honour to have such an eminent alumnus as a steadfast friend in the United States. His American journey from Sri Lanka has indeed shown us the value of education and the power of diplomacy beyond national boundaries for a better world for all of us.

*Dr. Sunil Nawaratne, an alumnus of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, is the Director-General of the National Institute of Education and a former permanent secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education in Sri Lanka.

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