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Plantation expert slams ‘politicisation of science’ by two administrations

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By Sanath Nanayakkare

Science was a major casualty in two key agricultural policy decisions made by the previous Yahapalana and the current governments, which on both occasions brought disastrous consequences to the agriculture sector, says Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, Managing Director of the Plantation Sector of Hayleys PLC which comprise Kelani Valley Plantations, Talawakelle Tea Estates and Horana Plantations recently.

Issuing a press statement, he slammed the previous Yahapalana government’s suspension of glyphosate imports and the current government’s decision to ban the import and the use of synthetic fertilisers with a sudden passion for transforming Sri Lanka into a nation with 100% organic agriculture.

Citing the fate of Prof. Buddhi Marambe, he said: “The nation’s best agricultural experts are being ignored or sidelined and silenced because Marambe had simply stated scientific facts regarding the current agro-chemical ban. Marambe had been consistent in doing so when the occasion demanded; he had previously spoken up against the Yahapalana government’s disastrous decision to suspend glyphosate imports.”

“Suspension on glyphosate imports was a policy decision, which resulted in the rejection of Sri Lankan tea exports as a result of issues with Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), and caused the permanent loss of extremely high value markets in Japan, and it proved costly: all without a single shred of scientific evidence being considered to assess the lasting damage it would have caused. As a result, the government of the day was compelled to back-pedal its decision, but not without irreversible damage being done,” he claimed.

Referring to the chemical fertiliser ban imposed by the current government, he said “Without any prior planning or notice, our entire sector has been coerced into blindly participating in the most unscientific experiment ever attempted in Sri Lanka’s history. Now we are all left to anticipate what the implications of an immediate, nation-wide halt to all established and essential best practices relating to plant nutrition, pest, fungus and weeds would be.”

“Almost seven months from the current government’s initial decision to ban the import and use of synthetic fertilizers and as at today, Sri Lanka’s entire agriculture and plantation economy is still frantically in search of any viable option to mitigate the threat of declining yields.” he said.

“We are told that arrangements are being made to import organic fertiliser from various, untested sources, and agreements are minted to produce organic fertiliser locally, much akin to attempting to fix the engine troubles on an airplane while it is in flight. Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth is at present, all supplies of ‘organic’ and inorganic fertiliser are in short supply.”

“Stocks which are available, have increased in price owing to supply-demand imbalances, disrupted supply chains and unprecedented increases in landed costs. Such escalating payments are making Sri Lankan tea’s already high cost of production (COP) even higher, which is placing Sri Lankan plantations under further stress. This is happening just a few months after an increase in worker wages was thrust through the Wages Board.”

” With the end of the year approaching, and the window for fertilising crops closing, it appears that the industry will be locked into at least one – if not more – growth cycles without basic nutrients of Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus, and with no ability to control pests and weeds. Without immediate solutions, the broad consensus among those with expertise is that we could see exponentially worse crop losses starting from the end of 2021, hitting approximately 40% by next year.”

“If RPCs had disregarded agronomic practices and norms in such a manner on their own volition, it would have been called ‘criminal mismanagement’. With agricultural best practices now being roundly ignored in favour of a largely undefined and unplanned strategy for transforming Sri Lanka into a nation with “100% organic agriculture”, this historic, and intentionally misinformed self-sabotage is being repackaged as visionary and progressive. Regardless of short-term political expediency, reality has a way of asserting itself,” he said.

Referring to the negative impact on employment, he said, “Spread across 14 districts, the tea industry alone provides direct employment to over 600,000 people engaged in cultivation and processing and indirect employment to a further 200,000 involved in the supply chain. The sector provides complete livelihood support for a resident population of one million in Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and 450,000 tea smallholders with one million dependents, hence supporting a total population of nearly 2.5 million.”

“When considering both employment and livelihood generation, it is estimated that the industry sustains more than 10% of our national population and its net foreign exchange earnings are only second to the garment industry.”

“Even if “organic” fertilliser is made available, there are still serious concerns as to whether it can provide sufficient nutrients. Hence, it appears that the writing is on the wall. With insufficient nutrients as a result of the unplanned push for organic, we anticipate a series of cascading failures stemming from a collapse in productivity. No amount of rhetoric will be able to turn back the tide of negative repercussions of such developments.”

“The only measure that could at least temporarily mitigate this dynamic is the implementation of productivity linked wages. This is a model which has the support of all RPCs, and which has been widely practiced with tremendous success by tea smallholders.”

“If there’s any resistance to it, that’s not from workers who have experience with productivity linked wages, but from Trade Unions who would lose their relevance if such models were implemented. Under the proposals made by RPCs workers could earn between Rs. 37,000 and Rs 62,000 and the model would enable workers to choose flexi-hours. Given the labour shortages prevalent across the entire tea industry, such a move would at long last incentivize workers effectively, and reward them for achieving their full individual potential, thereby significantly optimising labour productivity.

“However, without a scientific resolution to the fertiliser crisis, wage reforms can only serve as a stop gap measure. As land productivity drops, RPCs, state plantations and smallholders alike will be forced to reduce the amount of work offered, leading to a continuous decrease in worker earnings,” he said.

Dr. Roshan Rajadurai was also a former chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon with 36 years of experience in the plantation sector.



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SL defenceless, warn experts

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New COVID variants

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Due to the lax testing at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), there is a strong possibility that any new variant of COVID-19 entering the country, College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President, Ravi Kumudesh told The Island yesterday commenting on the detection of a new coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa.

Even a travel ban would be useless unless the country enhances its testing and surveillance capacities, Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh said that PCR tests were not conducted on passengers on arrival and that it was likely that even those not fully vaccinated were entering the country. “Gene sequencing in respect of those infected with COVID inside the country was at a minimal level, and therefore, there is no way we can find out whether a new variant has entered the country until it is too late.

“There are two state-of-the-art labs in the BIA but no tests are done there. We are not ready, at all. Several nations are imposing travel bans on travellers from South Africa and the region. Perhaps, we should follow suit. However, the fact that we don’t test those coming in means that even a travel ban might be useless,” he said.

Kumudesh added that the number of PCR tests conducted had dropped to such a low level that reagents used in some labs for PCR testing are now nearing the expiry dates. The attitude of health officials at the airport is such that everyone operates on the basis that testing of passengers is not important.

Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya yesterday said the detection of the new South African variant was potentially very bad news for all countries, and certainly for Sri Lanka.

“We still don’t have sufficient data on this, but I am very worried. It was only discovered a few days ago, but the scanty evidence strongly indicates that this new variant is driving a rapid increase in infections in S Africa. Only 100 cases have been confirmed officially, but reports indicate it may be 90% of new cases since Wed in Johannusburg,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said that his best guess was that three out of four South Africans had been infected by COVID during the pandemic. Thus, a large number of them had acquired natural immunity. Moreover, 25% of others have been vaccinated.

“So this rapid spread despite a lot of immunity is very disturbing. This really points to this new variant—B1.1.529—being both more infectious and also significantly immune resistant. Something that also matches with its particular mutations,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said he was not surprised at the emergence of the new variant because contrary to many experts who drink the kool-aid, there is no scientific basis to think SARS-CoV-2 had matured in its evolution. It might still have a lot of potential to evolve greater immune evasion and virulence, and that we should act on that basis.

“Second, because most of the world is following the misguided strategy of just accepting the virus (hey you – USA, UK, Sri Lanka…), the virus has plenty of chances to keep on mutating more because the truth is more of the virus is circulating than ever before. Third, despite a lot of nonsense about how T-cell immunity is going to protect us, there’s really no evidence that either infection or current vaccines and boosters will ever give us long-lasting immunity. We simply don’t know.”

Countries like South Africa, Peru, etc., who had such high levels of infection that much of their population was infected more than once, still continue to suffer new waves of infection.

“So this is bad news for all of us humans on planet earth, but very definitely for us in Sri Lanka. Why? Because based on how our medical establishment and govt authorities think, we will be slow or refuse to put the necessary border controls in to prevent this entering. And when it does enter-which is inevitable if this variant spreads globally–we will be slow to detect its entry, we will refuse to sound the alarm, and we will do everything but actually attempt to stop it. That’s been our track record, so why would it change? Worth noting that if this starts a new wave in Southern Africa, it’s just three to four months after their third wave. So just as immunity starts waning appreciably from natural infection (or vaccines). That gives us a strong hint of what our future holds unless we end this pandemic.”

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Navy deploys lagoon craft at Kurinchankerny until construction of new bridge

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Residents waiting for the boat

Sri Lanka Navy began providing transport facilities at the Kurinchankerny lagoon following the recent tragedy that claimed several lives. This service will continue until the construction of a new bridge at Kurinchankerny, Kinniya in Trincomalee is completed.

This initiative was set in motion following the directives of Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne. The Navy deployed a Lagoon Craft, capable of carrying 25 passengers safely at a time from Thursday (25) under the supervision of the Eastern Naval Command. The lagoon craft will be in service from 7.00 a.m. to 8.00 a.m. and from 12.00 noon to 2.00 p.m. each day. Further, the Navy erected a temporary jetty to allow passengers to board the vessel safely.

A schoolgirl on her way to the ferry
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UN Assistant Secretary General during talks with President pledges to work closely with Sri Lanka

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The United Nations will always work closely with Sri Lanka, said Khaled Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary General for Political, Peacebuilding and Peace Operations. Khiari made these remarks when he met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat, on Thursday (25).

UN Assistant Secretary General Khiari is visiting Sri Lanka as a follow-up to the bilateral meeting with the President and the UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres held in September this year on the sidelines of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly. Khiari conveyed the best wishes of UN Secretary-General Guterres to President Rajapaksa and said that the UN is willing to engage in a constructive and positive engagement with Sri Lanka.

Expressing satisfaction over the President’s affection and interest in the environment, the Assistant Secretary General appreciated Sri Lanka’s commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The President explained that steps are being taken to plant 100,000 mangroves with the assistance of the Navy and actions are being taken to prevent climate change through environmental conservation programmes.

President Rajapaksa expressed gratitude to the UN agencies and donors that have assisted Sri Lanka through the COVAX facility to make the vaccination drive successful and in facing other challenges in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The President pointed out that the government’s development programme implemented in the North and East after the end of the war in 2009 had brought about rapid development. The President recalled his invitation made while participating in the UN General Assembly to the diaspora to work together with all communities after visiting Sri Lanka. The President said that he hoped that the invitation would be met with positive initiatives.

The two sides exchanged views on unity and relations between communities. An environment where all communities can live freely has been made available in Sri Lanka. The President pointed out that the Minister of Justice is from the Muslim community, the Attorney General is from the Tamil community and many of those holding other key posts are of different communities. President Rajapaksa said the government has undertaken a great task in building unity among the communities and therefore, no one should have any doubt in this regard.

Both sides were of the view that education was fundamental to unity among the communities. President Rajapaksa said that the process by which South Africa has been able to end apartheid and move forward will be studied and the lessons that can be learned from it and what can be implemented will be looked into. The President also expressed hope that the United Nations will provide assistance in this regard.

Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Principal Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, and Political Officer at the UN Peace Operations Department’s Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Department Chiaki Ota were also present.

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