by Sanath Nanayakkare
Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations are potentially on the brink of being wiped out, battered by a fast-spreading leaf disease and the sector could be nearing the ‘point of no-return’, commercial rubber growers claim, requesting for urgent government intervention to address the pressing issue.
The crisis, which evokes comparisons with the ‘coffee rust’ blight which wiped out Sri Lanka’s coffee plantations in the late 1800s, need to be immediately addressed since output has declined by nearly a third already in some rubber plantations and the industry is fast becoming unviable, growers claim.
Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) that are involved in the commercial-scale cultivation of rubber, have joined together to voice the critical need to halt the spread of ‘Pestalotiopsis’, by requesting the government to ensure the availability of suitable fertilizer and agrochemicals in sufficient quantities, together with a proven mechanism which would allow the application of the necessary agrochemicals.
“This leaf disease is possibly best described as the equivalent of COVID-19 in the case of the rubber industry, considering both its devastation and the rapid speed at which it is spreading,” rubber industry veteran, Manoj Udugampola says. Udugampola has more than 30 years of experience in the sector and is the current Vice Chairman of the Colombo Rubber Traders’ Association (CRTA) and the Chief Operating Officer – Rubber of Pussellawa Plantations Ltd.
According to Udugampola, up to now, Pestalotiopsis, which causes leaves of rubber trees to fall off, has affected more than 20,000 hectares across nearly all rubber-growing regions in Sri Lanka. According to the statistics of Rubber Development Department (RDD), the extent of rubber cultivation under tapping in Sri Lanka (by both smallholders and commercial plantations) stood at 107,000 hectares in 2018. Hence, the leaf disease has already spread to approximately a fifth of the country’s rubber cultivation under tapping, based on 2018 figures.
Beyond the extent, the speed of the spread of Pestalotiopsis has also been alarming. While the issue only came into prominence in Sri Lanka during the second half of last year, Pestalotiopsis has spread rapidly from affecting 10,000 hectares of cultivation at the end of 2020 to double the extent by August 2021. However, Udugampola, like many others in the industry, fear that the worst is yet to come, based on the experiences of other rubber producing countries which have been previously affected by the leaf disease.
“Unfortunately, the wet weather conditions in many areas in which rubber is grown in Sri Lanka are ideal for the disease. The key issue is that while rubber trees need good foliage to produce output, Pestalotiopsis causes the leaves to fall off, so production declines significantly. When we look at the experiences of other rubber producing countries with this disease, the situation becomes even more grim.”
The industry’s fears appear to be well-founded, considering foreign news reports on Pestalotiopsis outbreaks in other rubber producing countries. By August 2019, a rubber cultivation extent equivalent to nearly three times Sri Lanka’s total rubber extent under cultivation in 2018, had been affected by the disease in Indonesia, resulting in the country reducing its annual rubber output target for the year by 15%. Similarly, news reports from Thailand, which too saw vast extents of plantations far greater than Sri Lanka’s total rubber cultivation extent being affected in 2019 by Pestalotiopsis, notes that the disease can halve the output of rubber plantations.
“By around April – May this year we were already seeing a 10 % to 20% reduction in output from rubber plantations due to Pestalotiopsis,” Udara Premathilake, Director Plantations (Rubber), Kelani Valley Plantations PLC says, supporting the views of Udugampola. “Since we continue to incur huge fixed costs including labour costs in running our operations, the reduction in output is reducing our revenue substantially and therefore our profits, so the industry is fast becoming unviable.”
“At this rate by year-end we are looking at a 15% to 20% reduction of the annual output. We are not sure where the industry would stand by next year. Companies are already looking at other crops like cardamom, pepper and cinnamon, which could spell the end of Sri Lanka’s rubber cultivation,” Premathilake said.
His prognosis is backed by Udugampola, who also points out that the Pestalotiopsis and related issues extend far beyond short-term remedies and is threatening the industry’s long-term viability.
“When this disease spreads to immature plants, their long-term growth will be badly affected. Since rubber trees have a life span of around 30 years this translates to a long-term decline in production. As concerted action should be taken at least now, or the industry will be unviable both in the short and the long-run.”
One of the key issues in addressing Pestalotiopsis is the lack of necessary fertilizer and the required agrochemicals (Carbendazim and Hexaconazole) in sufficient quantities. Since rubber trees lose their foliage due to the disease, to compensate and provide extra nourishment for foliage re-growth, Rubber Research Institute’s main recommendations is to apply additional fertilizer. However, following the fertilizer and agrochemical ban, let alone additional quantities, not even the required quantities are available, according to the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs).
While earlier at least these inputs had been available at exorbitant prices (at double the amount prior to the ban), now there is no fertilizer available in the market at present. In addition, the recommendation is to apply fertilizer for mature rubber fields primarily before July/August, which was not possible due to the ban of fertilizer.
The RPCs also point out that despite Rubber Research Institute’s significant efforts and the appointment of a taskforce by the Plantation Ministry to arrest the spread of the disease, a solution is yet to be provided on how agrochemicals can be applied, since existing equipment is not sufficiently powerful to spray agrochemicals to the canopies of full-grown rubber trees.
However, RPCs’ have taken proactive measures themselves to halt the spread of Pestalotiopsis, but these efforts have not yielded the expected results.
“Bearing significant costs, we tested the feasibility of using drones to apply pesticides to the canopies of mature rubber trees in some of our plantations,” Albert Peries, General Manager– Estate Management of Lalan Rubbers Private Limited said. “However, despite being extremely costly, it was not entirely successful, particularly since most rubber plantations are steep land, rather than flat areas, which appears to be an issue for the drones.”
“Hence, we need a commercially-viable solution for Pestalotiopsis and we need one right now, since the industry is in no condition to bear these kinds of exorbitant costs continuously.”
Peries notes that even the spraying of chemicals would only provide temporary protection for a period of few months. He points out that even if one plantation applies agrochemicals but the adjoining one fails to do so, the disease can still spread from the untreated cultivation.
Hence, it is critical that the disease must be dealt with at the national-level by the government, considering especially that a vast majority of Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations are managed by smallholders, not commercial growers.
An immediate solution to Pestalotiopsis
While calling on the government’s intervention to finding a commercially viable solution to apply the necessary agrochemicals, the industry highlights that ensuring the availability of sufficient fertilizer and agrochemicals could provide a starting point in addressing the issue, especially since application of additional fertilizer and agrochemicals are a key recommendation in mitigating the disease’s impact on rubber cultivations.
In the long-run, the industry stresses the need to strengthen the mechanisms available to deal with similar issues, if rubber plantations are to prosper.
“We do appreciate the efforts of government institutions such as the Rubber Research Institute,” Premathilake says. “However, unfortunately, they lack sufficient resources and their capabilities such as research need to be strengthened if we are to effectively tackle these issues. Small growers also need to be made more aware of Pestalotiopsis, since they may not fully know its danger.”
Pieris concurs with this view, also pointing out that the lack of a viable solution to Pestalotiopsis carries a significant opportunity cost to both the industry and the country as a whole.
“As an export industry, rubber has great potential to become an important player to generate much needed foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. In fact, the conditions now are ideal for this purpose since rubber prices are at their highest since 2011. This could have been a golden opportunity even for smallholders to earn a good income and to revive the industry, which has been declining in terms of production volumes since around 2013 due to low prices.”
“However, unfortunately, due to Pestalotiopsis the volumes produced are significantly lower than the potential, despite high prices and both the industry and the country is losing out.”
“While the industry is eager to collaborate and address the issue, with no solution in sight, the clock appears to be ticking for Sri Lanka’s rubber industry, an important earner of foreign exchange for the economy, a provider of employment and livelihoods and a source of pride for the country, considering its global reputation as a high-quality rubber supplier. However, a solution, together with ensuring the availability of the necessary fertilizer and agrochemicals, could still potentially save Sri Lanka’s rubber cultivations, a matter now entirely in the hands of the government.”, Pieris said.
President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer
Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.
General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.
General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.
He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.
“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.
The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.
“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.
The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.
“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.
Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan
Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.
“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.
The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.
“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.
The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.
“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.
MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.
“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.
Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution
‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration’
UNHRC 48th sessions:
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.
Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.
Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.
Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.
Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.
The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.
The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.
Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint
Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.
Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.
Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.
Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.
Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.
Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.
Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.
Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.
Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.
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