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Sri Lankan Cocoa – a promising inter-crop with coconut

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Sri Lanka’s fame for some of world’s finest cocoa is threatened with the local production volumes declining sharply. Although an ideal inter-crop with coconut, promoting the ecological balance, the disinterest of many local landowners in this wonder crop considered the ‘food of the gods’ is declining at an accelerated pace. We spoke to several Sri Lankan Cocoa enthusiasts who warn that unless urgent interventions are made, Sri Lankan Cocoa is on the path to botanical antiquity.

by Randima Attygalle

Botanically termed Theobroma cacao, the cocoa tree is believed to have originated in the Amazon basin and spread to Central America, largely to Mexico. The natives in this region including Mayans and Olmecs revered it as the ‘food of gods’. Cocoa seeds were used as currency by the Aztecs. By the beginning of the 19th Century, it was introduced to the colonies and was developed in Africa and Asia as a commercial plantation.

Cocoa is mostly processed into chocolate and a wide range of intermediate products such as cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa cake and raw cocoa powder used in the beverage industry. Cocoa butter is also sought as a base for soap, cosmetics and medicinal products. Its pulp juice is also fermented and used in brandy and wine. The pod husks are used in preparation of animal feed. The husks and shells are also used as a renewable energy source and to produce bio-diesel.

The nutritional value of cocoa is very high. Besides its antioxidant properties, cocoa’s healing properties are many. Research confirms its impact on improving dermal blood flow and the maintenance of skin health. Cocoa butter is used as a home remedy for burns, cough, dry lips and wounds in some leading cocoa producing countries. It is also reported to be antiseptic and diuretic.

Cocoa thrives in deep, well-drained clay loam soils rich in organic matter. The colonial planters found our immature brown loams and reddish brown latosols to be perfect to introduce cocoa to the island. The first cocoa plantation here at home was set up by the British in 1819 in Nalanda, Matale. By 1960 the island claimed 30,000 acres of cocoa. Today, it is reduced to around 5,000 acres, points out the Director General of the Department of Export Agriculture (DEA), Dr. A.P. Heenkenda. “Among the finest plantations we lost was the Pallakelle Esate of Rajawella Plantations, when the Victoria reservoir was built. Today cocoa is largely an intercrop with coconut,” he says. While Matale, Kandy, Badulla, Kurunegala, Kegalle and Monaragala districts are considered the main cocoa growing area, suitable conditions for its growth can be found even in North Western, Sabaragamuwa, Central and Western Provinces.

Cocoa, Dr. Heenkenda explains, is one of the best intercrops that is presently promoted with coconut and rubber. “We have initiated several projects in Kurunegala and Gampaha districts in collaboration with the Coconut Cultivation Board and another in rubber-centric Moneragala.” Despite the ready know-how being available for cocoa cultivation, the attitude of many growers remains very negative, notes Heenkenda. “While cocoa plants can be obtained from the regional plant nurseries affiliated to DEA, technical know-how is available through DEA Extension Officers at Govijana Sewa Centers, Research Stations, District Assistant Directors’ offices and the DEA’s head office in Peradeniya.”

The cocoa market, according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) distinguishes three main types of cocoa beans: Forastero or ‘bulk cocoa’ comprising 93.5% of world cocoa production; the specialty beans, often originating from Criollo planting materials which is rare today and Trinitario, a hybrid that originated in Trinidad from crossings between mixed Criollo and mixed Forastero types.

Bernard Minifie in his work Chocolate, Cocoa and Confectionery (Third Edition) documents that Criollo-the original “wild” variety is found in very small proportion of the world supply and is found in Samoa, Java, and Sri Lanka. This ‘small proportion’ the author alludes to is made even smaller today, says Dr. H.M.P.A Subasinghe, Director (Research), Department of Export Agriculture. “Today what we mostly find locally are crosses of Criollo and Forastero types,” he says.

The fine taste in Sri Lankan Cocoa due to its chemical composition and the high butter content, still puts it among the finest cocoa in the world, says Subasinghe. “While the butter content found in many other foreign varieties is between 35 to 45% our cocoa contains more than 50% butter.” Despite the lucrative revenue it promises in the global market, disease control efforts, animals such as monkeys and giant squirrels that feed on cocoa pods, lack of knowledge on canopy management and the insufficient domestic market price per kilo compared to other crops such as cinnamon, pepper etc. drive many cultivators to abandon cocoa and replace them alternatives crops such as pepper or cinnamon, he says.

Many measures have already been taken by DEA to revive an interest in Sri Lankan Cocoa. Introduction of new varieties, production of quality planting material, support for selection of suitable land, providing soil test reports, issuing of planting material free of charge after registration, subsidies for relevant machinery and processing centers, subsidies with the success of cultivation (80% field establishment), planting material for gap filling, training programmes on planting material production, crop management, pest and disease control and post-harvest technology and other technology transfer activities at field level and providing price and market information are among these.

Cocoa is largely encouraged as an intercrop with coconut where ideal soil and other climatic conditions meet, particularly in the Kurunegala District, says Subasinghe. “The difficulties in finding suitable lands for cocoa as a monocrop in ‘traditional cocoa-grown areas’ (such as Matale, Kandy, Badulla etc.) can be mitigated when it’s intercropped with coconut. Moreover, farmers can generate a higher income from unit land area with a two-crop yield.” With unprecedented climate change, the yield in a main crop can also increase due to modification of micro-climate in the crop environment, he says. Inter-cropping also has more potential for soil and soil moisture conservation and creates a certain amount of ecological balance, points out the researcher.

The domestic requirement for cocoa is around 6,000 MT. Yet only around 600 MTs are presently produced locally according to DEA figures. While a kilo of local cocoa beans is sold around Rs. 450, the world cocoa beans price is around 3 US$. In 2019 according to the DEA, 48,887.8 MT of cocoa beans were imported to the country costing Rs. 3.46 billion. Imports are made largely from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malaysia and Indonesia. Compared to other cocoa exporters, our export figures are negligible points out the DEA. Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ecuador, Cameroon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and the Dominican Republic are the major cocoa exporters according to the ICCO.

Cocoa can do wonders to coconut plantations providing organic fertilizer (with the leaves that are shed) and retaining moisture, points out S.M.M Samarakoon, CEO of Kurunegala Plantations Ltd. “Climate change has taken a huge toll on coconuts resulting in immature falling of the nuts and cocoa as an intercrop can help build a micro-climate within a plantation and thereby increase the yield by about 26%,” says this senior planter. It is also a buffer against soil erosion he adds.

Today 35 acres of coconut in Dodangaslanda estates of Kurunegala Plantations Ltd are complemented by cocoa. A fervent supporter of cocoa, Samarakoon urges the responsible state authorities to kindle more interest in the crop among potential cultivators by introducing a national policy and encourage confectioners to support growers as part of their CSR campaigns.

While it takes five to six years for cocoa to bear, it takes five to six months for fruit to mature. A single tree, according to Samarakoon can produce one kilo of processed beans per season and their plantations produce around three tons per year. The life span of a cocoa tree, if managed well, is 30 to 40 years. The harvest depends on the rainfall pattern. Peak harvesting season is usually from July- August. Once cocoa beans are harvested from the pods, they are allowed to naturally ferment over a period of three to four days before they are dried.

While many cultivators who have been discouraged by pests and diseases to which cocoa is prone, including the black pod disease and swollen shoot disease had abandoned most of their cultivation, Samarakoon is positive that if one is really passionate about this crop, there is always a way out. It is also a means of empowering communities at ground level, he believes. “We get the necessary know-how for fighting diseases and for crop management from the DEA and we have also installed a high frequency device to keep the giant squirrels and monkeys away.”

The cocoa beans supply has been declining over the years and in another ten years times, the volumes will deplete further, lament the cocoa bean suppliers to whom we spoke. “It is tragic that when we have some of world’s finest cocoa, there is no state patronage to revive this dying crop,” remarked one of the old hands who lobbies for a wide scale national intervention to replant cocoa and create a dialogue with potential cultivators and offer more incentives and encourage those who are already in the trade by offering a better buying price.

Ceylon Chocolates Ltd (CCL), is the largest buyer of Sri Lankan cocoa in the local market. The company sources cocoa from Matale, Kandy, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Monaragala and Badulla. “CCL’s factory in Kundasale, housed in one of the prime cocoa-growing regions in the country, is the one and only facility in Sri Lanka equipped with the ‘Beans to Bar’ process,” says Thilan Gunarathne, Plant Manager of CCL in Kundasale. “We are positioned to purchase much larger volumes of local cocoa given the capacity of our processing plant. As a company that prides itself in Sri Lankan empowerment, we urge cultivators to revive their interest in this staple of our chocolates.”

Master chocolatier and internationally renowned patissier Gerard Mendis dreams of manufacturing a ‘100% Sri Lankan Cocoa based chocolate’. “This is my ultimate dream,” says Mendis who has grown up among cocoa and coffee in his ancestral Kandy. A cocoa lover and a farmer in his leisure, Mendis laments that despite the prevalence of ideal growing conditions in the island, cocoa’s decline is fast-tracked with no recognition given to it as a sustainable crop. The connoisseur who had learned the art of gourmet chocolate-making in Switzerland and Belgium, candidly admits that he is yet to taste a type of cocoa superior to ours.

 

(Photo credit: Department of Export Agriculture & Kurunegala Plantations Ltd)

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31st night…Down Under

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The NYE scene at the Grand Reception Centre, in Melbourne

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, the Voluntary Outreach Club (VOC) in Victoria, Australia, was able to hold a successful New Year’s Eve celebration, at The Grand Reception Centre, in Cathies Lane, Wantirna South.

In a venue that comfortably holds 800, the 200 guests (Covid restrictions), spanning three generations, had plenty of room to move around and dance to the array of fabulous music provided by the four bands – Replay 6, Ebony, Cloud 9 with Sonali, Redemption and All About That Brass. 

The drinks provided, they say, oiled the rusty feet of the guests, who were able to finally dress up and attend such an event after nine months of lockdown and restrictions. With plenty of room for dancing, the guests had a thoroughly enjoyable time. 

According to an insider, the sustenance of an antipasto platter, eastern and western smorgasbord, and the midnight milk rice and katta sambol, were simply delicious, not forgetting the fantastic service provided by Jude de Silva, AJ Senewiratne and The Grand staff.

The icing on the cake, I’m told, was the hugely generous sponsorship of the bands by Bert Ekenaike. This gesture boosted the coffers of the VOC, which helps 80 beneficiaries, in Sri Lanka, comprising singles and couples, by sending Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 3,500, per month, to each of these beneficiaries, and augmenting this sum, twice a year, in July and December, with a bonus of the same amounts.

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Fall armyworm:

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Strategies for effective management

by Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

Emeritus Professor of Entomology University of Ruhuna and former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy

Fall armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera; Noctuidae), a quarantine pest, has been identified as a very destructive insect pest of Maize/Corn. This insect originated in Americas and invaded the African region in 2016 and was detected in India the following year and perhaps would have naturally migrated to Sri Lanka last year from India. Now, it is reported that FAW is present in all districts of Sri Lanka except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. In winter in the USA the pest is found in Texas and Florida and subsequent summer when it gets warmed up, the pest migrates up to the Canadian border. The corn belt of China is also at a risk due to its migratory habit and the cost to Africa, due to this invasion, will exceed $ 6 billion. Maize is a staple food crop in Africa and millions depends on it for food. Hence in Africa and now in Asia it is a global food security issue for millions of people that could be at a risk if FAW is not controlled. The adult moth migrates very fast almost 100 km every night and nearly 500 km, before laying 1,500 eggs on average. The entire life cycle lasts 30 days in tropical climate. There are six larval instars and mostly the destruction is caused by the last three instars and the growing moth pupates in the soil for 10-12 days and the nocturnal adults lay eggs on leaves for about 10 days The pest thrives on about 80 host plants but the most preferable host is Corn/Maize. In Sri Lanka the preferred hosts includes Kurakkan and Sugarcane in addition to Maize. The symptoms of damage- scrapping of leaves, pin holes, small to medium elongated holes. Loss of top portion of leaves fecal pellets in leaf whorl which are easily recognizable. The Comb is also attacked in later stages with a heavy infestation, but after removing the FAW affected portion of the comb the remaining portion is still suitable for consumption and there is no fear of any toxicity. There are two morphologically identical strains––maize strain that feeds on maize and sorghum, and rice strain that feeds on rice and pasture grasses. However, in Sri Lanka only the maize strain has been detected so far. FAW thrives in a climate where drought is followed by heavy rains on a similar way we have experienced last year.

Although new agricultural insect pests are found in Sri Lanka, from time to time a number of factors make FAW unique (FAO Publication 2018)

1

FAW consumes many different crops 2 FAW spreads quickly across large geographical areas 3.FAW can persists throughout the year. Therefore Sri Lanka needs to develop a coordinated evidence based effort to scout FAW for farming communities and effective monitoring by the research staff

 

Management

Since the pest has already arrived in Sri Lanka, the Government/ Ministry of Agriculture should formulate short, mid and long term strategies for its effective management with all stakeholders. Also it has to be clear that a single strategy ex pesticides will not help in effective control but a proper combination of tactics, such as integrated pest management should be employed in the long term. In the short term, the recommended pesticides by the Department of Agriculture should be employed along with cultural and sanitary control strategies. These strategies have now been formulated and what is required to enlighten the farmers and people by utilizing the trained staff. The country should be placed on a war footing and an emergency should be declared in the affected areas to coordinate the control strategies. The integrated control tactics, such as cultural control, should be integrated with pesticides based on the recommendation of the research staff. The residues should be destroyed after harvest and avoid late planting and staggered planting. The Ministry of Agriculture should create awareness among the farmers and train the farmers on early detection of egg masses found on leaves and destroy them by hand. The pesticides for FAW control is recommended by the Department of Agriculture (Please contact Registrar of Pesticides of the Department of Agriculture for the recommended list of Pesticides) and they have to make it available at subsidized rates or given free with technical information considering the emergency. When the larvae are small early detection and proper timing of pesticides are critical for elimination of the pest. With this outbreak some farmers and the private sector is engaged using highly hazardous pesticides which should be avoided to make way for sustainable alternatives. The Department Entomologists should train the farmers for early detection of egg masses when present on 5% of the plants and when 25% of the plants show damage symptoms and live larvae are present on war footing. The economic threshold has been calculated as 2-3 live larvae per plant and the control strategies should commence as soon as this threshold is detected by visual observation. The majority of development officers, agriculture and science graduates working in Divisional Secretariats, are already trained on pest control and their participation on training the farmers for early detection and pesticide selection and application warrants the strategy. Some of the recommended pesticides are follows: Chlorantraniliprole 200g/1SC: Trade name Corogen, Emamectin benzoate 5%SG: Trade name Proclaim,, Flubendiamide 24% WG : Trade name Belt. The Principle Entomologist of the Dry Zone Research Station of the Department of Agriculture ( Mrs KNC Gunawardena) has prepared an effective online presentation on FAW control and this has to be shared by all. The African country Ghana has declared a state of emergency in response to this invasion as Maize is a staple crop which should be followed by us in Sri Lanka.

The long term strategies include early detection. Stopping its spread and initiation of a long term research programme to identify tolerant varieties and granting permission to import such varieties as seeds. The country should ear mark on a Biological control strategy by breeding and releasing FAW parasitoids regularly. In USA larval parasitoids such as Apanteles marginiventris, Chelonus insularis and Microplitis manilae have contributed to keep the pest population down along with egg parasitoids Trichrogramma spp and a similar program should be initiated in the affected districts. Finally the best option is to establish a task force with the involvement of entomologists, extension personnel along with the administrators and scientists working in the universities to ensure the country are safe with regards to food security

 

 

The author has read for a PhD at University of Florida Gainesville in the USA in 1985 and his PhD thesis exclusively deals on Fall armyworm parasitoids and its ecology

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President’s decision on Colombo Port in national interest

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by Jehan Perera

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced that the government will be entering into an agreement with the Adani Group, based in India, to offer them 49 percent of the shares in a joint venture company. This joint venture will include Japanese government financing and will manage one of the terminals in the Colombo port. The entry of Adani Group, into the Colombo port, has been opposed by a wide coalition of organisations, ranging from port workers, and left political parties, to nationalists and civil society groups. These groups have little in common with each other but on this particular issue they have made common cause and even held joint protests together. The main thrust of their objections is that control over the East Terminal of the Colombo port will pass into foreign hands and result in an erosion of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The cause for alarm, among the protesting groups, may be fueled by the observation that one by one, the ports of Sri Lanka are being utilized by foreign powers. In particular, China has entered into Sri Lanka in a big way, obtaining a 99-year lease in the Hambantota port that it constructed. The Hambantota port, in its early period, showed it was economically unviable in the absence of Chinese cooperation. The burden of debt repayment induced the previous government to enter into this agreement which may become unfavorable in terms of national sovereignty. There were protests at the time of the signing of that lease agreement, too, though not as effective as the present protests regarding the change of management in the Colombo port, which is led by the very forces that helped to bring the present government into power.

In addition to the Hambantota port, control over the South Terminal in the Colombo port, and a section of the harbour, has been given to China through one of its companies on a 35-year lease. In both cases, large Chinese investments have helped to upgrade Sri Lanka’s capacity to attract international shipping lines to make use of the port facilities. The Hambantota port, in particular, could benefit enormously from Chinese ships that traverse the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa. Instead of making refuelling stops elsewhere along the way, such as Singapore, they could now come to Hambantota. However, with these investments would also come a Chinese presence that could cause concerns among international actors that have geopolitics in mind. It may be that these concerns are finding expression in the opposition to the Indian entry into the Colombo port.

 

RATIONAL ANALYSIS

It will not only be Sri Lankans who are concerned about the Chinese presence in the country’s ports. As Sri Lanka’s nearest neighbour, India, too, would have concerns, which are mirrored by other international powers, such as Japan. It might be remembered that when Japan’s prime minister visited Sri Lanka, in 2014, there was a diplomatic furor that a Chinese submarine entered the Colombo port, unannounced, even to the Sri Lankan government, and docked there. With its excellent relations with China, that go back to the 1950s, when the two countries signed a barter agreement, exchanging rice for rubber, most Sri Lankans would tend to see such Chinese actions in a benign light. In recent years, China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and its assistance is much appreciated. However, India’s relations with China are more complex.

The two countries have massive trade links, but they have also gone to war with each other due to territorial disputes. Even at the present time Indian and Chinese troops are in a stand-off on their disputed Himalayan border. In this context, India would be concerned that the Chinese presence in Sri Lankan ports could eventually take the form of an overall strategy to encircle it and use this leverage to India’s disadvantage. Sri Lanka’s location at the bottom of the Asian continent gives it a strategic importance in the Indian Ocean that goes beyond any possible India-China rivalry. The recent visit of US Secretary of State to Sri Lanka included an acerbic exchange of words between the US and Chinese representatives on that occasion and an open call to Sri Lanka to take sides, or not to take sides. As a small actor in itself, Sri Lanka would have no interest in getting involved in international geopolitics and has a longstanding policy of non-alignment and friendship with all.

More than anyone else, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be aware of these geopolitical issues. As Defence Secretary, during the years of war with the LTTE, he was a key member of the government team that obtained wide ranging international support for prosecuting the war. Today, the President’s key advisers include those with military backgrounds who have special expertise in geopolitical analysis and who have spent time in leading military academies in different parts of the world, including the US, China and India. This contrasts with the more parochial thinking of political, nationalist and even civil society groups who have come out in opposition to the agreement that the government has entered into with the Indian company to manage the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo port.

 

GEOPOLITICAL IMPERATIVE

President Rajapaksa was elected to the presidency in the context of the security debacle of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks and with the expectation that he would provide clear-cut leadership in protecting the country’s national security without permitting partisan interests from becoming obstacles. In his meeting with the representatives of the trade unions, opposing the handing of management of the Eastern Terminal to foreign hands, the President is reported to have said that geopolitics had also to be taken into account. As many as 23 trade unions, representing the Ports Authority, the National Organisations collective, and a number of civil organizations, have joined the formation of a new national movement named the ‘Movement to protect the East Container Terminal’.

One of those political representatives at the meeting, leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), Pubudu Jayagoda, is reported to have said, “When trade unions met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday (13), he told them about the broad geopolitical factors in play. This is reminiscent when the unions met former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a few years back. The unions told Wickremesinghe what they told Rajapaksa––the ECT could be operated by Sri Lanka in a profitable manner. Wickremesinghe told the union representatives, ‘You are talking about the port, I am talking about geopolitics’.” However, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may not have had the necessary political power to ensure that his vision prevailed and failed to ensure the implementation of the agreement.

Entering into the agreement with the Indian company will serve Sri Lanka’s national interests in several ways. By ensuring that India is given a presence in Sri Lanka’s most important port, it will reassure our closest neighbour, as well as Japan, which has been Sri Lanka’s most consistent international donor, that our national security interests and theirs are not in opposition to each other. Second, it takes cognizance of the reality that about two-thirds of the Colombo port’s shipping is due to transshipment with India, and thereby ensures that this profitable business continues. Third, it will give Sri Lanka more leverage to negotiate with India regarding key concerns, which includes Indian support to Sri Lanka at international forums and in providing guarantees for the unity of the country in the face of possible future threats and the need to ensure devolution of power to satisfy ethnic minority aspirations.

 

 

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