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Sri Lanka’s tea smallholders estimate a 30% Year-on-Year (YoY) drop in harvests by the end of 2021, and a further halving of total production by March 2022 in the absence of a definite solution to acute fertiliser shortages following a controversial import ban.
Accounting for over 70% of Sri Lanka’s total tea production, the tea smallholder sector is comprised of approximately 500,000 land owners, spread across 138,900 hectares, 14 districts, and 123 District Secretariat Divisions and 3,692 Grama Niladari Divisions, and is deeply connected to rural economies in over 5,000 villages, approximately 20% of the island’s rural population.
“We are keen to support the Government’s vision, but we need a practical plan to achieve it, that also clearly ensures the wellbeing of all tea smallholders, and the wider industry. Most tea smallholders have been deprived of fertiliser for almost two months, and there are some who were already facing difficulties in acquiring fertiliser even prior to the announcement of the import ban, and as a result have not applied fertiliser for the whole of 2021,” Sri Lanka Federation of the Tea Small Holders Chairman K.L. Gunaratne stated.
“For most in our sector, tea is their only significant source of income and with the drastic increase in cost of living consequent to the impact of COVID-19, these communities are now facing the most extreme pressure yet. We have approximately 1.5 million individuals whose families that depend on this industry to pay for food, medicine, and education of their children. With the ongoing absence of fertiliser, tea smallholders are fearful and many are calling for the entire sector to take to the streets. They need reassurance, and they need solutions urgently.”
He further noted that there is bound to be a reduction in production and therefore the lowering of incomes of smallholder sectors would have a devastating impact on Sri Lanka’s rural economy.
“There are many secondary and tertiary sectors involved in this industry, from those engaged in transporting up to the mudalali buying the tea. All of them will be affected by the fall of the tea industry. The rural economy will certainly collapse if there is no proper system or plan to manage this situation,” Gunaratne added.
Fertiliser shortages and drastic price hikes for available stocks have been reported across Sri Lanka following the announcement of a total ban on import and use of inorganic fertiliser. The ban was announced as part of a decision to rapidly convert the island’s entire agriculture and plantation economy into total organic cultivation.
In the absence of any guiding principles how such a vision could be achieved, heated debate has arisen around concerns over food security, and a reduction in export crops, which in turn could exacerbate an already severe macroeconomic crisis.
Gunaratne explained how depending on the stage of plant’s growth, different specialised types of fertilisers are applied based on Tea Research Institute recommendations. Distinct types of fertilisers are used to strengthen the root systems and promote growth, to strengthen stems, and prior to harvest. Typically, tea bushes in the smallholder sector are harvested three-four times a month, after which the plant needs additional nutrients to recover in time for the next harvest.
“Without fertiliser, tea leaves start to turn yellow and lose their quality. They also harden which makes them significantly harder to pluck as well. If we are to switch to organic, there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done to educate smallholders on these practices. Major investments are also needed to help implement organic practices without losing any further income. If compensation is to be provided to farmers affected by the ban, then it is essential that tea smallholders are also included.
“There have been attempts at organic agriculture even in the stallholder sector previously, but they have never been able to generate the same yields. If what the Government’s experts are saying is correct, then it is of course important to ensure the long-term health of our nation through organic agriculture. But without proper yields, these families have no food today, which means their health is already threatened,” Gunaratne stated.
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