For R. Daranagama, a 70-year-old rice farmer, this year has been one of the most difficult years in his life.
■ Sri Lanka has been fighting the worst economic crisis in decades, but Daranagama has barely touched the four-acre vineyard this season. If he does not have access to fertilizer, he and other farmers expect crop yields to fall, threatening food supplies across the country that are already at stake.
“I don’t know what the harvest will be,” said Daranagama, who grows rice in the coastal areas of Gampaha. “I have never seen such a situation”
Sri Lanka, a tear-shaped island in southern India, is at increased risk of hunger. The shortage of flour and milk powder is widespread. Inflation rate for food is about 60%. Faced with exorbitant costs, many farmers like Daranagama have completely skipped rice cultivation this season. It’s a terrifying turnaround for middle-income countries that once had no problems feeding a population of 22 million.
The economic collapse of Sri Lanka has been the most disastrous since achieving independence from Britain in 1948 and has severely affected the agricultural sector. Rice production during the final harvest had already plummeted by 40% to 50%. Currently, according to Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, a shortage of seeds and fertilizers could reduce yields by up to 50% this year.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that controlling hunger will be one of Sri Lanka’s biggest challenges over the coming months, encouraging people to start stockpiling supplies. The United Nations estimates that nearly a quarter of the population already needs food aid.
Jayabaldana Pridalshani, the mother of four living in Hambantota, home of the dominant Rajapaksa dynasty, said her family ate fish and eggs every day. These days, they can afford to have those items only once a month. She said that despite the abundance of fish, schools stopped providing food to students and fishermen rarely went out to sea due to lack of fuel.
“Children here, including myself, suffer from fatigue and weakness,” she said, adding that doctors warned that they were a symptom of protein deficiency.
The problem reverberates throughout Sri Lanka. Opponent leader Sajith Premadasa said an estimated 15% of children in the country were “wasting”. The term refers to underweight children with weak immune systems, delayed development, illness, and even vulnerable death.
At Lady Ridgeway Hospital, the country’s largest children’s Colombo, about 20% of patients suffer from malnutrition due to an ongoing crisis, local media reported. Malnutrition poses a significant financial burden in terms of increased medical costs and reduced productivity.
Read: A powerful dynasty bankrupted Sri Lanka in just 30 months
Sri Lanka’s predicament stems from depletion of foreign exchange reserves, premature tax cuts, loss of tourist dollars, and the turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the agricultural sector, policy failures are also a factor. In April 2021, the government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, banned the import of synthetic fertilizers to direct the country to organic farming.
But without enough preparation, the plan backfired. The entire agricultural chain in Sri Lanka is about one-third of the labor force, and 8% of GDP faced turmoil. Export income from tea, the main source of income, has been exhausted. As the backlash increased, the government began withdrawing the ban in November.
President Rajapaksa said the ban on synthetic fertilizers aims to increase farmers’ incomes by providing them with sustainable and cheap alternatives. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, he acknowledged the issue of execution.
“Our organic fertilizer maker wasn’t capable, but I wasn’t informed,” he said. “We did not receive support from the person in charge.”
Many are worried that without relief from the International Monetary Fund, Sri Lanka could go the way of Venezuela and essentially worthless currencies could cause difficulties over the years to come. doing. For weeks, demonstrators have closed parts of the capital, Colombo. Much of the anger of the people is directed at the Rajapaksa family, who have led the country for most of the last two decades.
The shock wave from the fertilizer ban continues to echo. As the cost of producing paddy crops has doubled, fewer farmers are preparing for this year’s Yarra harvest, which coincides with the May-August monsoon season.
The situation is desperate for the poor Sri Lankans. Agriculture Minister Amaraweera said it was the only solution to the crisis and urged people to grow their crops at home. For the next three months, the government took state officials off work on Friday to clean the yard. To meet the shortage, Sri Lanka will have to spend more than $ 200 million to import fertilizer this year.
So far, the government expects a total of $ 150 million in support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, according to senior officials familiar with the matter. India’s Export-Import Bank has already provided Sri Lanka with a $ 55 million loan to purchase urea, a type of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And China sent rice shipments to fill the supply gap.
However, the war in Ukraine has reduced food stocks and recorded global prices for grain and fertilizer, resulting in a shortage of options in Sri Lanka. As part of its emergency response, the World Food Program has begun distributing food vouchers to some pregnant women with the goal of providing assistance to the most vulnerable 3 million people. Even with humanitarian aid and recent increases in cultivation, widespread hunger can occur if more farmers are unable to grow or harvest crops due to soaring prices.
K. Sugath, a 52-year-old farmer, said the challenges were piled up. He couldn’t get urea and only planted one acre of paddy fields this season. Many farmers in his area opposed cultivation altogether, claiming that the available organic fertilizers could only harvest limited crops. Higher fuel prices also mean that tractor operating costs are now doubling.
Sugas isn’t optimistic about his harvest, but he’s worried that if he wants to continue to nourish his family, he can’t help it.
“Paddy prices have gone up, but no one is selling,” he said.