Agricultural workers drive harvesters in paddy fields amid the country’s worst economic crisis, in Kilinochchi district, Sri Lanka, July 28, 2022. REUTERS/Devjot Ghoshal

Kilinochchi/Colombo, Sri Lanka: N allathambi Mahendran roamed four acres of emerald green paddy fields in the Kilinochchi district of northern Sri Lanka to demonstrate the height the plants have reached so far. They were a few feet shorter.

Farmers, union leaders and local government officials say rice crops in much of this major rice belt have been stunted for two seasons in a row due to lack of fertilizer.

On the 10,900 hectares of cultivated land in Kilinochchi, average yields are likely to reach 2.3 tonnes per hectare, according to government estimates confirmed by Reuters.

Rice fields in the area had produced about 4.5 tonnes per hectare in the past few years, said a local government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

A bleak picture is emerging for rice farmers on this Indian Ocean island, where summer yields could fall by as much as half of the previous year’s, according to experts.

As a staple food in Sri Lanka, it points to further pressures on a country already suffering from the worst economic crisis of modern times, including runaway inflation and rising levels of malnutrition.

Fertilizer shortage is not the only problem for farmers. The country has few foreign exchange reserves to import enough fuel, so it lacks agricultural machinery and trucks to bring rice to market. Some farmers say their crops are not worth harvesting.

Compounding the economic misery is the poor crop, which has forced the island to use precious foreign exchange reserves, credit lines from India, and foreign aid to import hundreds of thousands of tons of rice. means that you must

Rice production during the ongoing ‘yala’ or summer farming season could be halved from the previous year’s average of 2 million tonnes, according to Buddhi Marambe, crop science professor at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya. .

“This is mainly due to lack of fertilizer during the vegetative growth stage of the crop,” Malambe said. “Urea was made available after much effort, but in many areas it was too late.”

Sri Lanka has been self-sufficient in rice for decades, but last year it went to international markets to buy 149,000 tonnes of grain after fertilizer shortages hit initial production. The country already has import contracts for 424,000 tonnes.

More imports may be needed to stave off food shortages in the first two months of 2023 or until the ‘maha’ crops planted in September are harvested, Malambe said. .

A commission appointed by the agriculture ministry is currently assessing the need for additional imports, said an agriculture ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the food situation and possible imports.

Rice is the staple food for 22 million people in the country and the country’s largest crop. According to government data, his 2 million people in the country are rice farmers, of his 8.1 million who are mostly engaged in fishing and agriculture in the rural economy.

even worse

With food inflation already above 90% year-on-year, according to July data, the World Food Program (WFP) said about 6.7 million Sri Lankans out of a population of 22 million were not eating enough. I’m guessing.

There may be more pain.

Plagued by a potential halving of ‘yala’ crops, shortages of fertilizers and rising input costs, some farmers in Kilinochchi are turning to ‘maha’, a fertile area provided by an intricate system of irrigation ponds and canals. I am considering withdrawing from farming. Season.

“We can’t make money even if we work in the paddy fields,” said the tall Mahendran, 67, with silver streaks in his hair. I do not farm in

The Iranaimadu Farmers Federation, which represents about 7,500 farmers in the Kilinochchi region, conveyed the same message to local government officials at a recent meeting.

“Fuel is our biggest problem,” said Muthu Shivamohan, secretary of the federation, near a petrol and diesel filling station, where a line of cars stretched three kilometers along the main road through the town of Kilinochchi. 2 miles) extended.

“We cannot harvest or sow the next crop,” said Shivamohan.

He said most of the paddy crops in the Kilinochchi district should be harvested within a few weeks, but “there are no trucks coming from outside to buy and transport our crops.”

Diesel for combine harvesters has been rationed, and the shortage of fuel has led to fewer trucks carrying rice.

Some critics attribute Sri Lanka’s ongoing food crisis to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s April 2021 decision to ban chemical fertilizers overnight.

The ban was lifted last November in the face of widespread protests from the farming community, but before supplies were interrupted and most Sri Lankan farmers were left with the fertilizer they needed for last year’s ‘maha’ season. There was not.

By April, the financial crisis in Sri Lanka had choked the economy and the Rajapaksa government was unable to procure enough fertilizer as foreign exchange reserves were at record lows.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine sent prices skyrocketing, and foreign currency shortages also squeezed imports of essential commodities such as fuel, cooking gas, medicines and food.

“Die every day”

The resulting shortages lead to outbursts of public anger against the government and the once-in-power president, and mass protests, sometimes violent, that ultimately force Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign as president. I was forced to

There were no major anti-government demonstrations in Kilinochchi, where the Sri Lankan military maintains a very large presence, a remnant of decades of bloody civil war that ended in 2009.

But the effects of the collapsing economy spill over into the hinterland, and some farmers who survived the war, which killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people, are suffering.

Chinnathambi Lankashwaran said it usually costs about 70,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($197) per acre to cultivate 75 acres of land and recover about 40 bags of rice from each acre.

A combination of scarcity and inflation has doubled his cost to Rs.

Some farmers estimate that the cost of agricultural inputs has risen dramatically.

A bag of urea that used to cost Rs 1,500 is now Rs 40,000. Royant, a popular rice herbicide, sells for his Rs 100,000 a liter, more than ten times the normal price.

The price of the empty bags that farmers put their crops in has tripled to Rs 160 per bag and the thread used to tie the bags is sold at around Rs 1,200 per kg, more than five times more than before. I’m here.

Black market prices for diesel hover around 1,200 rupees ($3.38) per liter, well above the 430 rupees for licensed pumps.

But supplies are running low, and Rankeswaran said he kept 300 bags of wheat at home because traders didn’t have the fuel to pick it up.

“At the time, we were afraid of where the bombs would come from,” said the 49-year-old farmer, referring to the civil war that displaced a family of four. ”

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