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Sri Lanka is going through a serious crisis caused by a number of economic factors. One recurring theme, besides the Covid tourism crash, is the collapse of local agriculture following a ban on industrial fertilizers (or at least on importing them) in favor of all-organic fertilizers.

Googling the terms fertilizer sri lanka why quickly shows all sorts of issues with the implementation of this policy. From deficient Chinese imports to farmer productivity crashes.

But why was that ban implemented in the first place?

  • what did the government's declarations of intent during its election campaigning cite as reasons?

  • what have opposition politicians/media cited as possible motivations?

(Sri Lanka ranks 146/180 on Reporters wo Borders Press Freedom index in 2022, so be mindful of that when citing local newspapers like this article.)

p.s. Spelling out the obvious: this is not asking multiple questions in asking what the govt said or what the opposition said. Citing those possible sources is to pre-empt the other close vote reason: Questions asking for the internal motivations of people, .... So what did either source have to say?

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    My understanding is that they didn't ban them but rather banned importing them. But I won't post an answer as I don't have enough primary sources to back up my claims. Jul 13, 2022 at 20:45
  • If one answer describes the gov't position and another the opposition's, which one are you going to accept?
    – Fizz
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:21
  • @Fizz I'll decide which answer is the most informative to my one question, which that in the title. Jul 14, 2022 at 5:44
  • Further meta-discussion on this Q's format politics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6321/…
    – Fizz
    Jul 27, 2022 at 17:14

3 Answers 3

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In their policy document and this 2021 news report, the Government cite campaign promises, public health and "guaranteeing the people‟s right for safe food".

"Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa says his policy to use only organic fertilizer is for a healthy future generation."

The President noted: "Sri Lankan agriculture will promote and popularize organic agriculture during next ten years and it is the responsibility of the government to act in accordance with the promises made to the people."

It seems climate change and "sustainable development" were also ideas behind the fertilizer import ban.

"Secretary to the President PB Jayasundera and members of the 46-member Presidential Task Force on Creating a Green Sri Lanka with Sustainable Solutions to Climate Change were also present. "

Government policy "vistas of prosperity and splendor" (I believe published in 2020) and it contains the goal: "guaranteeing the people's right for safe food" which is linked to the action "Convert traditional farming villages into users of only organic fertilizer."

This link has more discussion of their stated motivations

The government said that the move was to propel a new agricultural revolution that is not against nature.

They justified all of this with promises to pay farmers who's yields would be reduced

"The government is ready to pay more than the guaranteed price and purchase the paddy crop if there is a change in income to the farmer from the reduction in yield due to the use of organic fertilizer"

My take on all of this is that they had a mistrust of modern farming, a romantic and populist idea of how farming should work, and imposed that on the Country with disastrous results.

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    But this is clearly a spin, an attempt to rationalise/sell a policy by the government. A proper answer would need some independent analyst sources. From what I read, this was primarily an attempt to preserve the (severely) dwindling foreign exchange reserves of the country by restricting import in general, while fertilizer was a major item of import for this agricultural country. I'm just not qualified enough to write such answer...
    – Zeus
    Jul 14, 2022 at 1:23
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    @Zeus A proper answer would.... No, not really, this question was asking also what officially communicated reasons by the government were, making this a good answer. So what if it is a spin? It is the government's communicated spin, as asked. This request for the ban, pretending to be independent speech, wouldn't be a good answer however, because the SL has limited free press. i.e. what did the government say? or what did the opposition say? Jul 14, 2022 at 1:28
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    @Italian, yes, but that's only part of the answer. There is nothing even about 'the opposition'. But in the end, the question is 'What were the motivations...', 'why was that ban implemented', not just 'what they say were the motivations'.
    – Zeus
    Jul 14, 2022 at 1:39
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    yes, it's spin, their policy document is literally titled "vistas of prosperity and splendor" 🤢. But I've at least found some of their policy and statements which gives insight into how they justified it. Jul 14, 2022 at 2:03
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    A more nuanced take on WSJ's claims @ Politico. (Note that WSJ referenced news18, a source rated as questionable by mediabias...). And American Council Science and Health coverage Jul 28, 2022 at 16:32
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+150

As I see the only alternative to the official reason suggested/discussed is about bomb-making... that's hardly the only one in the press. A non-exhaustive list of other reasons suggested:

  • Some farmers said the government wanted to do a land grab (and so impoverishing farmers was a quick way to achieve that). Something that the Tamil press has claimed before, in broad terms.
  • The government also seems to have discussed the fertilizers' direct budget costs, albeit not so directly describing them as a reason. So, they may have wanted to reduce the [external] balance of payments because most of the fertilizer was imported (totalling some $400 million/year) and/or reduce the budget outlays on subsidies thereof (as fertilizer ws also subsidized) especially in the context of tourism income crash due to Covid-19. (Apparently there were prior attempts to reduce fertilizer subsidies, or at least make them more efficient by changing the scheme, but that was also marred by flip-flopping.) The NYT quotes a former government adviser somewhat ridiculing the official "health reasons"

“The country was hit not with chronic kidney disease,” said Dr. Aruna Kulatunga, a former government adviser on primary industries and agriculture, “but with a chronic shortage of dollars.”

  • As far as I can tell, the official leader of the parliamentary opposition didn't dwell much on contesting the official motivation of the government's measure. But since the measure was unpopular in itself with the farmers, whom he joined in a protest, he probably didn't need to focus too much on imputing alternatives motives (as opposed to just contesting the measure as having bad foreseeable consequences), although he did allude to a "conspiracy to make our country one of the largest “Garbage Mountains” in the world" by importing organic fertilizer, which he called "waster fertilizer" in that context. The leader of the far-left JVP party was more explicit he suspected corruption might be involved in such import plans:

Although the president claims that this decision had been taken to provide food free of chemicals and making the soil healthy a doubt arises whether by arriving at this decision he is enabling his close associates to import rubbish from foreign countries as organic manure.

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  • +1 There is a lot more press mention of the budgetary motivation around (Indian press for example) than there is about the bomb making which I find extremely speculative - and so far unsourced by anyone here (an arrest does not equate to policy). Jul 27, 2022 at 19:44
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Bombmaking goes up during a violent transfer of power.

While @roo2 's answer is the official spin (and is likely to be partially true), it is not uncommon for governments in crisis to ban explosive-making chemicals so as to avoid possible terrorists/freedom fighters from using explosives against the government and its representatives. And in an article from a year ago, it appears that this reasoning was at least somewhat justified.

Why don't I think that the organic-farming line is accurate? No competent science/agricultural advisor would advise that fundamental changes to farming can be done overnight. Farmers tend towards low financial risk due to the small profit margins on farming, especially in Sri Lanka. It would take ten years or more to make a transition like this with the proper education and finagling of agricultural interests. The only scenario I can see where a competent leader would even try such a thing is if the government were in extreme danger due to hyperinflation and they were throwing ideas at the proverbial wall in hopes something stuck.

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  • Did Sri Lanka ban fertilizers during their war with the Tigers? Jul 20, 2022 at 21:46
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Sri Lanka actually subsidized fertilizer for farmers from 1962-1989, but decided against the policy after the 1987 Colombo bus station bombing. Productivity dropped, so from 1995-97 they reintroduced it. But in early 1996 the Colombo Central Bank bombing injured thousands, so it was cut off again. 1997-2004 they only subsidized urea fertilizer, as it can't be used for bombmaking without a large source of nitrogen.
    – Carduus
    Jul 21, 2022 at 12:54
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    If bombmaking is the issue, you'd only need to ban nitrate fertilizers and could still allow urea fertilizers.
    – Roland
    Jul 27, 2022 at 5:49
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    So, to sum it up, 2 arguments. One, an arrest of a bomb maker (which can be sensitive even post-war - see Easter bombings of 2019) but which few link to this ban. And 2 your sentiment that no one would be this stupid, even though Rajapaksa, a strongman taking decisions outside of a democratic process, seems to have been genuinely anti modern farming and this is, after all, a policy that quite a lot of Western vocal opponents of "agribusiness" would like to see implemented at home, if only they had the power to decide. Jul 28, 2022 at 15:49

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