Transform the estates into organic plantations - Ven. Athuraliye Ratana thera | Sunday Observer

Transform the estates into organic plantations - Ven. Athuraliye Ratana thera

The island’s tea industry should be transformed into an organic and sustainable industry from the present chemically-managed, orthodox industry, says, Parliamentarian and Presidential Advisor Ven. Athuraliye Ratana thera.

The thera made these remarks following our lead story on June 18 on a possible relaxation of the ban on the herbicide glyphosate after a committee recommendation.

He is of the view that the country’s agriculture sector should move away from using chemicals and develop a ‘poison-free’ agricultural base in the years to come. “This is a concept the Yahapalana government agreed to adhere to, and on which we took a policy decision to ban imports of glyphosate, a well known weedicide, in 2015.

I will not allow the relaxation of this ban, although a committee has recommended limited stocks of imports of the weedicide,” he told the Sunday Observer, in an interview.

The tea growers have been lamenting over the ban during the past two years as it caused a huge problem in the Industry, which marks 150 years this year.

Industry analysts say, the local tea industry is currently going through some of the biggest challenges ever, from labour issues to low production and some even say the Industry is at a crossroads.

Think out of the box

In this backdrop, when asked whether he really wants to do away with pesticides in tea, he said, Sri Lankan tea growers should be geared to change with the times and tea growers and plantation companies need to think out of the box.

The thera who pushed for the pesticide-free commitment of the Yahapalana government, is now keeping an eye on any developments on weedicide imports, especially, any news on possible glyphosate imports. “I am against weedicides. That decision will not change.”

Tea growers say, when using chemicals initially, there can be a big fall in the production. Rathana thera says, be it a state-owned, privately-owned or private sector-run regional plantation companies, they should start drawing up long-term plans to convert their tea production to organic.

“This needs time –perhaps we need plans up to the next 10 years. But, we must begin somewhere; so that, we could see a drastic change in our entire agriculture sector within the next 10 years.”

Long-term solution

The thera who campaigned strongly against the use of glyphosate in tea and paddy growing areas, says, it is his government’s policy, and they came to power with the promise of making a Sri Lanka sans poison.

‘Now we cannot make a U turn. We need to find proper indigenous solutions.”

He admitted that Government support is needed for organic tea production to thrive in Sri Lanka. ”Actually, the government should start the pilot project, and run it successfully in a state-owned tea plantation first, and let the Industry follow those rules and regulations. That will work.”

Organic tea farming is not a new concept in Sri Lanka. Several private sector companies have successfully implemented this concept already, and they are fetching high prices for their teas, he said.

Organic tea fetches much better prices in the world market; it is more than three-times what growers get for other teas.

Go organic

Hence, going organic is a very profitable income earning activity, he added.

Contradicting the claims by the tea industry representatives on glyphosate usage in other tea growing countries, such as, Kenya and India, the thera said, both countries have reduced glyphosate use over the past few years and around the globe the use of glyphosate has decreased by 25% over the past five years.

Rathana thera who wants a chemical free agriculture industry in Sri Lanka, says, ‘there are no short term alternatives or solutions for the plantations.’

He says, although his critics continue to justify the glyphosate imports, and say no kidney patients are found in the hill country or in areas where tea is widely grown, its negative impact is higher in terms of soil erosion, and passing down chemicals into streams that begin from the hill country, he claims.

He stresses that many Sri Lankan institutions, including some of the key universities have done research on these issues. However, they are not being openly discussed, due to various reasons.

No permanent solution

Agreeing with the facts that tea is a competitive market and our cost of production is quite high, Rathana thera says, Sri Lanka can sell organic tea at the rate of 10 dollars a kilo, compared with two and a half dollars they get for chemically produced tea. “I want the RPCs to work on the organic concept from now onwards,” he said.

He said, the traditional way of supplying tea to the world market is no longer possible. “We need to make a bold decision now because glyphosate is not a permanent solution.”

Therefore, the thera is planning to propose to the government to set up a model tea plantation of about 1,500 acres to produce organic tea. “I am not a businessman - but I also want to support the tea industry.”

When asked why this was not done so far, he added that he and an expert team wanted to meet the Plantations Industries Minister to discuss these ideas several times.

“I had asked for a meeting with Minister Navin Dissanayake and his officials; to-date it has not been given,” he lamented. -CJ