Ceylon Tea, victim of a trade dispute - Tea Board Chief | Sunday Observer

Ceylon Tea, victim of a trade dispute - Tea Board Chief

The temporary ban on Ceylon Tea by Russia will have a light impact on exports in the short run, as Russia will not intensify buying until mid January due to the Christmas holidays, a top official of the Sri Lanka Tea Board said.

Besides, tea exporters to Russia could breathe a sigh of relief, as there is no tea auction during the last week of the year. The tea export sector anticipates a sharp drop in demand at auctions due to the ban.

Sri Lanka Tea Board Chairman Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda said there will be no tea auction as customary during the last week of the year and added that the first auction of the New Year will take place on January 3 and 4.

“In any case, Russian tea buying will probably not intensify until mid-January as Russia’s Christmas holidays occur in the first week of January, according to the Orthodox Christian tradition. We are hopeful that the ban on Ceylon tea imports will be lifted by then and that trade will return to normal,” Dr. Pethiyagoda said.

However, a delegation led by Dr Rohan Weerakoon, DG/Agriculture, including representatives of the National Plant Quarantine Service, Tea Board, ​Tea Research Institute, Ministry of Plantation Industries and Attorney-General’s Department, will leave for Moscow today, and will hold discussions with the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance of the Russian Federation on December 27 and 28.

The delegation is expected to discuss revisions to the existing phytosanitary safeguards applicable to tea exported from Sri Lanka and provide assurances that this incident will not recur in the future.

“I am confident that the Russian side will find these assurances adequate,” Dr. Pethiyagoda said. According to the Tea Board Chief, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia, Dr Saman Weerasinghe will meet Russia’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture, llya Shestakov, on December 26 to discuss issues pertaining to trade between Sri Lanka and the Russian Federation, including the tea issue.

“I acknowledge that the ban has a damaging impact on the reputation of Ceylon Tea not just in Russia but also in the rest of the world. It is unfortunate that tea became the victim in what is essentially a trade dispute.

The challenge before the Tea Board now, is to launch a public-relations campaign in Russia and other key markets to provide assurances to consumers that the Russian incident was an anomaly and that Ceylon Tea remains the purest tea in the world,” Dr. Pethiyagoda said.

The Tea Board chief has a feeling that there wouldn’t be an immediate answer to the issue from Russia until the end of the Christmas holidays.

However, exporters said that if the issue is not resolved speedily, tea exports would suffer heavy losses as Russia buys a large quantity of tea during winter.

Tea Exporters Association Past Chairman Rohan Fernando said if this issue on the temporary ban is not resolved expeditiously, the tea industry will suffer, first, with reduced demand at the auctions especially at a time when Russia buys the most amount of tea during the winter season and second, other countries will be suspicious about Ceylon Tea and thereby there will be a need for stringent quarantine procedures which will increase costs and delay shipments.

He said the speedy intervention by President Maithripala Sirisena is much appreciated by the industry, “but the President must be correctly advised to tread carefully in handling the issue going deeper into the root causes and not merely look on the surface.”

“The problem in Russia concerning the tea and agricultural products appears not so serious on the surface. But could be serious from an analytical point and may direct to several areas of concern for the Russians. Instead of issuing hasty statements and despatching delegates of different proportions it would be prudent to go deep into the problem and find the root cause,” Fernando said.

He said that there could be several concerns for the Russian authorities apart from the genuine fear for the khapra-betel known to be a devastating specimen among the pests in the insect world.

“Our close ties with the US, which also angered the Chinese at one time, the ban of asbestos raw material from Russia with effect from January 2018 and the purchase of navy Frigates being held up. These issues may also hold the key to unearth the real problem concerning the temporary ban slapped on tea imports with effect from December 19.

“It now appears the prudent way to solve the current impasse is to have a healthy dialogue through the Ministry of Foreign affairs. Serge Lavrov, the Sinhala speaking veteran Russian Foreign Minister will certainly facilitate a meeting to resolve the issue, amicably as Sri Lanka has always been considered a friend of Russia.

“We cannot for a minute forget how the Russian Government with China supported Sri Lanka at the UN during the war against terrorism and how we benefited from defence related equipment when the US and the Western allies blocked military aid and assistance to finish the terrorist war,” Fernando said.