By Chandre Dharmawardana
According to a recent news report (The Island 23rd June 2023), Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has claimed that the “agricultural sector to be transformed into an export-oriented economy”! This is a surprising statement since the plantation sector, established by the British, has been from the start (and even now) an export-oriented economy. It is no secret that this traditional but well-established export earning sector is in trouble due to successive politically and ideologically motivated moves that began with the nationalisation of the sector, de-nationalisation of the sector, “greening” of the sector to satisfy eco-extremists who wanted herbicides like glyphosate banned, and then banned fertilisers and all agrochemicals (see: ) banned from the country.
What the country needs at this moment is cutting down imports by achieving self sufficiency in energy and food needs locally, and NOT prioritising export-oriented agriculture.
The minister is making the usual mistake that the country must “earn foreign exchange” by increasing its export earnings. This however is NOT as simple as it looks. Any such development of an export-oriented market requires the investment of a large amount of initial capital most of which would be in foreign exchange, and competing with established vendors for market acceptance. The export-oriented plantation industry set up by the British involved automatic market penetration, and also a very large investment in foreign capital, road and rail construction, and the best industrial know-how of that era as the British Islands were the then leaders of the industrial revolution. Today that valuable rail system has deteriorated due to poor maintenance. An export-oriented market needs the efficient support of all that valuable infra-structure that countries like China have built up.
The official statement says, “Minister Amaraweera asserted that comprehensive strategies have been formulated to meet the country’s domestic consumption demands, ensuring the success of all agricultural products”. This is a blanket statement covering everything and saying nothing, drawn up by ministry henchmen whose comprehensive strategy is nothing but spinning words.
SAVING foreign exchange that is used up in importing food stuffs (e.g., sugar) that can be easily produced in Sri Lanka itself should be much easier than earning foreign exchange. An even more important source of saving foreign exchange is in developing LOCAL sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. Fossil fuels (e.g., diesel) can be replaced by non-edible vegetable oils that can be extracted from, e.g., castor, an easily grown weed-like plant that yields seeds within a year. The castor oil suitably transformed (to reduce the viscosity), or simply mixed with ethanol can be used in combustion engines. Ethanol can be produced by fermentation technology, well-known to every Kassippu brewer. The burning of such oils is much cleaner than burning fossil fuels as the molecules of these vegetable fuels contain more oxygen (See ). It must not be forgotten that Diesel himself ran his engines using vegetable oils. Vegetable oils were replaced by fossil fuel only after 1923 by which time the West was literally stealing oil for free from various conquered lands.
Furthermore, when a major war is raging (as is the case right now, in Ukraine) saving foreign exchange by establishing energy and food security is more likely to be successful than by promoting agricultural products and soft consumer exports (like garments). These are adversely affected during a war when the available money is channeled to military raw materials. So, Bangladesh that was doing well just recently is now in big trouble with its soft exports. However, given that there has always been a war (Afghan-US war lasted 11 years till just recently, and so on), small countries can be strategic in developing appropriate exports keeping strategic materials in mind.
But the minister has been wrongly advised to push for export-oriented agriculture while even the domestic needs for sugar and edible oils are not met. It is unlikely that the Minster had considered strategic raw materials that become valuable during war time. This seems to have escaped even the author Prabhat Patnaik in his essay entitled “Pitfalls of export-oriented growth” (see ).
During World War II, then political leaders like D. S. Senanayake and Oliver Goonetileke realised the importance of Rubber and made a lot of money, and continued to make more money during the Korean war. At that time Government leaders had the support of an excellent and honest administrative staff, as seen by the ease and efficiency of the Gal Oya project that was done within budget, without incurring foreign debt or foreign aid, and well on time. The political leaders accepted the advice of the top civil servants who in turn worked with British or US experts. At that time a significant local scientific community did not exist. Today, there is a significant local scientific community; but they seemed to be sidelined by the government, not only in archaeology (as has happened in regard to the Kurundi temple in Mooladoova, now known as Mullaitive), but also in agriculture, energy, and engineering.
This healthy balance of payments that existed after the Korean war vanished rapidly after 1956 when Western investors pulled out, fearing SWRD’s cabinet that included Phillip Gunawardena and other avowed Marxists who were threatening nationalisation of privately held foreign and local assets.
Natural rubber, activated charcoal, graphite, titanium, plumbago, kaolin, and many other things that Sri Lanka has can be exploited at a much higher price during a war. Furthermore, aviation fuel can be produced from various vegetable oils. The Ukrainian war has all the signs of a war that will last several years and more. Enterprising businessmen should be given government support to strategically position their exports to the war market.
Many writers including the present author have written about these topics in the past. However, pseudoscientists posing as environmental gurus had joined with opponents of the “green revolution” to mislead the public with false claims of toxins like arsenic and cadmium being in food, or “exponential increases in non-communicable diseases” that had been allegedly caused by the use of agrochemicals and fertilisers. Advocates of “organic farming” or “traditional farming,” etc., had joined with these false environmentalists and successfully sidelined modern agricultural science. Unproven microbial fertilisers have been added to this witches’ brew to further exploit the hapless farmer. It is not clear if the Minister’s advisors are able to shed the myths that have taken hold of Sri Lanka’s agriculture and give him proper advice.
Those who claim to communicate with divine beings like God Natha had dictated agricultural policy and even the health policy of Sri Lanka. Very often, the naïve beliefs of some of the political leaders were in line with the views of these traditionalists who hold a nostalgic and romantic view of the past anchored in occult beliefs. Some of them had called for the elimination of the tea plantations claiming them to have only dwindling value.
Unfortunately, they are wrong. The minister’s belief that new efforts in agriculture must be made “export oriented” is to put the cart before the horse. What he should do to begin with is to support and strengthen the EXISTING export-oriented plantation sector, while also giving priority to developing an agricultural sector that will provide local self sufficiency in energy and food. That will rapidly SAVE large amounts of foreign exchange for a modest outlay mainly in local funds.