Julie Smit –
When Sri Lanka descended into economic, social and political chaos in the first half of 2022, the crisis not only led to the collapse of the Rajapaksa dynasty that had controlled the country for decades after a massive popular uprising, but also to attacks on organic farming far beyond the island itself.
While the eyes of the world were focused largely on the war in Ukraine and its repercussions, attention shifted briefly to Sri Lanka in April, where a situation that had been simmering for many years came to the boil. Popular protests that became known as the “Aragalaya” or Struggle of the People erupted in major cities throughout the country as protesters unified around the call “Gota Go Home”, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after months of skyrocketing prices and shortages of fuel, cooking gas, medicines and food. Public transport collapsed, schools were forced to close and the population was confronted with lengthy power cuts.
The government responded with violence to the peaceful protests, leaving some eight people dead and many injured. The Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, resigned from office in May after his home was stormed by the protesters.
His successor Ranil Wickremesinghe extended the state of emergency in place, using the emergency regulations to crack down on protesters, civil society activists, lawyers and journalists with harassment, arbitrary arrests and harsh prison sentences. The emergency measures empowered the president to ban public gatherings, while the spreading of rumours or “disaffection” constituted an offense. Human Rights Watch pointed out that all these provisions are in violation of the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement. 
The Rajapaksas – a dynasty marked by human rights abuses and economic mismanagement
The Rajapaksa family has dominated the political landscape in Sri Lanka for most of the past 20 years. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary and his brother Mahinda president in the final years of the bloody 26-year civil war (1983 – 2009) with the Tamil separatists, known as the “Tamil Tigers”, and responsible for numerous war crimes before the war ended in 2009. Mahinda also served twice as prime minister, while other family members held key government posts. While their rule was often referred to as a “soft dictatorship”, their human rights record was regularly criticized, especially the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 that led to the repression of political activists, journalists and lawyers; prisoners were tortured and held for up to 10 years without trial.
Several factors, both internal and external, had combined to produce the economic crisis. Disastrous government policies, including a focus on importing goods rather than trying to boost foreign trade, thus draining the country’s foreign currency reserves, reckless spending on largely economically unviable luxury projects and continued borrowing at increasingly higher interest rates resulted in massive foreign debts. Under the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka borrowed almost $7 billion for such infrastructure projects. The crisis came after President Gotabaya slashed taxes in late 2019, decreasing the government’s revenue by 25 % and introduced a sudden ban on the import of chemical farm inputs in April 2021.
These homemade problems were exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to a significant fall in export earnings, remittances from overseas workers and revenue from the tourism industry, which was already reeling from the effects of the 2019 terror attacks on churches and hotels that left 260 people dead. Sri Lanka was declared bankrupt in April 2022 and a month later defaulted on its national debt, by which time the debt had risen to over $50 billion.
However, at the root of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis was the massive foreign debt accumulated through years of heavy borrowing from international private and state lenders and loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank. The latter bear a large share of responsibility for Sri Lanka’s devastated economy, having encouraged the country to borrow more and more in order to finance its deficit spending while imposing austerity measures and structural adjustment programs that included the privatisation of social services, dependence on export-oriented production, low taxes for foreign investors and low wages.
The impact of a radical and poorly implemented shift to agroecology
Among the more recent factors that created the current crisis in Sri Lanka, it was the decision to ban the import of synthetic fertilizers that attracted particular attention in the media. It was announced almost overnight by President Gotabaya, who maintained that the objective was to make Sri Lanka the first country in the world to completely eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and to guarantee the people’s right to a healthy, non-toxic diet. The government promised to supply sufficient quantities of organic fertilizer free of charge to Sri Lankan farmers.
However the decision was likely to have been mainly motivated by the need to address the problem of the country’s rapidly diminishing foreign reserves. Rajapaksa pointed out that despite huge expenditure on chemical inputs (US$ 259 million in 2020, amounting to 0,24 % of GDP) soil fertility and yields had declined. The savings on importing fertilizers would be used to compensate farmers during the transition to organic farming.
Tragically, the inevitable happened. transition from conventional to organic farming is complex and takes several years, with a tendency for production to decrease initially. During this period farmers need to be compensated for the loss of income and provided with the necessary training on organic farming methods. In this case, farmers were cut off abruptly from synthetic fertilizers after decades of public subsidies promoting their use; 94 % of Sri Lankan paddy farmers use chemical fertilizers and the impact was immediate. Rice production fell dramatically and as a result Sri Lanka, which had been self-sufficient in rice for decades, had to start importing it, the resulting increased prices for rice adding to the existing burden of the people. The Sri Lankan government failed to produce enough organic compost or the timely compensation payments it had pledged.
The ban was lifted in November 2021 after it became apparent that the experiment was a fiasco, but the impact is still being felt, with many rice farmers reporting yield reductions of up to 45%. According to the UN, the price of fertiliser has increased by over 50 % over the past year. As a result that many farmers are reducing the areas under cultivation, as they cannot afford to buy enough inputs.
The shortages and increasing prices of fuel mean that irrigation pumps and rice mills cannot function, produce cannot be transported and many small-scale fishermen are unable to continue their normal activities. According to the World Food Program, over a quarter of the 22 million Sri Lankans are now food insecure; many are dependent on food banks, with food inflation standing at 90% in June 2022. And it is feared that the food crisis will escalate further as the war in Ukraine leads to further price increases for fuel, pesticides and fertiliser.
All this led to months of protest, in which images of angry farmers protesting against the ban on the import of fertilizers captured the headlines in the global media.
The idea of a shift to agroecology in Sri Lanka was in fact not new. On taking office in 2015, President Sirisena had announced his plan to work towards agricultural self-sufficiency based on agroecological principles, the promotion of traditional seeds, subsidising organic fertilizer and improving irrigation, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa had also earlier committed to making Sri Lanka 100 % organic over ten years. The majority of farmers are open to this as a survey in July 2021 showed, but they also realised that a longer transition period is necessary.
The failed experiment at introducing agroecology: grist to the mill of the chemical farming lobby
While there is no doubt that the abruptly imposed ban on fertilizer imports was an important contributor to the current food crisis, it is far from being the only one. However, the so-called “failure” of agroecology in Sri Lanka was seized on by proponents of industrial agriculture in several countries, who reduced it to the simplistic narrative that agroecology had proved to be disastrous for farmers in a bid to discredit organic farming and green policies in general.
In South Asia the blame for the crisis besetting Sri Lankan farmers has been attributed among others to Vandana Shiva, the Indian eco-feminist and founder of the Navdanya movement that promotes food sovereignty based on agroecology. In the US, Tom Philpott, writing in the critical online news magazine Mother Jones, described how Tucker Carlson of Fox News labelled the Sri Lankan episode “a disaster-inducing green new deal”, in an allusion to the Green New Deal proposed by the Democratic Party representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while Tunku Varadarajan, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in The Wall Street Journal “In an uprising that has its roots in Mr. Rajapaksa’s imperious decision to impose organic farming on the entire country, Sri Lanka’s people have wrought the first contra-organic national uprising in history.”
Similar tactics employed to threaten the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy
The misuse of the food crisis in Sri Lanka to discredit agroecology is reminiscent of the way in which agribusiness lobby groups are instrumentalizing the threat to food security resulting from the war in Ukraine to try to derail the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, which calls for halving the use of pesticides by 2030 and reducing the use of chemical fertilisers by 20%. It seems that their efforts are gaining traction given EU agriculture commissioner Wojciechowski’s statement in March “If food security is in danger, then we need to have another look at the objectives of the Farm to Fork strategy and correct them”, and French president Emmanuel Macron’s call for a review of the Farm to Fork Strategy to focus more on production in a “post-Ukraine war Europe”.
Alarmed at this threat to the Farm to Fork policy, a number of civil society organisations published an open letter to European leaders in March, calling on the EU to “accelerate the implementation of its strategies to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers to preserve its natural environment and the health of its citizens”. They therefore cautiously welcomed the EU’s new draft Pesticides Regulation presented in June as a first step towards pesticide-free agriculture, while calling for improvements on the proposal and a clear reminder to remain vigilant in the face of future attacks from the agrochemical lobbies.