For centuries, Sri Lanka has been renowned for its vast and varied produce, its fertile soil fostering everything from cinnamon and black pepper to fruits and fragrant teas.
But over the past 18 months, the country has become a cautionary tale for global agriculture. Vital inputs such as fuel and fertilisers are in short supply, with prices soaring. Yields from rice and other staples have halved in many areas and the once largely self-sufficient Indian Ocean island now depends on international aid to combat a hunger crisis.
In April 2021, then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced an abrupt ban on the import of chemical fertilisers to force the country of 22mn to embrace organic farming. The prohibition lasted only about six months, but analysts said the ill-fated policy not only stoked an economic crisis, it would leave Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector hobbled for years.
“It really brought everything to a halt,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, a sociologist at the University of Jaffna who works with rural co-operatives. “Farmers have lost a lot of confidence in the government.”
Sri Lanka this year became the first Asia-Pacific country to default on its international debt in more than two decades after running out of foreign reserves, prompting a foreign exchange crisis that led to mass protests, crippling shortages of medicine and other essentials and a dramatic drop in living standards across the island.
Colombo is engaged in debt-restructuring negotiations with creditors, including China, India and commercial bondholders as it tries to finalise a $2.9bn IMF bailout.
Although the crisis had many causes, from excessive borrowing for underused infrastructure projects to loss of tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic, experts said the fallout from the fertiliser ban was an important driver.
Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2019 and is the heir to one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political families, had warned against the destructive health and environmental effects of chemical fertiliser overuse.
Yet many saw his ultimately botched prohibition less as a principled step to reform agriculture than an attempt to protect dwindling foreign currency reserves, as Sri Lanka was dependent on imported fertilisers.
Farmers were among those who joined protests against Rajapaksa’s rule, ultimately forcing him to resign and flee the country in July.
Athula Dissanayake, a 52-year-old paddy farmer who cultivates five acres in Sri Lanka’s north-central Anuradhapura district, attempted to repurpose other types of fertiliser to save his rice crop following the ban, but to little effect. His harvest fell 50 per cent.
Dissanayake said he was “reeling with the high cost of everything”. “Transport, children’s school needs and labour on the farms have all risen,” he said.
Even after the ban on chemical fertilisers was lifted in November 2021, farmers struggled to access supplies. Imports collapsed because of the lack of foreign exchange, while global fertiliser prices rose in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lenders such as India and the World Bank have stepped in to provide emergency funding for Sri Lanka to secure supplies.
Farmers used to be able to buy a 50kg bag of urea, a common fertiliser, for SLRs1,500 ($4), Kadirgamar said. But the price rose as high as SLRs40,000 this year, before the government began selling it at a subsidised price of SLRs10,000.
Farmers said they had resorted to cultivating less land or relying on help from family instead of hiring labourers to work in the fields. Terrance Gamini, another paddy farmer in north-central Sri Lanka, said men and women were returning to rural areas after losing jobs in the cities only to find there was no paid work in their villages.
“This will create social friction in the farmer community,” he said. “Fertiliser will run out soon and in the next season the farmers will be protesting again.”
Sri Lanka, which before the crisis enjoyed a per-capita income double that of India, is now reliant on foreign aid. Countries such as China have sent thousands of tonnes of rice to the island, while the UN’s World Food Programme and other agencies have donated food and cash to millions of Sri Lankans.
Nirosha Nilmini, a mother of two in the southern Monaragala district, ran a business selling pillows but now needed WFP cash handouts to buy food. “It is tough to sell pillows and survive right now,” she said.
But Shamila Rathnasooriya, a co-ordinator with rural non-profit organisation Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform, said aid alone would not be enough. His group is working with farmers to use indigenous seeds and other techniques to reduce their fertiliser costs and get on the path to recovery.
“We need to find local solutions,” he said. “This is not going to be sustainable. We don’t have any idea how they’re going to get fertiliser for the next season.”