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How Sri Lanka went from topping Lonely Planet’s list to almost 30% hunger levels

Against the backdrop of the pandemic and climate shocks, revenue from tourism and remittances has plunged.

A vendor gives change to a customer buying eggs amid rampant food price inflation in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on 29 July 2022. Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS
A vendor gives change to a customer buying eggs amid rampant food price inflation in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on 29 July 2022.

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In the coastal town of Mirissa, which boasts one of Sri Lanka’s most popular beaches, hotel manager Jeewanthi Jayasinghe, 30, is fretting about her staff. It used to be that 5,000 rupees could comfortably feed a family of three or four for a week. 

“Now, 5,000 is not even enough for three days. A kilo of rice has gone up from 60 to 80 rupees to more than 250 rupees,” Jayasinghe told The New Humanitarian. A year ago, before the currency tanked, 5,000 rupees was equivalent to $25. It’s now less than $14. 

With utility bills and medicine costs also rising, the five employees she manages – each earns about 50,000 rupees a month – are all struggling to feed their families. Locals approach her for help and jobs at the hotel, but there are none. With only themselves to provide for, she and her husband are surviving, but a precipitous drop in tourism numbers for the past three years has slashed the hotel’s earnings. 

“It’s a really bad crisis for us,” Jayasinghe added. “For people with children… it’s hard to live here.” 

Inland, in a village 25 miles away, 51-year-old farmer Chaminda Wijesekara and his wife, Jayantika Kalyani, are also grappling with spiralling prices and a reduced income from their five-acre family farm, which has grown tea and paddy for three generations. They’ve already let go of their three employees and a property they used to rent in town.

The government’s hasty ban on chemical fertilisers last year caused their tea production to nosedive, to 200-250kg a month from 700-800kg, Wijesekara said. The ban has since been rolled back, but the fertilisers are no longer subsidised. A 50kg bag now costs 18,000-23,000 rupees instead of 1,000-1,350. They can no longer afford it. This means their yields are likely to remain low, leading to less produce and a lower income.

These farmers and hotel workers are among the 6.3 million Sri Lankans – out of a population of 22 million – who are food insecure and struggling with record high food price inflation of more than 90%.

In 2014-2016, fewer than 6% of Sri Lankans were moderately or severely food insecure, meaning they cut back on the quality and quantity of meals – or worse, went entire days without food. That number rose to 10% in 2019-2021. It’s probably even higher now.

Nearly two in three households have had to adjust what they eat and how much due to the loss in purchasing power, while fuel shortages have disrupted food distribution in some districts, leading goods such as potatoes and onions to reach their expiry dates, the UN has said.

Two months after the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, warned of a “full-blown humanitarian emergency” in Sri Lanka, that concern is fast becoming a reality, aid workers told The New Humanitarian. 

Read more → Out of Sri Lanka’s tumult, a humanitarian crisis emerges

For many, there’s little relief in sight. 

“We can't even imagine when this crisis will end,” said Kalyani. “We don’t feel confident in our lives.”

In fact, their predicament is only likely to worsen. 

“If farmers don’t receive immediate support, they will not be able to resume production at scale in time for the upcoming Maha planting season. If that happens, the food crisis will deepen,” said Sherina Tabassum, country director for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “This is a multidimensional crisis that threatens to undo all the progress Sri Lanka has made over the past decade.”

Tipped over the edge

Just three years ago, Sri Lanka – known for its verdant tea hills, rich wildlife, and fiery cuisine – topped the Lonely Planet’s list of countries to travel to and was elevated to upper-middle-income status. As recently as last October, readers of Condé Nast Traveller voted it the fifth most appealing destination in the world, ahead of Italy.

Now, facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, the Indian Ocean nation is in rapid decline, and its farming policies have become part of a heated global debate on how to transform food systems to become greener, fairer, and healthier. 

From commentary by right-wing American TV host Tucker Carlson to opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy, the economic crisis and subsequent rising hunger have been blamed on the government’s ban on fertilisers and its ambitions to become the world’s first organic farming nation. 

But according to more than half a dozen economists, environmentalists, and organic farmers The New Humanitarian spoke to, it’s a massive oversimplification to say this was the main contributing factor. In reality, they say, years of economic mismanagement that included borrowing sprees and unnecessary tax cuts brought the country closer to the edge. A succession of unforeseen circumstances, such as the 2019 suicide bombings on Easter Sunday and the pandemic, which decimated two key sources of revenue – tourism and remittances – pushed it over. 

“The ban on agro-chemical imports… was a desperate attempt by the Rajapaksa regime to save foreign exchange in the wake of the COVID pandemic and maintain its foothold in the country’s leadership,” said Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Bangkok-based think tank Focus on the Global South, referring to the powerful family whose members ruled Sri Lanka for nearly two decades, during which time they expanded fertiliser subsidies. 

Sources also told the US Department of Agriculture that the fertiliser import bill in 2021 could reach $300-$400 million and the government was aiming to generate “significant import cost savings” by limiting or banning it. 

“This may well be the reason why the ban was imposed so suddenly, with no preparation of support systems for alternative forms of production, and for food reserves to tide over food shortages,” added Guttal. 

Typically, conversion to organic farming takes about seven years, including purging the soil of traces of chemicals, said Devesh Roy, senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in India. Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa opted for an immediate transition. 

Local experts warn that the focus on the transition to organic agriculture detracts from the real threat – a changing climate that could seriously impact longer-term food production. 

“We're not getting tornadoes or hurricanes. What we're getting is the switching of seasons… intensification of droughts,” said Vinod Malwatte, executive director of Lanka Environment Fund, a non-profit supporting existing initiatives to protect the country’s rich biodiversity. “It is really scary because we're a country that's reliant on [weather] systems to grow our food.”

A crisis years in the making

Originally, there was broad support among farmers for the government policy. A survey two months after the ban found 64% of respondents agreeing to shift to organic agriculture, although 78% asked for more than a year for the transition, according to Colombo-based think tank Verité Research

The government also cited farm chemicals’ impact on health as one reason for the ban, in particular their possible link to chronic kidney diseases affecting agricultural workers in the north.

However, sentiment soured when the ban was not followed by any state support. In a country where the farm sector employs around 27% of the workforce – more than 2 million people – this quickly escalated into protests. 

MGS Bandara, a 51-year-old army officer turned paddy farmer, said there was no knowledge-sharing about organic fertilisers, which were also in short supply in-country, or even any order to the rollout. This led to a resistance to organic fertilisers, a feeling cemented by the absence of quick results. 

Bandara is turning again to chemicals, but is not turning his back on organic. 

“If people were properly informed about this and [it was] done little by little, the results might have been satisfactory,” he said.

Thilak Kariyawasam, a former organic farmer and now president of the Lanka Organic Agricultural Movement (LOAM), said his group had “asked the government not to do this overnight”. 

“We asked them to give a similar subsidy to organic farmers, so farmers can choose which way they want to go,” he said. “Organic did not fail as a system. The failure was the implementation.”

The ban had little to no effect on Sri Lanka’s 8,700 organic farmers, who between them grow tea, coconut, fruits, vegetables, and spices on about 6% of the country’s total farmland, Kariyawasam said. However, rising fuel prices are affecting their ability to transport their produce to the market, he added. 

But those relying on chemicals saw their yields plunge. Latest calculations showed paddy yields declined by more than 34% during the September 2021-March 2022 season, according to David Laborde, senior research fellow at IFPRI in Washington, DC.

Guttal, from Focus on the Global South, explained that the current crisis is a combination of both food shortages from a fall in domestic production as well as high prices that put products out of reach of most people. 

Hunger could cause “lasting damage to people in vulnerable conditions” such as pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and the elderly, she warned. 

Colombo’s urban poor – stuck in crowded flats and battered by job losses during the pandemic and now the rising costs of everything – are particularly hard hit, researchers said.

This crisis was more than a decade in the making, said Anushka Wijesinha, co-founder and CEO of Colombo-based think tank Centre for a Smart Future.

It dates back to the end of the civil war in 2009 when the government borrowed money to go on an infrastructure-focused development drive but failed to invest in exports, human capital, or environmental sustainability. The debt piled up, but the economy wasn’t growing fast enough to repay it, he said. 

“The international community is talking about what has happened to Sri Lanka without properly understanding the years of economic mismanagement and poor growth model that led us to this point.”

Independent UN experts had flagged the issue of rising institutional debt – repayments were the country’s largest expenditure – since 2018-2019.

“For me, [the fertiliser ban] was a tiny blip on a screen that had much bigger ugly marks and blind spots,” Wijesinha said. “[The international community] is talking about what has happened to Sri Lanka without properly understanding the years of economic mismanagement and poor growth model that led us to this point.” 

Urgent steps needed

Reining in this “cascade of crises”, further worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, requires urgent measures across multiple areas, said IFPRI’s Roy.

This includes rolling back high import taxes and restrictions levied on both agricultural inputs – fertilisers, pesticides, and farm equipment – and ‘non-essential’ outputs such as milk products, fruit, and fish that push up prices and particularly affect poor households.

It’s also crucial to assist micro-, small- and medium-sized food enterprises, as they are key growth engines and important employers of women, Roy added.

Smallholder farmers, who produce 80% of the country’s food and are already among Sri Lanka’s poorest, need immediate help with inputs and credit too, said Tabassum from IFAD.

Beyond current needs, better economic governance is necessary to ensure the country doesn’t fall into a similar crisis again, said Wijesinha, who also feared that businesses and policymakers would now sideline environmental and biodiversity concerns. 

“For example, there could be more encroachment into protected areas because there's a desperation to grow [foods],” he said.

This concern is shared at the Lanka Environment Fund, where rising fuel prices are slowing down projects such as mangrove restoration that require diesel-operated machines.

Malwatte is particularly worried about the revocation of an important directive that protects nearly half a million hectares of forests. The move was ostensibly to help poor farmers, but local media reports say they could be released to private investors for large-scale commercial agriculture.

More than two thirds of Sri Lanka's forests have been felled over the last century for human use, and environmentalists fear that further destruction could accelerate climate change and affect food production.

It is projected that rising temperatures could slash rice yields by 12-41% by the 2060s, hurt other key crops such as coconut and tea, and affect the health and productivity of farm workers by 2050, according to the Asian Development Bank. Others said climate change could cut fish catches by around 20% in the 2050s.

Dejan de Soyza, an entrepreneur and farmer, has been working with 150 farmers since 2019 to grow new trees according to the principles of analog forestry, which seeks to be a more sustainable approach to reforestation and ecological restoration.

“There aren't enough resources being spent on educating the farmer about what's coming,” de Soyza said. “We need to incentivise the right action to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and rising temperatures.”

Rebecca Root reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thin Lei Win reported from Rome, Italy. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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