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Sri Lanka’s Problems Are Anything but Organic

Protestors shout slogans against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa near the Presidential Secretariat, Colombo, April 11 2022. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

  • The collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy had little to do with organic farming per se, and much more to do with the disastrous handling of its economy.
  • Even so, the banning of inorganic fertilisers, the reasons it was done and the way it was done is a cautionary tale of how not to embark on a green transition.
  • The crisis has important lessons for proponents of a green transition – including that authoritarian leaders like to see “greenwashing” as a popular way to shift blame from their failures.

Sri Lanka is going through the most difficult economic period since its independence in 1948, and has defaulted on its national debt. For some commentators, the main problem is easy enough to spot: organic farming. It is even enough for others to suggest that the ‘Green New Deal’ in the US should be rethought.

And yet, the collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy had little to do with organic farming per se, and much more to do with the disastrous handling of its economy.

Nonetheless, the banning of inorganic fertilisers, the reasons it was done and the way it was done is a cautionary tale of how not to embark on a green transition. It should be a mandatory exercise to review these failures as the developing world looks for a stable path as the climate crisis intensifies.

The first thing to note about Sri Lanka’s decision to ban the import of inorganic fertilisers is that it was based on desperation rather than planning. It is true that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government had promised when it came into power in 2019 that it would shift agriculture to organic farming – but it had announced that it would do so over a period of 10 years, not overnight.

No large-scale plan was drawn up, no public discussions with farmers was undertaken, and the people in government pushing the policies included those who came up with locally made syrups to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the end, the decision was taken for the simple reason that Sri Lanka was running out of money. The pandemic had hurt the tourist industry, and when the government was elected in 2019, it further cut down taxes, leaving it with money flowing out – much of it for vast infrastructure projects – and little to raise.

Between the end of 2020 to March 2021, the country’s foreign exchange reserves plummeted from $7.6 billion to less than $2 billion. It was because of this huge loss of foreign currency, and the cost of importing inorganic fertilisers that Sri Lanka largely does not manufacture, that the country imposed a ban on it – forcing two-thirds of its population that depends on agriculture to suddenly scramble to deal with the fallout.

To make an analogy, this would be the equivalent of India running out of foreign exchange reserves to buy coal from overseas, and shutting down all coal power plants except those that could be run on locally sourced coal. It would certainly be a (forcible) shift to far more renewable energy, but it would cause blackouts and a huge drop in industrial productivity. To call it a “green transition” would be the same as calling what Sri Lanka did an “organic transition”.

The sad part of all of this is that the country has been experimenting with locally produced organic fertilisers supplemented by processes like biological nitrogen fixation, which could have paved the way for a replacement for inorganic fertilisers.

This is important not just from a “green” point of view but from a financial sustainability point of view. A locally produced method of fertilisers would have cut down imports without cutting down agricultural productivity. But this would require a plan, soil testing, experimentation on a small scale and significant buy-in by local farmers before being implemented on a wider scale.

None of this took place. Instead, a whole country was pushed into a deep agricultural crisis, which further wrecked its economy.

The lessons of this crisis for proponents of a green transition are important ones. First and foremost is that, to cover governance failures, authoritarian leaders backed by charlatans see “greenwashing” as a popular way to shift the blame from their failures.

Secondly, any transition that is top-down, and ignores science for quick solutions, is likely to be a disaster.

Thirdly, a “development” approach that privileges massive infrastructure projects, and then passes off economic and environmental costs to the people without their consultation, will never manage a green transition.

All of these issues are also central to the work of Manshi Asher of the Himdhara Collective, whom the interviews below, and whose work highlights how top-down environmental and development projects that ignore local livelihoods are both destructive and massively inefficient.

The interview


Manshi Asher (left) is a member of Himdhara Collective. As a researcher and activist she has been associated with diverse organisations around social and environmental justice issues. She lives in Kandwari village in the Dhauladhar valley of Himachal Pradesh. She enjoys engaging with feminist political ecologies of life in the mountains.

The questions are in bold.

What does Himdhara do? Why was there a need for it?

Himdhara is a Himachal-Pradesh-based environment research and action collective that was formed in 2009. The collective has been working with an environmental justice approach, supporting mountain communities asserting their right to access, use and protect their natural landscapes. The support work itself comprises documentation, dissemination, community dialogues and advocacy.

The need for such a ‘collective’ emerged from growing threats posed to mountain ecology and people’s nature-based livelihoods by policies and projects of the neoliberal extractive development model and top-down exclusive conservation. Alienation of forest and land dependent people from their resource base began in the colonial era and continued after independence, more evidently in the past few decades and this has led to wide ranging ecological, socio-cultural and economic shifts.

While newer legal provisions were put in place during this time to protect the environment and rights of impacted communities, on one hand access to and just implementation of these has remained a far cry and on the other many of these policies have further alienated marginalised peoples like adivasis, dalits, women. Many of the democratic spaces in environmental decision making have been shrinking, with the push for ‘ease of doing business’ agenda.

The need thus has been to build a counter narrative by demonstrating the real adverse ecological and socio-economic impacts and costs of such a scenario and also support communities advocating for their livelihoods and their right to govern their resources using democratic spaces and constitutional provisions.

For instance, Himachal has over the last two decades seen various community led movements to raise issues around large-scale hydropower dams and how these have affected local lives and land-use. Himdhara has worked towards building evidence on the oft invisibilised and hidden costs of hydropower projects that are being pushed in the name of clean energy and green growth.

Over the years, as we understood the criticality of secure tenure over land, both for farming and forest uses, we joined the campaign for implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 in the state. In absence of basic information about the provisions of this radical law which guarantees individual and community rights over forest land and is a step towards decolonising forest governance too, we worked on demystifying the legislation by generating basic audio-visual material on it.

Currently we are engaged in activating Forest Rights Committees through training and dialogues. We also feel the need to dialogue with the youth, which is imperative for any transformative work. One of our programs is an annual workshop called ‘Pahar Aur Hum: Rethinking development in the Himalaya’, which explores challenges in the Himalayan region with Pahari youth.

How did the collective begin?

Initially we were three or four people from diverse backgrounds passionate about working in the mountains, who decided to pool our skills and perspectives to respond to the needs that came from different communities.

We felt that just being located in the region was not sufficient to engage with ‘environmental justice’ issues and that a deeper interaction with the landscape and community led groups and movements was essential.

We continue to function as an informal and autonomous support group driven by a common vision rather than as a formal structured organisation.

What is the key difference between how think-tanks such as Himdhara, which are located in mountain areas, versus those in places like Delhi, see environmental issues?

I would not use the term ‘think tank’ to describe Himdhara, for several reasons. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, we are a small collective, a support group with localised engagement, even as we constantly try to understand the bigger picture (national and global) which impacts the local.

Secondly, the term ‘think tank’ (which has a certain military connotation) in its current usage inherently means that ‘knowledge’ lies in a few ‘thinking’ minds and they will draft the policies and laws.

That is precisely where the problem lies, not just in the way governments work but also in how ‘civil society’ tends to operate, led by the elite and privileged. It takes away from the agency of people, citizens to be able to plan, decide and demand accountability based on their localised geographies and circumstances, as it should be in a democratic framework. The system then works conveniently to serve the interests of a few.

So, when a group like ours examines ‘environmental’ issues on the ground, we try not to look at them from a single lens and in isolation. We may not be able to address everything but we cannot deny the historical contexts as well as intersections between the political, economic, social justice issues and environmental concerns.

Also, our work, especially our research is action oriented, whether it is on Forest Rights or protection of riverine ecosystems. The work is more of a ‘process’ rather than a ‘project’, driven by constantly evolving ground observations and dialogue with various actors.

What is the one big question you feel does not get the attention it deserves?

Environmentalism, today, is about top-down techno-managerial solutions and quick fixes. ‘Renewable energy’ and ‘net zero’ are being posed as game-changers whereas far from addressing the ecological and climate crisis they are likely to create more inequities and new problems.

‘Environment’ is a political issue and interwoven with many other issues, like the question of the economy and ownership, distribution, production and consumption of resources. The questions may be complex and daunting requiring multiple long-term strategies, but false solutions need to be identified and resisted.

This article and interview were first published on Environment of India, Omair Ahmad’s newsletter about India’s environment through a multi-disciplinary lens. Subscribe here. They have been republished here with permission.

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