From left: Tea Board Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda delivering keynote address. From left: The Planters’ Association of Ceylon Secretary General Malin Goonetileke, Chairman Sunil Poholiyadde and Deputy Chairman A.L.W. Goonewardena
Pic by Samantha Perera
By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
With the ban of the weed killer glyphosate without scientific evidence, some planters have started using alternative chemicals, running the risk of Ceylon Tea exports becoming banned in overseas markets, according to Ceylon Tea Board Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda.
“Many plantation owners have started using alternatives which are not authorized. These are now coming up in various countries. Sooner or later, this is going to lead to importing countries putting restrictions on Sri Lankan tea exports,” he said.
According to him, there were detections of excessive residue of such alternative, unauthorized chemicals in Ceylon Tea exports to Germany and Japan last month.
“It’s a very serious problem, but I cannot wake up this government to think seriously about it. Goodness knows, we have tried,” he said.
Glyphosate was banned in 2015 through a Presidential Order, following the lobbying of Presidential Advisor, and MP Athuraliye Rathana Thero, who blamed the chemical for causing the chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in the North Central and Uva Provinces.
“Who should have taken that decision? We have a Registrar of Pesticides; we have a Fertilizer Secretariat; we have a Medical Research Institute and we have a Tea Research Institute, (but) nobody was consulted. Somebody woke up in the morning and said ‘Ooh, let’s ban Glyphosate’. And till this day, there’s nobody accountable for that decision,” Pethiyagoda said.
He noted how Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake has submitted three proposals to reverse the ban to no avail, and that no one is able to say exactly why the chemical was banned.
Numerous scientists, agriculturalists and agricultural economists have pointed out that there is no scientific reasoning behind the ban.
The ban has caused tea production costs to skyrocket, with planters having to resort to manual labour. However, Pethiyagoda said that the complaining has been minimal over the past year only because tea prices have hit record levels.
He noted that the Tea Research Institute could provide an alternative, but the politicians are not providing the institute with enough funding for such action.
Government shouldn’t meddle with RPCs: Pethiyagoda
The government should not interfere in the operations of the Regional Plantation Companies, according to the country’s tea regulator.
“RPCs have become a whipping boy for politicians. You rarely hear a kind word said about you from amongst politicians at every level. The problem that you have is that you’re leaseholders and you therefore are in some way beholden to government for the continuation of your business. That’s a very unfair model and it’s sad that no one really questions it,” he said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last month said the State should increase its scrutiny into RPCs.
Dilmah Group Chairman Merrill Fernando opposed further State control, similar to Pethiyagoda’s sentiments.
The State is a golden shareholder in RPCs, under the 50-year lease of tea estates given to RPCs 1992, which saw unprofitable state-owned tea operations become profitable under the RPCs. Three of the 23 RPCs are still state-owned.
Pethiyagoda expressed his surprise and admiration towards RPCs for replanting and maintaining investments in the plantations, since in similar circumstances of leasing a house, the tenant does not paint or maintain the house, leaving such necessities in the hands of the landlord.
Responding to the 2017 budget decision to reduce the land extent leased to each RPC, Pethiyagoda said that even the current land under the management of RPCs isn’t large.
“We often hear the RPCs are too big, but the average size is just 3,500 hectares, which is an area of 7 by 5 kilometre rectangle, is certainly not an excessive amount of land to manage. I don’t think further fragmentation is justified,” he said.
Pethiyagoda also criticized the government for not letting the RPCs harvest the timber from forestry plantations they had cultivated, which discourages diversity in plantation lands.
Points out need to change feudal status of estate worker
Regional Plantation Companies must strive to make their employees full citizens of Sri Lanka with freedom, safety and urban integration, compared to their current feudal serf status, Pethiyagoda said.
“The thing we have failed to give your employees and their families is freedom. The plantation workers remain yet to become full citizens—in the meaningful sense of citizenship—of Sri Lanka,” he said.
He stressed that this is not a fault of the RPCs, but a colonial legacy, which neither the politicians nor trade unions want to correct, since oppressed plantation workers are easy to manipulate to gain votes.
“It pays unions to have members. It pays unions to have fiefs. And it pays politicians to have workers who vote on block with unions aligned with the government of the time,” Pethiyagoda said.
He noted that urbanization of workers is the solution, since minimally educated workers living in their workplace is an anomaly in the modern age.
He said that over the past 60 years, despite the increase in population in the plantation sector, the area inhabited has remained static, with the same slum towns, where alcoholism, the rape of girls below the age of 10 and illegal abortions are commonplace.
“The model we have today will not persist. It’s better to make that transition peacefully and attract people to work in the estates from a diversity of backgrounds, instead of indentured labour which we inherited from our colonial masters. It cannot happen overnight, but I think it has to happen at some point,” he said.
Pethiyagoda said that estate workers cannot save to buy a piece of land to build a house for their children, partly due to wastage of money in activities like alcoholism, and partly due to the unavailability of land.
“If you can’t save to buy a piece of land, to build a small house, what is there to leave for your children? They remain eternal tenants, like the serfs of the 19th century. They cannot become full citizens, unless there’s an opportunity to own land. I’m not saying the land must come from your estates. I’m saying we need to think of expanding townships in the plantation areas,” he said.
He noted that even with higher wages, younger generations are not willing to suffer such a fate, and are moving out of plantation economies into urban areas, costing RPCs talent.