The Planter’s Association of Ceylon (PA) has warned of an acute shortage of fertilizer which will have a detrimental effect on the plantation industry.
The PA whose mandate is to promote, foster and protect the plantation industry of Sri Lanka has sounded the alarm and appealed to all stakeholders to come together to resolve the fertilizer crisis.
Fertilizer subsidies are provided by the government for paddy and plantation crops (tea, rubber, and coconut). Importation and distribution of fertilizer is carried out by different institutions. The government’s fertilizer scheme enables the importers to sell the fertilizer at a subsidized rate and seek a rebate from the government.
However, the rebate process itself is cumbersome and takes a long time to be realized discouraging the importers. Adding to the dilemma, the ballooning subsidy bill has caused growing concern for the government resulting in a cap on fertilizer importation
Crisis affecting tea
“The shortage and the ill-timing of fertilizer application will result in loss of crop, reduction of green leaf quality, leading to a detrimental effect on tea quality and the inability for the estates to offer a sufficient number of days work to the workers due to lack of crop,” said Roshan Rajadurai, Chairman, Planters’ Association of Ceylon, explaining the extent of the crisis.
“The Regional Plantation Companies produce around 20-23 million kgs of tea in the first quarter of the year. Due to the lack of fertilizer, we may lose about 6–7 million kg of made tea incurring a loss of Rs. 2.7 to 3 billion revenue from tea” Rajadurai added. The shortfall will have an impact on thousands of hectares managed by Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) which account for more than 30% of national tea production.
Rajadurai elaborated “What is significant is that fertilizer has to be in place for the application in April/May with the onset of rains as these are the high cropping periods of the year. Furthermore, the new clearings that have already being planted must receive timely application of fertilizer if they are to establish and survive in the future. Any reduction of fertilizer will retard the growth and the physiological health of young tea plants and it will have a long term negative impact on the new clearings”.
Gehan de Livera, Chief Executive Officer of the Sri Lanka Tea Factory Owner’s Association (SLTFOA), also voiced his concern over the situation. “In 2013, there had been total disruption of the supply of fertilizer, so that it was not available at the correct time of application. The year 2014 too has started in a similar fashion”. He further emphasized that the perennial shortage of subsidized fertilizer was gravely affecting their members.
There are an estimated 400,000 individual tea smallholders registered in Sri Lanka, and as many as two million people dependent on them for survival. These smallholders, who by definition hold lands amounting to less than two acres, contribute as much as 70 percent of the national production.
“If this situation is not resolved quickly, the tea industry will suffer adverse effects in 2014,” de Livera said.
“The shortage of fertilizer in the market is a major problem which has to be solved immediately. All stakeholders, including the Government, state manufacturing companies and the private sector have to cooperate in order to reach the solution, especially since around 45 percent of the fertilizer is going to manufacturing government bodies,” said Neville Ratnayake, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Federation of Tea Smallholder Development Societies.
Rubber yields to decline
“This fertilizer shortage is a serious problem” said Professor Asoka Nugawela, Professor of Plantation Management at the Faculty of Agriculture and Plantation Management of Wayamba University of Sri Lanka. He added “the main impact on rubber plantations will be that they are unable to follow the RRI (Rubber Research Institute) recommendations on fertilizer application leading to a decline in performance”. RPCs currently account for about 40 percent of the national rubber production.
The RRI recommends immature or young rubber trees to receive four applications of fertilizer, (i.e. once every three months) per annum. Due to the current scarcity certain companies are able to complete only three applications.
“I know several companies were unable to fertilize their mature rubber trees in 2013. If this happens in 2014 as well, the yield will decline, and there will be a similar drop in land and work productivity. This would mean a higher cost of production, which coupled with the stagnant rubber prices would mean that plantation management companies would find it difficult to cope,” he added.
Missing the recommended number of applications could lead to a smaller crop and lower income for the entire industry, Professor Nugawela explained. “As such it was vital for experts to study the problem and intervene to devise a solution so that plantation companies would not have to face a shortfall” he said.
The plantation industry is undoubtedly an integral part of the island’s socio-economic make-up, and remains a vital contributor to the country’s exports. Especially for the tea sector, the statistics are rosy; the tea industry has had another record year, the production has increased and prices are high, all signs of a very lucrative and profitable business.
Regular fertilization of all plantation crops is a sine qua non in the Industry to ensure the quality of the production and the sustainability of the soil and thereby optimum harvests. The acute shortage and non-availability of fertilizer when required poses a serious threat to the entire industry and like a cancer needs to be addressed immediately.
Although the Fertilizer Secretariat has taken up the position that adequate fertilizer is available, the suppliers are not in a position to meet the demand due to inadequacy of stocks.
Those in the industry are apprehensive of the future and the manner in which most issues are addressed by the authorities. The need of the hour is a cohesive policy and proper intervention for the stability and future sustainability of the plantation industry.