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Conflict between China and Sri Lanka regarding the quality of China’s organic fertilizer has impacted the livelihoods for Sri Lanka’s paddy farmer.

Why does a vessel carrying cargo from China refuse to leave Sri Lankan waters, despite being requested by authorities?

Answer: A crucial shipment went horribly wrong. This led to rare diplomatic friction between close allies. It also saw the blacklisting and fighting among scientists and farmers.

Hippo Spirit, the ship at issue, left China on September 1st with 20,000 tons of organic fertilizer to Colombo.

After Sri Lanka’s May government abruptly stopped imports of chemical fertilizers, the order was made to transform the country into the first fully organic agricultural nation in the world.

It’s the first consignment of Colombo’s plans to purchase 99,000 tonnes of organic fertiliser from Qingdao Seawin Bio-tech group, a Chinese company specialising in seaweed-based fertiliser, at a cost of $49.7m (£36m).

So why does there seem to be so much controversy regarding this shipment, given the dire need for organic fertiliser?

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Researchers say the issue lies in the quality of fertilizer – scientists warn that it could cause crop damage instead of helping.

According to Dr Ajantha de Silva, the director general of the Sri Lankan Department of Agriculture (director general), “our tests showed that the Chinese fertiliser wasn’t sterile.” “We identified bacteria that can be harmful to vegetables like potatoes and carrots.”

They claim that the cargo is unacceptable because it has potential implications for bio-security in the country.

Qingdao Seawin has responded angrily to the decision. Qingdao Seawin has accused Sri Lankan media members of using words like “toxic”, “garbage, pollution” or other insulting terms to “slander Chinese companies and their government”.

The company released a statement stating that the unscientific detection and conclusion by National Plant Quarantine Service in Sri Lanka clearly did not conform to international animal and plant quarantine conventions.

A court ordered People’s Bank (state-owned) to stop paying $9 million for cargo awaiting entry as the scandal escalated.

Colombo’s Chinese Embassy responded by blacklisting the bank because it failed to honor the payment.

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In addition, Qingdao Seawin demanded $8 million in compensation from Sri Lankan National Plant Quarantine Service to cover the reputation damage it suffered after the scandal.

As all of this happens onshore, Sri Lankan waters remain unaffected.

Hippo Spirit fled Colombo harbour in October when Sri Lankan port officials denied it permission to unload cargo. It reportedly then sailed south to the Hambantota port.

The latest photos from the maritime traffic website show that the ship is stationed close to Sri Lanka’s southern-western coast.

This is the clear message. Chinese companies are not prepared to return their cargo.

Shasheendrarajapaksa is a junior minister in Sri Lanka and said that after recent meetings, they agreed to retest the sample via a mutually-agreed third-party lab.

“We weren’t forced to do this,” said Mr Rajapaksa, noting that they made only a request. He also stated, “The current shipment can’t reach Sri Lanka.”

Qingdao Seawin, and the Chinese government would feel a lot of pain if this cargo were to be returned to China. It claims it exports organic fertilisers to more than 50 countries. This includes Australia and the US.

Some in Sri Lanka, however, have raised concerns about their ability to resist Chinese pressure tactics.

As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for Asia, Beijing has given billions to the country. But not all the funds have worked for Sri Lanka.

China Merchants Port Holdings was granted a 99-year lease for the strategic Hambantota port in 2017. This came after Colombo had failed to repay its debt.

Some analysts in western countries believe Sri Lanka fell into the Chinese “debt trap”.

Officials in Sri Lanka insist that, despite China’s financial strength, organic fertilizers that are not compliant with current regulations won’t be permitted into their country.

We have told them categorically that the product can be returned to China, and they will send new samples of the same batch. “If it meets the regulations, they’ll be able send another shipment of fertiliser,” said Dr De Silva.

While there is much dispute between the countries over fertilizer, thousands upon thousands of Sri Lankan farmers face a tough season in paddy cultivation without any agricultural input.

R M Rathnayaka is a rice farmer from Monaragala in the southern part of the district. He says that the sudden ban by the government on pesticides and chemical fertilizers has had a huge impact on the community.

“We can’t convert all at once to organic farming.” Although natural manure is preferable, Mr Rathnayaka stated that the current government approach was wrong.

He recommended that “in a stepped manner” organic farming be adopted in the United States.

Prof. Buddhi Marambe, University of Peradeniya says that conversion to organic agriculture will hurt the agricultural industry because staple crops such as paddy may drop in yield.

Professor Marambe said to the BBC, “We can’t achieve complete food security only through organic farming.”

After reports of the threat to Ceylon Tea, farmers protested throughout the country. The government relaxed some rules regarding synthetic fertilizer.

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka stated that the excessive use of chemical fertilizers had led to health problems like chronic kidney disease. His government has taken a firm stance against imports.

However, some analysts argue that bans on chemical fertilisers were made to restrict imports. This is something which the government has denied.

At the end October, the country’s foreign currency reserves fell to $2.3 billion. The government also has begun to restrict imports of other goods in an attempt to address the crisis.

Some believe that the ban on chemical fertilizers was a result of political reasons. However, the situation is now precarious for the government.

While Beijing is displeased, it’s facing its farmers and experts in agriculture.


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