In the rice paddies east of Colombo, you can see the roots of Sri Lanka’s impending food crisis.
It’s planting time here, which coincides with the arrival of the seasonal rains that will fill the rice fields, but in the fields along the Rambukkana road, cultivation is just beginning.
Only a handful of plots have been planted with the pale green seedlings, the rest bear the wispy remnants of last season’s crop gone to seed, or are empty save for a soupy brown slop.
Here, farmers are victims of the same problem that afflicts all of Sri Lankan economy, fuel shortages and rising prices.
As a result, they cannot afford, or sometimes even find, the diesel or kerosene needed for tractors and tillers to turn the soil.
Ravindra Wickramrathana still tends to her young crop in the family home outside Rambukkana, the seedlings arranged in strips like fresh grass on the terrace regularly soaked with a pink watering can.
Standing in the middle of the four paddy fields on which his livelihood depends, he explains why this year’s harvest is in jeopardy.
The soil in each paddy field has to be turned twice before planting, a job that would take a few hours with a tractor but takes two days for each round when dug by hand. This is before planting the seedlings, also by hand, a task that takes 10 men a day.
But this year, that work may not be worth it. After the government banned imports of chemical fertilizers last year, yields plummeted and his harvest is unlikely to cover labor costs.
The ban on fertilizer imports was supposed to help preserve the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves, but the unintended consequence has been to threaten food security.
“After the fertilizer ban, we were only getting 25% of the yield,” says Ravindra. “We just can’t get the same yield with organic fertilizers, and our labor costs more than our crop will yield, so there’s no profit.
“I can’t even think about the future, the price of everything is going up, labor costs have gone up, if we can’t cover our costs, how can we keep cultivating? We don’t know anything. do something else.”
What happens in the rice fields of Ravindra matters because farmers don’t just feed their families, they feed the whole country. When yields were high, they were self-sufficient at home and sold their surplus to rice mills for processing.
With lower yields, the price in shops and markets has tripled and Sri Lanka is more dependent on imports which it can barely afford, not just rice.
Fruit and vegetable yields are also down and general food inflation is 50%.
Sri Lanka could slide into ‘anarchy’
One dead as police open fire on protesters demonstrating against rising fuel prices
The official weekly tally of commodity prices at the Colombo wholesale market shows green chillies up almost 40% in a year, okra up 50%, potatoes up 60% and limes by 240%.
All of these prices are pushed up by fuel shortages which add to the cost of moving produce from rural areas to cities, where most of it is consumed.
Add to this a chronic shortage of liquid natural gas used for cooking, greater in the rainy season when firewood is soaked, and Sri Lankans face a cost of living crisis that has driven them into the street, turning an economic crisis into a political crisis.
As President Gutabay Rajapaksa dug in over the weekend, declaring a state of emergency that gives him the power to quell further protests, Sri Lanka’s finance minister has admitted the country has just 50 million foreign currency dollars accessible in reserve.
That’s barely enough to cover a month’s fuel imports, leaving the country dependent on aid or loans from China and India as it tries to negotiate a bailout with the Fund. international monetary policy and to restructure annual debt repayments of $7 billion a year.
That this verdant and bountiful island may soon face food shortages is perhaps the most stark measure yet of the problems it finds itself in.