Sri Lanka’s Green New Deal Was a Human Disaster

The Green Revolution of Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist who has done more to feed the world than anyone before or since, put Sri Lanka on the path to agricultural prosperity in 1970. It was built around chemical fertilizers and crops bred to be disease resistant. Fifty-two years later, Sri Lanka has staged a revolution that is “anti-green” in the modern sense, overthrowing its President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In an uprising rooted in Mr Rajapaksa’s imperious decision to impose organic farming across the country – which led to widespread hunger following the collapse of agribusiness – the people of Sri Lanka launched the first anti-organic national uprising in the story instigated.

Footage of protesters flooding the presidential palace — splashing in the swimming pool, watching cricket on TV in the bedroom, making tea in the spacious kitchen — resembled the mass burglary at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but without the threat of American trespassing. Mr. Rajapaksa was actually an American citizen until 2019, the year he was elected President of Sri Lanka. He has since fled the country.

Will this environmental visionary be given sanctuary in Berkeley? At the Sierra Club headquarters? Or even by the Biden administration? Maybe not, as he’s carrying some serious war crimes allegations that would make his placement difficult. But the truth is that Mr Rajapaksa was ousted in part because he was an overzealous green warrior who imposed policies on his countrymen sacred to the American environmental left.

Sri Lanka also despised Mr. Rajapaksa for other reasons. He was an autocrat and the last in Rajapaksa’s political dynasty to become president, after his older brother Mahinda, who held the office from 2005 to 2015. Mahinda was a ruthless President who waged a scorched earth war against Tamil separatists in the north of the country that resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Sri Lanka Army in 2009. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Minister of Defense during the war and is accused of subscribing to this tactic which resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

The Rajapaksa method – take whatever action you want, damn the consequences – may have helped win one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern times. But in peacetime it was staggering as Sri Lankans were ruled by two brothers who consulted no one and did as they pleased. In addition to nepotism and despotism, corruption increased. Sri Lankans, whose literacy rate is among the highest in Asia and classified by the World Bank as middle-income, found the situation increasingly intolerable.

Perhaps because of the seven years he spent in America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Rajapaksa was fascinated by green panaceas. He ran for president in 2019 on a platform that promised some sort of technocratic utopia, including a commitment to fully convert Sri Lankan agriculture to organic in a decade. He was particularly attentive to Vandana Shiva, a rabid Indian opponent of modern scientific agriculture. She regards Borlaug as the enemy.

Covid hit Sri Lanka particularly hard, wiping out tourism, its economic mainstay. Notwithstanding this disaster and the widespread impoverishment caused by lockdowns, Mr. Rajapaksa took a step that put Sri Lanka in distress. On April 27, 2021, he announced — without warning and without attempting to teach farmers how to cope with the change — a ban on all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. From now on, he decreed, Sri Lankan agriculture would be 100% organic. Agronomists and other scientists loudly warned of the catastrophe that would follow, but they were ignored. This Sri Lankan Nero didn’t listen to anyone.

Except, of course, for Ms. Shiva and other bright environmentalists who were delighted with the epochal nature of Mr. Rajapaksa’s decision. “Let’s all join hands with Sri Lanka,” Ms Shiva tweeted on June 10, 2021, “to take steps towards a #PoisonFree #PoisonCartelFree world for our health and the health of the planet.” Lost in all the ideological clamor was Another likely explanation for Mr Rajapaksa’s actions: Sri Lanka was so heavily indebted – particularly to China – that he may have decided to forego imported fertilizers and pesticides on cost grounds.

What happened next? Rice production fell by 20% in the first 180 days of the fertilizer ban. Tea, Sri Lanka’s main source of income, has been hit hard, with exports at their lowest level in almost a quarter century. Whether out of indignation at the new laws or an inability to switch to organic, farmers left a third of all arable land fallow. Food prices rose as a result of shortages and people in Sri Lanka, whose pockets had already been hit by the pandemic, began going hungry. To add to the stench of failure, a shipload of manure had to be shipped back from China after samples revealed dangerous levels of bacteria. The farmers had no synthetic fertilizers and hardly any organic ones.

Such was the damage done by his organic dictates that Mr. Rajapaksa was forced to reverse himself by November 2021. His scientific ineptitude was now matched by his economic illiteracy. To save his political reputation, he agreed to compensate farmers for their losses. The bill was more than the money he allegedly saved the country by banning fertilizer imports in April 2021.

Organic activist groups still deny. The UK-based Soil Association tweeted: “There are many lessons to be learned from Sri Lanka, but ‘see organic doesn’t work’ is not one of them.” For his part, Mr Rajapaksa has had to pay for his hubris with his job. Had he not fled the country, he most likely would have paid for it with his life. Would that have made him a Green Martyr? We will never know. Sri Lanka must now turn to better ways: accountability, democracy, the rule of law and yes, modern scientific agriculture that can feed all of its 22 million people.

Mr. Varadarajan, a contributor to the journal, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University.

Wonderland: The administrative state has created ideological divisions that cannot be reversed for a long time. But an updated judgment on climate change could help revive the critical role that substantive politics played at the time of America’s founding. Images: Reuters/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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