From fairy tales to Aesop's fables, to the Bible itself, the history of humanity is saturated with cautionary tales. Something about learning the consequences of other people’s pitfalls rings true.
The best cautionary tales, however, are the ones that come from real life, the ones where you can look back and realize all the mistakes that were made along the way, mistakes that seem so avoidable now, but were unforeseen, or ignored, in the moment.
Before our eyes, the crisis in Sri Lanka is unfolding. The country is facing a severe economic crisis including 80% food inflation, and food, fuel, and power shortages as well as political upheaval, leaving the island nation on the brink of collapse. External factors like Covid-19 and the Ukrainian war, in combination with Sri Lanka’s own economic policy are to blame. Reckless tax cuts deprived the country of desperately needed revenue and then a ban on synthetic pesticide and fertilizer imports slashed domestic agriculture. This fertilizer ban was the final straw that sent an already weakened economy into free fall.
The best thing the West can do is to open its eyes and realize what’s going on, to connect the dots and prevent more countries from suffering the same fate by learning the cautionary lessons from Sri Lanka.
1. Put the Needs of Your Own Country First
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose to strive for the globally admired goal of cleaner farming, ultimately at the expense of his own people. In 2019, he vowed that within 10 years' time, the country’s agriculture would transition to organic farming. He made good on his word in April 2021, when the Rajapaksa government mandated that the 2 million Sri Lankan farmers go organic, implementing a nationwide ban on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, the production of rice and tea, the country’s main exports, was devastated, prices soared, the currency collapsed, and protests erupted.
Not only was the economy devastated, but the quality of life for Sri Lankans deteriorated as 500,000 people sank beneath the poverty line. It should be of primary importance to take care of your population’s basic needs, rather than seek to be an example of change on the global scale.
2. Proceed with Caution When It Comes to the WEF
The World Economic Forum was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab. According to its website, the organization is “an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.”
The WEF focuses on creating a globalistic, sustainable future, possibly at the expense of human prosperity and liberty. The WEF supports ESG initiatives, one of which was banning synthetic fertilizers.
A now-deleted article from the WEF website called “Sri Lanka PM: This is how I will make my country rich by 2050” explained that Sri Lanka’s economic policy was “firmly embedded in several principles, including a social market economy that delivers economic dividends to all,” in part by implementing climate change initiatives sponsored by the WEF.
The WEF’s environmental policy was put into practice in part in Sri Lanka and failed terribly.
The WEF’s potential influence over Sri Lanka has made many question whether the forum has become too powerful in affecting world affairs. The WEF has no ties to a specific country, and thus no stake or accountability for the long-term effects of its policies. The WEF’s motives are murky at best and many of its ideas verge on dystopian.
Until recently, the WEF was known for advancing futuristic and untested theories, but now, however, in Sri Lanka, their environmental policy was put into practice in part, and has failed terribly, demonstrating that the advice of the forum should be approached with great caution and discernment.
3. If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Since the introduction of synthetic fertilizers in the 1970s, Sri Lanka became self-sufficient in producing rice to feed its 22 million citizens, and by 2019, the country had achieved upper-middle income status. After the bans imposed by Rajapaksa, however, domestic rice production fell by 20% within the first six months, forcing the country to import $450 million worth of rice. Not only did the food sector prices increase by nearly 55%, but the country’s tea, rubber, and coconut crops were also hit, with tea production declining by 18%. According to the USDA estimates, the decline in tea production will create roughly $425 million of economic losses. The old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” rings all too true in Sri Lanka’s case.
4. Implementing Change Is a Gradual Process
Like all transitions, it takes time and careful planning to go organic. It takes about 3 years for one farm to transition the soil, water, and crops to eliminate inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. It’s a complex process that must be done at the individual level, and an immediate ban will have sweeping consequences as production capacity declines. The truth is that, although better for the environment, organic farming is 20% less efficient than conventional farming, a number that is reflected in the fall of Sri Lanka’s rice and tea production. Despite warnings, however, Rajapaksa went through with the ban resulting in disastrous consequences. It’s simply unsustainable to immediately go organic on a national level.
It takes about 3 years for one farm to transition the soil, water, and crops to organic farming.
Going organic should be a choice for farmers and consumers to personally make, and can be incentivized by the government, but it should be a gradual phase out and not an immediate mandate. Quantity is sometimes more important than quality, especially when something as crucial as food production is at stake. This issue is even more important now, with a potential food shortage on the horizon, exacerbated in part by Sri Lankan policy. Ironically, the country tried to act for the global good, but now the fallout of its policy is having damaging global consequences.
5. Politicians Will Ultimately Be Held Accountable
Politicians may feel invincible in their power, but in the end, they will be held accountable by their people. Leaders are chosen to defend and provide for their citizens, and if needs so basic as simply being fed are denied, there will be backlash. Over 100 days of protests have raged in Sri Lanka, with an estimated 300,000 people protesting, occupying government buildings, and causing violence to erupt on the streets. The Prime Minister and President were forced to resign, and President Rajapaksa himself was forced to flee the country because of his vast unpopularity.
The turmoil going on in Sri Lanka may seem foreign and remote, but the West, too, could suffer the same fate. We’ve seen it before in the U.S.; people will riot over matters much more trivial than basic food and energy needs. Even so, the U.S. is pushing for fertilizer, pesticide, and fossil fuel bans, all contributing to inflation. The Netherlands and now Canada are implementing fertilizer bans sparking intense backlash from farmers.
The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that the extent of the crisis is completely man-made. Now, more than ever, political leaders must focus on the welfare of their own people and country first and foremost, look with incredulity on the WEF, stop trying to upend perfectly good systems, and understand that implementing any large-scale change is a long-term process. They must consider that they, as leaders who have the power to shape the quality of life of their population, need to make choices knowing that ultimately, they will be held accountable. If not in the present, then the future will pass judgment.
Although many may think that the West is immune to the troubles of Sri Lanka, if we are not careful, America too could fall like the great empires before it. From Rome, to France, to Russia, and now the country of Sri Lanka, history has demonstrated that people will rise up against their governments when they lack food.
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