By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

The rubber industry is suffering a major setback as the New Circular Leaf Spot Disease (CLSD) – a fungal disease that causes leaves to turn yellow and drop, is spreading rapidly in Sri Lanka, with no fungicides imported due to banks’ inability to open Letters of Credit (LC) due to the prevailing dollar crisis, an official of the Plantation Ministry said. 

The Plantation Ministry has approved the purchase of two expensive fungicides, Hexaconazole and Carbendazim, but because the country lacks US dollars, the purchase has come to a halt, despite the fact that the fungus has already spread to nearly 35 per cent of the country’s rubber estates. One of the factors that make productivity of rubber plants low is the presence of pests and diseases.

The rubber plantations are highly worried that no remedial action has been taken, despite the fungus starting to spread almost three years ago.

The information received is that the bio pesticides and nano liquids are being arranged to be received “sooner” by the Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka (RRISL), the oldest institute on rubber in the world.

Symptoms begin as very small, yellow, brown or black spots. Later, these spots may expand to form circular brown to silvery spots with a yellow halo. Moreover, a blight condition of the leaf is evident.

The RRISL has begun conducting experiments to assess the efficacy of using drone technology for fungicide application against Circular Leaf Spot Disease and they have approached China and several other countries to get hold of drones for such use. Still, the implementation of this mission is at an early stage.

The scientists are aiming to control the fungal disease through reactive and proactive methods and some of the leading universities and organic pesticide marketers have now joined this gigantic initiative rather than waiting until global leaders of natural rubber provide solutions. 

What has been highlighted regarding the rubber industry according to a top rubber expert is that there is a severe reduction of crop since 2014 continuously and an acute shortage of scientists at RRISL.

It is also noted that currently there is no head to lead RRISL due to political and egoistic battles. Only an Acting Director is functioning currently. 

Also, there are no climate change mitigation strategies – industry wide. Such problems in the plantation industry are linked to the climate factor.

Also, there is an absence of evidence-based soil conservation and enrichment strategies to arrest soil erosion and an urgent need of multi cropping to increase land productivity and earning potential of the workers. 

There is also the absence of smart plantation agriculture techniques. 

The Export Development Board (EDB) on its official website says that Sri Lankan rubber manufacturers can achieve an aggregate annual turnover of nearly US$ 4 billion by 2026 with sufficient infrastructure, policy support, and other facilities in place, but the current status quo is that in the last three years or so, a formidable damage has been caused to the rubber yield.

According to officials attached to the rubber plantation, to identify the exact fungus causing the disruption took almost two years and today it has threatened the rubber industry already. Initially, it was thought to be Pesta spread from Indonesia, but later on the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) gave its own new name as New Circular Leaf Spot Disease and identified it was a variant of a Pesta that spread from India.

History of the fungus

The first epidemic condition of this disease had been reported from Malaysia 2017 – 2018 and later, the disease spread to Indonesia devastating many rubber clones. Currently, the major natural rubber producers such as Thailand (52,000 ha), Indonesia (380,000 ha) and Malaysia (5,000 ha) have been seriously affected and the disease is reported from India and Papua New Guinea. The outbreak has been estimated to reduce 70% – 90% of productivity in the worst affected areas and about 30% – 50% in moderate affected regions (ITRC, Indonesia – December 2019).

This Leaf Fall Disease was first reported in Sri Lanka by the end of July 2019. Since then, immediate action was taken to educate the extension staff and the growers to identify the disease and to isolate the infected areas, limiting further spread of the disease. Chemical spraying programmes conducted so far have contributed to control the spread of the disease to a considerable extent.

India took immediate measures to control the fungus spread on rubber after identifying it and the chemical fungicide was accurately selected, but some of the plant scientists said, it was the same fungus that spread in India that had spread in 

Sri Lanka. However, it was subjected to a major debate that went on for two years and finally it was agreed it was the same fungus from India that had encroached on Sri Lanka.

When contacted, Acting Director of RRI Dr. V.H.L. Rodrigo said, it was a form of the Indian fungus. India said, it was Colocoticium, which is close to what the RRI identified. The fungus eats the fragile leaves of the rubber trees, preventing the crop from producing any yields.

He said, they have already informed the Ministry of Plantation to import the fungicide needed, but it is yet to be imported. 

A rubber licence officer 

J.M. Meththananda said, rubber prices bring high revenue. It was Rs 500 per kg in 2017, but now it is Rs 800 per kg, which means there’s a lot of money to be made if the returns are excellent, he said. He was particularly concerned about the 30% decrease of rubber produce. He pointed out that the rubber yield of 1,000 kilogrammes per hectare had dropped to 700 kilogrammes per hectare.

Drones to spray pesticides have been explored, and the RRI has requested 100 drones for aerial pesticide spraying, said 

Dr. Rodrigo. According to him, the fungus has mildly harmed 20,000 ha of rubber plantations last year, whereas 10,000 ha were badly affected. He said the badly afflicted estates may have had a 30 per cent decline in rubber yields. He said the fungus had been existing for roughly 80 years, but this is a new variation.

Another rubber expert who spoke on condition of anonymity said they have been trying various sprays and all had failed. He added that the Government needs to act quickly, failing which the rubber industry that can fetch billions of rupees for Sri Lanka would collapse. It is said that several plant pathogenic fungi have developed resistance to chemical fungicides and it has to be tested and tried with all bio and chemical fungicides. 

The RRISL has all facilities, but still the treatment for the fungus has been delayed, while the EDB describes a dreamy action plan it has set forth for the rubber industry.

The website further talks about Sri Lanka Rubber Industry’s Master Plans and that an agreed approach to industry growth of 25 projects and 10 programmes would be implemented islandwide with a view to develop rubber cultivation and product manufacturing in identified locations.

The EDB further says that a part of the ambitious programme, Rubber City is a dedicated rubber industrial park that will be established with a satellite network of auxiliary facilities to develop rubber products for niche markets. Future projects also include the increase of local raw material production through enhancement of rubber production in traditional rubber growing areas. In addition, the plan also looks into giving extra value to rubber wood, a unique renewable source that carries high demand across the world. Upgrading the industry’s technological stack and infrastructure at rubber-elated research centres, universities, and private sector firms will also lead to enhancing competencies at the industry level, eventually increasing market responsiveness and industry sustainability practices.

But the Rubber Development Department (RDD), a key institute that should support the rubber industry, has stale news on their website, and it was last updated in 2017, with no current information on the rubber industry.

On the other hand, the RRISL’s mission is to “emerge as the centre of excellence in providing high quality scientific technologies to the rubber industry,” while their mission is “to revitalise the rubber sector by developing economically and environmentally sustainable innovations and transferring the latest technologies to the stakeholders through training and advisory services.”

Ceylon Today learns that the RDD awarded a contract to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) worth Rs 20 million to develop an online database system in the year 2016-2017, but it never was implemented. According to sources, the PWC development platform division had been shut down and the system for RDD was not completed.

Invariably, Rs 20 million is sufficient to have a proper data platform for the entire plantation industry of Sri Lanka, an expert told Ceylon Today. 

No system to identify plantation sector issues 

The mega issue in Sri Lanka is that there is no proper online database system created to monitor the current industries of Sri Lanka, said an expert Brigadier (Dr.) Thiran De Silva (Rtd), from the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya. He and two others, R.P. de Silva and N.D.K. Dayawansa, both from the Department of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya have drafted a thesis on the subject that is ready for execution.

An Approach for Common Web GIS Platform for Agriculture Sector modernisation in Sri Lanka is the need according to Dr. de Silva.

He has been working on a common information platform, but none have executed or obtained his expertise.

To overcome problems in the plantation sector, an expert system that can identify rubber plant diseases is key, as a system can be developed to be able to provide solutions in diagnosing rubber plant diseases.

The three persons have drafted a thesis, which says that the current status of new technology adoption in the Sri Lankan agriculture sector is limited, not only among the farmers, but also among the agribusinesses and government authorities. Due to rapid development and changes in every aspect of the society, spatial and non-spatial information also rapidly undergoes changes within a noticeably short period of time. Most of the public and private sectors in the world have shifted their approach from conventional farming to smart farming, adopting GIS, ICT and IoT technologies in a single platform. Currently, the Sri Lankan Government and private sector are seeking suitable solutions to overcome the issues faced by farmers, buyers (Business to Business) and related stakeholders on supply chain management, value chain management, geographical based farmer and farm management, etc. during this crisis as well as continuing it after the pandemic. The objective of this study was to develop a comprehensive, state-of-the-art, Open Source, Common Agriculture Information System Platform to integrate spatial and non-spatial data related to agriculture sector in Sri Lanka with census data, where the entire Nation’s agriculture base spatial information is hosted on a single platform, with non-spatial data to be used by government and the platform creating a value chain among farmers, buyers, transportation suppliers, seeds and plant suppliers, fertiliser and pesticide suppliers and related stakeholders.

Can SL lead the rubber industry, as tyre manufacturing industry is set up in Hambantota?

The Sri Lankan agriculture sector is governed by a large number of State and non-State sector institutions. However, it has been identified that the Sri Lankan agricultural sector is in need of a common platform to manage country’s farmers, farms and harvest along with other key factors like fertiliser, seeds, plants, and pesticides.

A detailed study was conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Sri Lanka Telecommunication Regulatory Commission with the support of most of the agriculture -related government institutions, development banks, and agriculture-based large-scale businesses in Sri Lanka and a roadmap was laid down ‘Sri Lanka E-Agriculture Strategy’ in year 2016 (Department of Agriculture, SLTRC, 2016). The strategy was developed following the framework prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2016). The study clearly identified the need of a common platform to manage all agriculture stakeholders. The study also emphasises on integrating all the stakeholders in a single platform using common communication protocols and geographically enabled integrated IoT platform (data platform) has been highlighted to enable online trading through farmer to buyer, eliminating the middle man.

With the rise of many opportunities in the global markets for natural rubber, Sri Lanka is aiming to secure a much larger share in the global market.

China is already planning to build a US$ 300 million tyre plant at Hambantota Port, with the goal of exporting nine million tyres in the first phase, and if the authorities do not work to increase rubber yields in Sri Lanka, China will import its own rubber to make tyres. Around 10% of rubber products are currently imported and re-exported from Sri Lanka.

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), in 2020, Sri Lanka imported US$ 4.85 million in rubber sheets, becoming the 73rd largest importer of rubber sheets in the world. In the same year, rubber sheets were the 388th most imported product in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka imports rubber sheets primarily from: India 

(US$ 1.49 million), China (US$ 915,000), Thailand (US$ 472,000), Germany (US$ 333,000), and Hong Kong (US$ 332,000). 

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