By Anbarasan Ethirajan
Why is a ship carrying cargo from China refusing to leave Sri Lankan waters despite being asked to do so by authorities?
The answer is a crucial shipment gone horribly wrong, leading to a rare diplomatic tussle between two close allies, the blacklisting of a bank, and a group of farmers and scientists up in arms.
The ship in question – the Hippo Spirit – departed from China in September carrying 20,000 tonnes of much-needed organic fertiliser to Colombo.
The order was placed after the Sri Lankan government suddenly stopped all chemical fertiliser imports in May to convert the country into the world's first completely organic farming nation.
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 given the desperate requirement for organic fertiliser, why is there a controversy over this shipment?
The issue is with the quality of the fertiliser – which scientists say, instead of helping, could prove harmful to crops.
"Our tests on the samples showed that the (Chinese) fertiliser was not sterile," Dr Ajantha De Silva, director general, Sri Lankan Department of Agriculture, told the BBC. "We have identified bacteria which are harmful to plants like carrots and potatoes."
They insist that since the cargo has implications for the bio-security of the country, it cannot be accepted.
The decision has triggered an angry rebuttal from Qingdao Seawin. It has accused the Sri Lankan media of using terms like "toxic, garbage, pollution" and other derogatory words to "slander the image of the Chinese enterprises and the Chinese government".
"The unscientific detection method and conclusion of National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQ) in Sri Lanka obviously do not comply with international animal and plant quarantine convention," the company thundered in a statement.
As the controversy escalated, a court ordered the state-owned People's Bank to stop payment of $9m for the cargo already awaiting entry.
The Chinese embassy in Colombo responded by blacklisting the bank for not honouring the payment to the company.
Seawin won open bid, signed contracts, passed tests of China and Int'l agency designated by Ceylon Fertilizer, shipped before due.
NPQ SL disagreed in halfway, called toxic/harmful.
Ship refused. Third party test refused. L/C payment obligation refused.
PBSL blacklisted pic.twitter.com/mMbzqxdwJi
The Qingdao Seawin has also demanded eight million dollars' compensation from the Sri Lankan National Plant Quarantine Service for the loss of reputation it has suffered following the controversy.
And as all this unfolds onshore, the ship has not left Sri Lanka's waters.
When Sri Lankan port authorities denied permission for it to unload its cargo in late October, Hippo Spirit moved away from the Colombo harbour and reportedly sailed to waters off the coast of Hambantota port on its southern coast.
Now, latest images by the marine traffic website indicate the ship is currently stationed near Sri Lanka's south-western coast, not far from Colombo.
The message is clear. The Chinese company is not willing to take back its cargo.
Following recent meetings with Chinese embassy officials, Shasheendra Rajapaksa, a Sri Lankan junior minister, said they had agreed to re-test a fresh sample through a mutually agreed third-party laboratory.
"We were not forced into this, but they only made a request," Mr Rajapaksa said, adding "The current shipment cannot reach Sri Lanka".
If the cargo is returned to China, that would be a big loss of face for Qingdao Seawin and the Chinese government. The company says it exports organic fertiliser to more than 50 countries, including Australia and the US.
However, some in Sri Lanka have questioned their government's ability to withstand Chinese pressure tactics.
Beijing has loaned billions of dollars to the country as part of its Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure in Asia. However, not all of the funding has worked in Sri Lanka's favour.
For example, in 2017, China Merchants Port Holdings took a majority share with a 99-year lease in the strategically important Hambantota port after Colombo struggled to repay the debt incurred to build it.
Some western analysts believe that Sri Lanka has walked into a Chinese "debt trap".
But Sri Lankan officials insist that despite China's financial muscle, no organic fertiliser that violates current regulations will be allowed into the country.
"We have categorically told the company that they can take the product back to China and send fresh samples from another batch. If it passes the regulatory standards, definitely they will be able to send another consignment of fertiliser," Dr De Silva asserted.
While the officials from the two countries spar over the fertiliser, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan farmers are looking at a bleak paddy farming season without the much-needed agricultural input.
Rice farmers like R M Rathnayaka, from the south-eastern Monaragala district, say the government's abrupt ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides has massively impacted the agrarian community.
"We cannot convert to organic farming all of a sudden. Though it is better to use natural manure, the government's current approach is wrong", Mr Rathnayaka told the BBC.
He suggested that the country should move towards organic farming "in a phased manner."
Experts like Professor Buddhi Marambe from the University of Peradeniya add that converting to total organic farming will harm the agricultural economy because the yield of staple crops like paddy could drop sharply.
"We cannot achieve total food security only with organic farming," Professor Marambe told the BBC.
Following reports that the country's famous Ceylon Tea was under threat, and after countrywide protests by farmers, the government eased some of its rules on synthetic fertiliser.
In the recently concluded UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the overuse of chemical fertilisers had resulted in health issues like chronic kidney disease, resulting in his government's firm stance on curtailing imports.
But some analysts point out that the decision to ban chemical fertilisers was to limit expensive imports – something the government denies.
The country's foreign exchange reserves dropped to $2.3 billion by the end of October – and the government has already restricted the import of various other items in an effort to tackle the crisis.
Regardless of the reason behind the chemical fertiliser ban, some say the government now finds itself in a precarious situation.
It's facing the displeasure of Beijing while its own farmers and agricultural experts are up in arms.
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By Anbarasan Ethirajan