Sri Lankan tea workers are being affected by a government ban on a popular weedicide as large plantations become overgrown with weeds.
The country banned the import of glyphosate in 2015 under the Import and Export (control) Act over concerns that it could cause chronic kidney disease.
Environmental groups say commonly used pesticides including glyphosate have been blamed for the deaths of more than 20,000 farmers in Sri Lanka over the past two decades because of their higher levels of cyanide, mercury and arsenic. The World Health Organization (WHO) says chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology has affected a minimum of 15 percent of people in the 15-70 age group.
Sri Lankan trade unions say there is less work on tea plantations because the overgrowth of weeds has hit productivity. Weeds cannot be weeded manually as these are large plantations owned by private companies on long-term leases.
“Workers on the estates have no additional income generation due to the current grave situation,” said Arul Swami, an official of a trade union with a membership of more than 175,000.
He said the union was in discussions with companies and the Plantation Ministry stressing the importance of the use of chemicals to control weeds on the estates.
Tea workers are almost all Tamils descended from those brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British in the 1820s to provide cheap labor. Around 52 percent of tea workers are women who are among the poorest paid in the country.
Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea and the industry is one of the country’s biggest recipients of foreign exchange, but families working on tea estates are among the homeless.
Father Premalal Cooray, director of Caritas Badulla, said the decision to ban glyphosate seems to have had a political connotation that was clearly impacting workers.
He said that although it was possible to carry out manual weeding on smaller plantations, it would not be possible on the larger estates.
After banning glyphosate, the government issued a statement saying that “scientists who carry out research on renal diseases prevailing in many parts of the country have pointed out that the use of pesticides, weedicides and chemical fertilizer could be contributing to this [chronic kidney disease] situation.”
Lasanatha Ratnaweera, senior research officer at the Office of the Registrar of Pesticides, said the ban was clearly a political decision.
He pointed out that his department had nothing to do with the decision and politicians were simply using the WHO statement which indicated that glyphosate could be “carcinogenic” or cancerous.
Sri Lanka exports tea to Russia, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Britain, Germany, the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries.
Union officials say that tea workers are migrating in greater numbers to urban areas because of the fall in their incomes.