Planters’ Association Annual General Meeting 2021

Chairman’s speech

Good afternoon, ladies, and gentlemen, I thank you for joining the one hundred and sixty seventh Annual General Meeting of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, and the first-ever AGM hosted on a virtual platform, given the prevailing pandemic situation.

Before I start my speech proper I like to quote few paras of an article that I read yesterday form an e mail received from a friend of mine which I presume  its very important to all our members in today’s context .

I quote….

  • As we look back, twenty twenty and much of twenty twenty one were a wake-up call for how much and how quickly change can happen. But they were also a warm-up for what’s ahead — not necessarily another pandemic with multiple variants, of course, but fluctuation of every imaginable stripe.
  • The future will not be more stable or certain. The future whether that’s this afternoon, next week, next quarter, next year, or the next decade is now defined by more uncertainty, more unpredictability, and more unknowns. Individually, we wonder and often worry about our jobs, our well-being, and our children’s future. Organizationally, we grapple with business model disruption, digital transformation, and the Great Resignation. Societally, we face unprecedented changes to our climate, economies, demographics, and political systems to name a few. These changes and their effects will multiply and overlap.
  • As futurist, we should spend much of our time helping companies, executives, and teams to make sense of the forces shaping the future and prepare responsibly. The objective is not to predict the future which is a futile mission, but rather to be ready for many different possible futures that could unfold. However, there is hope for organizations that plan in order to get ahead of change.
  • The time to prepare for change is not when it hits. It’s before it hits, and during times of relative calm environments. Reacting to change in the moment keeps you forever on the defensive, and the consequences can be severe. You’re unable to see where the future is heading because your attention is consumed with dodging the next bouncer. This exposes your organization to unnecessary risks and overlooks new opportunities. It’s a recipe for frustration and lagging performance at best collapse at worst.

Un Quote……

Over the past year, there have been tremendous achievements made by all RPCs in the face of unprecedented challenges. Just as the industry was dealt a difficult blow with the arbitrary increase of wages through the Wages Board, following the rejection of multiple proposals by RPCs for alternative and more effective wage models.

Parallel to these developments, the most immediate concern in 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic. With the country going into a national lockdown from March 2020, overnight the world famous Colombo tea auctions were transformed from a hybrid tea auction into a fully digital platform, in order to ensure that the entire tea value chain was able to stay in motion despite restrictions in movement. 

While there were initial concerns that estate communities would be among the most vulnerable, fortunately this was not the case. The industry’s highly commendable success in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the estates was no accident. Rather it was due to the combined efforts of RPCs and their management teams on the ground, working under the strict guidance of public health officials, and supported by the Plantations Human Development Trust (PHDT) and other key stakeholders.

Subsequently, each of these stakeholder groups also rallied together in order to expedite vaccinations to the estate community, with over 85% of workers and non-workers alike having received their first dose of the vaccine, and a further 63% having been fully vaccinated as at the start of September 2021. This is a tremendous achievement.    

This is the level of cooperation, and collaboration that we must maintain in order to help move our industry towards a much brighter future. Unfortunately, this progress was overshadowed by the sudden announcement that some of our industry’s most critical inputs – fertilizers and other agrochemicals – was banned by the Government. Ideally, this ban should have been carried out in a phased out manner in order to provide stakeholders with an opportunity to prepare themselves with suitable alternatives recommended by the research institutes.

All stakeholders agree that absent sustainable and effective solutions on the fundamental issues of plant nutrition, pest and weed control, there will be no future for our industry. At this point, whether they are organic or inorganic is essentially irrelevant.

Every planter, every farmer, every gardener, knows that plants need nutrition in the form of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium – NPK. Without it, yields decline, plants become weaker, and the quality of our end product will be adversely affected. These tea bushes will also be more prone to pests and disease. Ultimately, livelihoods will be compromised.

The implications of such a failure have been clearly and thoroughly detailed in private and public forums by the PA, and all other stakeholders from April 2021 to the present day. The problem is not in organic agriculture itself, but rather, the way in which the transition to organic practices is being managed. In order to increase organic cultivation, all stakeholders need time, resources, and careful guidance.

RPCs are among the world’s leaders in organic tea, rubber and spices. Sadly, we are not being consulted for our expertise in the subject, and our concerns are not being heard. Expert opinions are being disregarded. There is no getting around the fact that if we continue on the same path, we as an industry, and as a nation, and the people will face the consequences.

Tea industry performance

In 2020, Sri Lanka produced a total of 278.5 million kgs of tea, of which, 265.6 million kilograms was destined for export markets. Total export earnings from tea amounted to approximately US$ 1.24 billion in 2020 in comparison to US$ 1.35 billion in 2019, US$ 1.43 billion in 2018. Conversely, in the first seven months of 2021, Sri Lanka has recorded export earnings of USD 766 million from tea, an increase of 9% compared with the same period of 2020.

However, this increase was off a low base and mainly driven by improved weather conditions in 2021, as compared with a severe drought which impaired production 2020. However, when considering a more valid comparison with the corresponding period of 2019, the 2021 performance shows a 4% reduction.

With an immediate halt to use of fertilizer of agro-chemicals, the consensus is that there will be severe crop losses, and as a result, a reduction in export revenues by as early as the end of this year. 

In 2022, all experts conservatively estimate that we will record reduction in tea exports over 40%. This at a time when foreign currency earnings are of critical importance to the national economy. The only way this situation can be avoided is for the industry to be provided with a suitable, tried and tested alternative for plant nutrition, pest control and weed management.

Crucially, these alternatives must also be in conformity with the Maximum Residue Levels (MRL) of our export destinations, in order to avoid the loss of lucrative markets - like what happened with the Glyphosate ban previously. Once lost, markets are extremely difficult to re-capture. Establishing new markets takes time and precious resources.

For replanting too, the entire industry – including tea smallholders – who account for over 70% of total tea production, need fertilizer for their nurseries. Without it, we cannot grow viable cultivars. Without a proper alternative, all replanting efforts that are currently underway may also be put in jeopardy. It is therefore imperative that every available solution to resolve this crisis is urgently provided.  

Rubber production

Concerns over shortages in agro-chemicals are common across all other sectors of the plantation economy. Rubber planters have for many months been sounding the alarm over the spread of the fungal infection Pestalotiopsis which according to industry veterans is now reaching an epidemic proportion on par with the ‘coffee rust’ blight which wiped out Sri Lanka’s coffee plantations in the late 1800s. Today, the fungal disease is present in all rubber growing regions in Sri Lanka, affecting over 20,000 hectares Sri Lanka’s rubber cultivations.

One of the key issues in addressing Pestalotiopsis is the lack of necessary fertiliser and the required agrochemicals. Since rubber trees lose their foliage due to the disease, to compensate and provide extra nourishment for foliage re-growth, the Rubber Research Institute’s main recommendations is to apply additional inorganic fertilizer.

Hence, it is critical that the disease must be dealt with at the national-level by the government, considering especially that a vast majority of Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations are managed by smallholders, not commercial growers. The shortage of fertilizer is also going to hinder progress on replanting of rubber, given that the uptake of fertilizer is most crucial when rubber is in the nursery phase. 

Hence even as demand and prices for natural latex have reached their strongest levels since 2011, we are rapidly losing productive capacity. By the end of 2021, the industry expects an estimated 20% Year-on-Year reduction in output from rubber plantations due to this disease. 

Oil palm

On the subject of oil palm too, we have continued to face an uphill battle. Approximately a decade ago, our industry was given every encouragement to expand cultivation of oil palm in Sri Lanka based on long-running successful cultivations from the 1960s. Consequently, RPCs invested Rs. 26 billion towards the expansion of oil palm cultivation up to 12,000 hectares – just over 1% of the total area planted with tea, rubber and coconut, producing nearly 48,000 MT of palm oil annually, and saving much needed foreign exchange, by reducing Sri Lanka’s requirements for edible oil imports.

These investments were made with the understanding of all stakeholders that the industry would expand to 20,000 hectares, of sustainably grown oil palm as it was a lucrative crop, with strong potential for import substitution.

RPCs incurred considerable expenses – including foreign currency towards importing oil palm seeds and other specialized equipment. Most recently this included Rs. 300 million worth of oil palm saplings for nurseries, which became overgrown and have since been lost entirely. There is no way for those companies to recover those investments. A Presidential directive has since been issued calling for a complete halt to the expansion of cultivation of this most lucrative crop. To date, there has been no credible scientific rationale provided for this decision.


At present, the outlook for Sri Lanka’s plantation industry is shrouded in uncertainty and good news is hard to come by. While the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in many other sectors, ours was one of a handful of industries that continued to operate as an essential service without reducing wages or slashing jobs. As a result, we have generated valuable foreign income. This after having absorbed yet another extremely contentious wage increase.

On crop diversification, we have seen RPCs make bold new advancements into new and more specialized crops like Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, and Blackberries. In addition to internationally famed spices like Ceylon cinnamon, pepper, cloves, cardamoms etc. RPCs are also leading the way on research and development into new value added products.

Similarly, it is RPCs who have invested in mechanization for harvesting of tea, and even for remote mapping of soil composition, and delivery of agro-chemicals through drone technology. Even in the field of organic tea, rubber and spices, Sri Lankan RPCs manage the largest extents of certified organic cultivation in the country. All we ask is that our experience and expertise be taken into account when forming policy for our industry.

If Sri Lanka’s entire national agricultural production systems are to be completely overhauled, experts believe it will take a decade or more to complete – and that too can only be accomplished when RPCs are made a central stakeholder in strategy and planning towards such a bold endeavor.

As before, the Planters’ Association of Ceylon maintains our position that we are not opposed to a gradual, and carefully planned expansion of organic agriculture in Sri Lanka. All that we ask is that such decisions be based on credible science and that they factor in market realities. The livelihoods of everyone connected to agriculture in Sri Lanka hang in the balance.


I take this opportunity to thank the Minister of Plantation Industries, Hon. Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, State Minister, Kanaka Herath, and officials of the Ministry of Plantations Industries for their continuous assistance of our industry over the past year.

We also express our gratitude to all stakeholder organisations for their steadfast commitment to our shared goals of establishing a more dynamic, sustainable, and resilient plantation industry.  

We express our gratitude also to the membership of the Planters’ Association for their unstinted support, as well as Deputy Chairman, Mr. Senaka Alwattegama, PA Secretary General, Mr. Lalith Obeyesekere, Dr Roshan Rajadore and the entire secretariat staff for their consistent and unwavering support throughout my tenure as Chairman of the PA.

I also wish to express my gratitude to Aitken Spence Plantation Managements PLC and Elpitiya Plantations PLC, Chairman Dr. Parakrama Dissanayake and the Managing Director, Dr. Rohan Fernando for encouraging me to take up this prestigious position, in addition to my responsibilities in leading the company and its subsidiaries as Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer.


Released in October 2021