Cabinet lifts asbestos ban

Wednesday, 20 December 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Cabinet informed Moscow’s ban of Ceylon tea has more strategic motivations than merely quarantine issues
  • Negotiations ongoing to undo Russian ban on Sri Lanka tea 
  • Russia ready to speak with Sri Lankan Ambassador in Moscow
  • Agriculture DG writes to Russian counterpart assuring food safety standards in the country
  • Russian authorities invited to come to SL for inspections
  • Sri Lanka waiting for response before next move
  • Tea Board Chairman urges careful and strategic handling of issue

By Chathuri Dissanayake

In a bid to create a conducive environment for negotiations to overturn the ban imposed by Russia on Sri Lankan tea exports, Cabinet yesterday decided to defer the asbestos ban until further review, a top Minister confirmed.

The surprise ban slapped on all agricultural product exports from Sri Lanka, including Ceylon Tea, following the detection of a single Khapra Beetle in a tea container was widely seen as a direct response to Sri Lanka’s decision to impose a blanket ban on all asbestos imports which is set to come into force from January next year. 

The decision was announced in 2016, and importers of asbestos have been lobbying to overturn the pending ban. Russian-produced asbestos hold the largest market share in Sri Lanka, while Ceylon Tea accounts for 23% of Russia’s tea market.

Cabinet discussions centred on the influence Sri Lanka’s move to ban asbestos for Government projects may have had on pushing the Russian authorities to impose a total ban on agricultural products from Sri Lanka, a top Cabinet source revealed. 

The Cabinet also noted that it was highly unusual for a total ban to be imposed on agricultural exports when only a single incident had been reported. Further, the Khapra Beetle is very rare in Sri Lanka with only a few records of its existence recorded by the Department of Agriculture, making the detection in a container of Ceylon Tea even more surprising, the Cabinet discussion noted. The Cabinet also focused on the possibility of the Russian ban having more strategic causes than the stated quarantine reason.

“The 2016 decision was to phase out asbestos gradually to ensure Sri Lanka is free of the material by 2029. It would have commenced with not using asbestos as roofing material for any government buildings from next year. However, yesterday the Government decided to defer this decision until further review,” Cabinet Co-spokesperson Dayasiri Jayasekara told the Daily FT.

The negotiations with the Russian authorities on the agriculture product ban are progressing as planned, Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake told the Daily FT. The Minister yesterday said that a technical delegation would leave for Russia this week to discuss Russian quarantine requirements to be met by Sri Lankan exporters. 

Reuters, quoting the RIA news agency, yesterday reported that Russia’s agriculture safety quarantine services institution Rosselkhoznadzor was ready to hold talks with Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Russia on resuming tea deliveries.

Tea Board Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda told the Daily FT that as a first step the Director General of the Agriculture Department has written to his Russian counterpart.

The Director General’s letter sought to assure the Russian authorities of the food safety practices followed by the exporter in the midst of the controversy following a thorough investigation of the premises. Further, the letter also offered details of the inspection carried out along with the procedure followed by the department to issue a Site Sanitary Certification, Pethiyagoda said. The department has also spoken to all officials involved in issuing the certification to ensure proper procedures have been followed, the letter assured. In addition, the Russian authorities have also been requested to recommend the next steps to be taken to assure them of quarantine procedures in Sri Lanka to get the ban lifted while inviting a team from Russia to visit the country to inspect the premises and scrutinise the procedures followed.

“We are now waiting for their response,” said Pethiyagoda.

He was of the opinion that local authorities should handle the matter carefully and await the response of Russian authorities before a delegation of technical experts go to Russia for face-to-face meetings.

“It has to be carefully thought out and strategically handled,” he said, stressing that written communication through documentary proof was the best way to handle such a matter.

Pethiyagoda also noted that due to the holiday season in both countries the authorities would have close to a month to iron out issues and develop an acceptable procedure concerning quarantine processes. He also noted that the tea auction prices were not adversely affected this week thanks to the careful handling of the situation by buyers.

“Sri Lanka will be on holiday next week, there will be no tea auction. Russia will be on holiday from 30 December to 12 January. This will give us much-needed lead time to carefully handle the situation without rushing matters,” he explained.

Tea Exporters Association Chairman Jayantha Karunaratne also speculated that authorities would require close to a month to resolve the issue.

“Authorities will have to follow the procedure which will take time. The Russian authorities have requested for a dedicated plant and quarantine to handle the situation from Sri Lanka, a professional person, who is able to explain the procedures, follow and monitor the situation,” he said.  

Karunaratne explained that the value of shipments delayed due to the ban amounted to roughly Rs. 300-Rs. 400 million.

“The only loss of revenue would be if there is a decline in Russian purchases, which is about 12% of Sri Lankan produce,” he said. However, purchasing for Russian markets will only resume in mid-January, giving local authorities enough time to negotiate a removal of the ban.