At first light, at first sight and at first read, the news seemed to be a page out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But Lanka was forced to believe it, like it or lump it, when Russia announced its decision to cut down on its 400 million dollars worth of Ceylon Tea imports from Lanka, all because they had found a single beetle in a crate that carried Lanka’s economic bread and butter.
Never in the field of human commerce, perhaps, would so many have faced losing so much due to one small beetle.
But why did one beetle get Russia’s goat? That is the 400 million dollar mystery and question. One that those who blame Lanka’s woes on the western world and claim it’s all due to some international capitalistic conspiracy but look to Moscow as their Marxist Mecca should ask themselves.
Last week the Russian authorities stated that they have found one beetle in a container carrying Ceylon Tea. The Russian agricultural safety watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor said last Thursday that Russia will place temporary restrictions on imports of all agricultural products from Sri Lanka, including tea, from Dec. 18. The watchdog said it had taken the decision to impose restrictions after it found one insect, known as the Khapra beetle, in one consignment of tea from Sri Lanka.
But the tea in that one crate was securely packed as stated by Lanka. The beetle may have been found in the same crate – and that is possible for this particular pest is known to seek out cracks and crevices in burlap bags, sacks, crates, rail cars, ship holds and trucks, where they can remain hidden for years. But how could this 1.6–3 mm tiny insect have pierced its way into the packaging? The chances are it could not have.
But the worry for the Russians is not over whether its singular presence will spoil their cup of tea but of the danger it may pose to their favourite tipple Vodka which is traditionally made from fermented grains such as sorghum, corn, rice, rye or wheat, though you can also use potatoes, fruits or even just sugar. Therein lies the fear and rub. For this creepy crawly Khapra is a crop killer and the Russian phobia is that the beetle, whose staple diet is grains, could have attacked Russia’s vast growing fields and turned the entire land mass into a Siberia and denied the masses their food and drink.
Not that this particular lone Lankan Khapra could have waged a one beetle Rambo style biological warfare against the grain fields of Russia. Given that the life span of the Khapra is not more than 10 days it would have been dead on arrival after its long sea voyage. The problem is with its larvae which can take years to develop if the temperature falls below 25°C. Then they may enter diapause. In diapause, the larvae can molt but are inactive and may remain in this condition for many years and then emerge to wreak its havoc.
But it takes a female beetle to lay the eggs. And thus the first question Lanka should have asked Russia – was the single Khapra found in the tea consignment male or female?
Yet, whatever the sex of the beetle may have been, every year Russia imports millions of tons of grain. In crop year 2016/2017, Russia’s cereal imports amounted to 1.37 million metric tonnes of cereals which are the favourite food of the Khapra beetle. Would the Russians say they have not found a single beetle – male or female, not a single larva active or dormant, in any of these grain shipments it has made over the years? That if one had been found they have taken steps to ban all future imports from the country of origin? The normal course of action nations, for instance Canada, have taken is to reject the entire shipment in toto, not ban or place restrictions on future imports.
So is it the beetle that’s bugging Russia to take this radical step against Lanka or does the Kremlin have a bee in their bonnet over Lanka’s decision to ban the import of asbestos from Russia, and continues to protest incessantly over its shock and horror, given that Russia is one of the world’s largest asbestos exporters?
According to the Minister of Plantations Navin Dissanayake the presence of the pest is only a decoy to give the Russians an excuse to exercise economic blackmail. He may have a point. And if so it is one of the worst incidents of economic arm twisting international trade has witnessed in recent years where a major power has used an insect to gain an elephantine killing on its export profits. The fact that the beetle was spotted just two weeks before the Lankan asbestos ban comes into effect cannot be ruled out as a mere co incidence, now can it?
In 2015, President Maithripala declared – to a wave of environmentalists’ applause – that his government will ban the use of cancer causing asbestos from the 1st of January 2018. The decision made by President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Minister of Environment, to control the use and import of asbestos from 2018 with it finally being phased out by 2024 was approved by the Cabinet last year in September.
But this week in the face of the Russian threat to restrict or even ban Ceylon tea imports, the president was forced to go back on his pledge to save the Lanka people from asbestos dust in the dawning New Year. He announced that the planned ban set to come into effect on January 1st will be suspended indefinitely till further notice. And it has led to a storm of protest from environmentalists and others with parliamentarian Ven Rathana Thera warning the government that he will be compelled to launch a protest campaign if the government sticks to its decision to relax the ban on Asbestos,” with him leading the march.
The problem with asbestos is that it is so hard to destroy asbestos fibers. The human body cannot break them down or remove them once they are lodged in lung or body tissues. They remain in place where they can cause disease, especially lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis which is a serious, chronic, non-cancerous respiratory disease. Inhaled asbestos fibers aggravate lung tissues, which cause them to scar.
Mesothelioma has occurred in the children of asbestos workers whose only exposures were from the dust brought home on the clothing of family members who worked with asbestos. The younger the people are when they inhale asbestos, the more likely they are to develop mesothelioma. This is why enormous efforts have been and are being taken to prevent school children from being exposed to asbestos dust.
Since 1987 importation of blue asbestos has been prohibited as it was identified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization and at present all kinds of asbestos, including white asbestos have since then also been identified as carcinogens by the UN body.
According to the World Health Organization all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Currently about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years In addition, several thousands of deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to non-occupational exposures to asbestos.
But given Lanka’s pecuniary plight, can this nation adopt the stance of the worm that turned and defy the Russian Bear? Especially when it voted this week supporting the UN resolution on Jerusalem and became the mouse that roared against the American Bald Eagle?
Taking on one super power may be bad enough. Taking on two at the same time may seem careless. And can lead to catastrophic consequences. In the New Year, the Lankan government will have to use all its diplomatic efforts and skills to ward off the storm set to blow from both Russia and America.