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Minister Navin Dissanayake. Picture by Kelum Liyanage

Russia’s ban on Sri Lankan tea exports is believed to have been triggered by Sri Lanka’s ban on Russian asbestos.

Plantation Industries Minister, Naveen Dissanayake addressing the weekly Cabinet media briefing admitted that unofficially they had come to know that the recent ban was due to the government refusing to lift a ban on asbestos imports.

In 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena issued a ban on asbestos into the country, citing health and environmental reasons.

The ban initially was to take effect in government contracts and would come into effect from January 1, 2018, with it finally being phased out by 2024.

But with the recent ban imposed by Russia, on Ceylon Tea, Sri Lanka has chosen to back down on its stance on asbestos for the time being. Russia produces over half of the world’s asbestos supply and is the major importer of the product into the country.

This is temporary, the Russians have sent us health certifications stating that their asbestos is not harmful.

So we have to look at that, said Co-cabinet spokesperson, Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne at the media briefing.

Minister Susil Premajayantha together with a team from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research is expected to travel to Russia and look into the reports of the safety of Russian asbestos.

In the meantime, a team of experts in the tea industry and the Plantation Industries Ministry hope to travel to Russia next week to resolve the tea ban issue, Minister Dissanayake said.

“The likelihood of finding a Khapra beetle in our tea is less than five percent”, Minister Dissanayake addressing the weekly Cabinet media briefing said. He explained that the beetle was a rare species found within the country itself.

“We believe that the Khapra beetle larvae found by the Russians on one of our tea packages most likely came during transshipment, he said. On December 15, the Russian Agriculture Safety Watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor informed Sri Lankan authorities that they would be temporarily issuing a ban on Sri Lankan tea exports having found a live larvae of the beetle on one its packages.

Sri Lanka exports 11 percent of its tea to Russia and the minister noted that they had to make certain decisions to save their exports and two million people who depended on tea for a livelihood.

“Tea prices in the auctions yesterday (19) and today (20) have not reduced but we hope to resolve this by mid-January. It is the winter season there and during this time tea purchases decrease, so if we can resolve it by then, it won’t have too much of an impact on our exports”, he said.

Ceylon Tea, according to Dissanayake follows stringent certification processes and adheres to EU standards. However, if the Russians are to demand further testing or certification, the minister said they could incorporate that too in their processes.

“We are waiting for them to tell us what they need”, he said. Minister Senaratne justifying the deferring of the asbestos ban explained that 80 percent of people still used asbestos in construction, and the fact that there were not many commercially viable alternatives was also a reason behind the ban suspension.

“This does not mean it is permanent. We will look into this ban again in future once all problems in the industry have been resolved”, he said.