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Sri Lanka: Tea and Forests in Balance

In Sri Lanka, clearing of land to grow tea has come at a cost to the environment as well as to over a million plantation workers. But a forestry project supported by GTZ is helping to restore the ecological balance.

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Something to smile about: Tea-pickers are earning more

The central province of the island of Sri Lanka has been producing world famous brands of tea for over a century.

After Kenya, Sri Lanka is the largest exporter of tea in the world. Last year, more than a billion tonnes of tea from the island entered the world market.

But the success of Sri Lanka’s tea market has come at a cost. Over the past 50 years, thousands of hectares of forest have been cleared for tea cultivation.

The deforestation has led to a serious environmental imbalance and a shortage of firewood for around a million people employed in the plantations.

Restoring the balance

With the help of the German development agency GTZ, the Sri Lankan government and the Asian Development Bank, several plantation companies have managed to stem the tide of environmental destruction.

In 1999, GTZ launched the Sri Lanka-German Estate Forest and Water Resources Development Project, to promote sustainable forestry and the balanced use of water resources in Sri Lanka's tea plantations.

The benefits of the €2 million project have been significant. As well as boosting the companies' profits, the scheme has had a positive impact on the environment. And the lives of the plantation workers have greatly improved.

Environmental impact

So far, twelve plantation companies have participated in the forestry program, which now covers an area of 100,000 ha. The companies have begun planting trees in areas where tea is not grown, helping to reduce erosion and improving the micro-climate.

Forestry is essential to maintaining an ecological balance in the plantations, according to Ernie Daniel, a plantation management expert. "If you look at the plantation sector at the moment you will see there is very little forest cover around those areas now," Daniel told DW Radio's Ravi Prasad.

"Systemised forestry can lead to an increased canopy cover, which reduces soil erosion and the run-off of water during heavy rains."

Teeplantage in Sri Lanka

Tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lankan hill country.

Added value

As well as benefitting the environment, the forestry project ensures a regular supply of timber and firewood for the workers.

It has also provided a windfall for the plantation companies which have diversified into the commercial timber business. Those companies that joined the project early have already begun harvesting and selling wood from timber factories which operate side-by-side with the tea factories.

Changing attitudes

The project was intially resisted by managers and workers who were sceptical that growing trees in plantations would benefit them.

Many workers feared that forestry would mean reduced tea cultivation and their livelihood would be damaged.

But when the timber was harvested, the workers began to feel the financial benefits, says Nishantha Wickremesinghe, the general manager of Udupusselawa Plantations. "Wood being available on the estate, the workers don’t have to trek miles and miles to find wood for their homes. So their productivity improves. And when their productivity goes up, their income earning capacity goes up," explains Wickremesinghe.

The plantation workers also take part in the havesting, and some have been trained to work at the timber factories to clean the harvested timber, providing them with an extra source of income.

Teepflückerin bei der Arbeit

Tea-picker in Sri Lanka. Photo, Ravi Prasad

Anthony, a ‘kandani’ or supervisor for twenty years, says the forestry project has made a big difference for his family. "With the timber factory set up by the plantation, we have been able to earn a lot more," he says.

"I supervised the logging of trees, like I do here in the plantations and was paid almost the same amount that I get there, Anthony says. "My income has doubled."

Quality of life

For over a million workers like Anthony and his family, the forestry project has improved their quality of life. The women are now no longer forced to spend several hours each evening after completing a full day's work, searching for dwindling supplies of firewood for cooking.

With improved living conditions, the plantation workers now have more time for social activities. At one plantation, the workers have rebuilt a Hindu temple using timber that could not be sold. They now gather at the temple every day for evening prayers.

Ravi Prasad, DW-RADIO.

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