THE FARMERS RE­JOICE In­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions are be­hind a push to re­vi­tal­ize de­graded land in the cen­tral high­lands of Sri Lanka

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By ZHAO XU

Giri Kadu­ruga­muwa climbs onto a moun­tain slope by the road­side and breaks off a big chunk from the ex­posed root of a tea tree. With­out lit­tle ap­par­ent ef­fort on his part the chunk falls off like a piece of dried bis­cuit.

“It’s very brit­tle,” says Kadu­ruga­muwa, di­rec­tor of the Al­liance for Sus­tain­able Land­scapes Man­age­ment, an NGO ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing the sus­te­nance of bio­di­ver­sity in man­aged land­scapes.

For the past two years the al­liance and an in­ter­na­tional NGO that spe­cial­izes in eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive farm­ing, Rain­for­est Al­liance, have been work­ing on a land pro­tec­tion project in tea grow­ing ar­eas of cen­tral Sri Lanka. The work is sup­ported by the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram with fi­nan­cial back­ing from the Global En­vi­ron­ment Fa­cil­ity, an in­de­pen­dent fund­ing body with a global reach.

They work with tea fac­to­ries and es­tates, try­ing to reach small­holder farmers — tea grow­ers with land less than about 4 hectares. Big tea plan­ta­tions in Sri Lanka can con­sist of 15 es­tates or more, each cov­er­ing hundreds of hectares.

Knowl­edge is passed by pro­vid­ing train­ing for train­ers. Well-trained staff from big plan­ta­tion com­pa­nies are ex­pected to teach the small­holder farmers whose pro­duce later feeds the rollers in the fac­to­ries that the com­pa­nies own.

Janaka Gu­nawar­dene is the man­ager of a tea fac­tory in Rat­na­pura, in the cen­tral high­lands of Sri Lanka. The fac­tory is part of a very big out­fit, Ka­hawatte Plan­ta­tions, which means it can al­ways ob­tain leaves from its own vast area. How­ever, the fac­tory also buys a lot from small­grow­ers to keep its own pro­duc­tion lines busy. (Be­cause the small grow­ers lack the where­withal to process leaves, they are forced to sell the raw ma­te­rial to fac­to­ries.)

“Our com­pany is the very first re­gional plan­ta­tion com­pany to get the Rain­for­est Cer­tifi­cate for sus­tain­able land use since the com­mence­ment of the project in early 2015,” says Gu­nawar­dene. “Al­though there are other tea es­tates in the re­gion that have got the cer­tifi­cate since then, ours is the only one that has in­cluded the small grow­ers in the project.”

A key aim of the train­ing is to re­duce the use of chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides, one of the main causes of land degra­da­tion, which in turn leads to the brit­tle­ness of tree roots.

“A whole set of prob­lems could arise and have al­ready arisen with the overuse of chem­i­cals for the past 30 years,” Kadu­ruga­muwa says. “Chem­i­cals, in­tended for harm­ful in­sects and weeds that may over­grow the tea trees or com­pete with them for nu­tri­ents, inevitably kill ev­ery­thing else, from the good in­sects to birds and small an­i­mals that feed on the in­sects and grasses. As a re­sult, mites have mul­ti­plied, as the curled-up tree leaves clearly in­di­cate.

“Mean­while, los­ing its grass cover en­tirely to chem­i­cal her­bi­cide, the land be­comes ex­posed. And big rain­fall can wash away many nu­tri­ents from the soil. Even worse, af­ter a num­ber of years, many bad in­sects and nox­ious weeds will have de­vel­oped tol­er­ance to­ward the chem­i­cals, leav­ing farmers with lit­tle choice but to adopt even stronger ones.”

Sa­man Kumara, a small­holder tea farmer, knows all about that. He gladly notes that the an­i­mals, rab­bits for ex­am­ple, are back af­ter his farm dras­ti­cally cut its use of chem­i­cals over the past two years.

“The rab­bits can help us with the weeds. And even the mil­li­pedes are back. And when you have mil­li­pedes, you can tell for sure that the soil isn’t that bad since the in­sects can­not live in hard­ened soil.”

Th­ese days on Kumara’s farm the weeds are re­moved by hand. “We con­vert the grass and other re­duc­ible farm junk into fer­til­iz­ers — a prac­tice that helps us to keep costs down.”

Bet­ter soil means higher-qual­ity tea leaves and higher in­come. But a farmer must have the de­ter­mi­na­tion to weather the first one or two years, when the re­duced use of chem­i­cals causes an ini­tial fall in tea pro­duc­tion.

“I felt I had no choice be­cause the tea gar­den, by the time I de­cided to turn to sus­tain­able man­age­ment, was al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pro­duc­tion down­turn due to land degra­da­tion,” Kumara says.

Sri Lanka pro­duces 338 mil­lion kilo­grams of tea a year, bring­ing in for­eign ex­change of $1.6 bil­lion. Rat­na­pura, the big­gest tea-pro­duc­ing re­gion, has nearly 98,000 tea small­hold­ers who to­gether own about 30,000 hectares of land.

Giri Kadu­ruga­muwa, di­rec­tor of Al­liance for Sus­tain­able Land­scape Man­age­ment; Sa­man Kumara, small­holder tea farmer.

About 30,000 small­holder farmers are be­ing trained in sus­tain­able land man­age­ment prac­tices which will then be ap­plied to at least 60,000 hectares of team farms and plan­ta­tions, the UN says.

The project is be­ing repli­cated in other tea-pro­duc­ing coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia, Viet­nam and China.

Hu Xinyan, co­or­di­na­tor of the pro­gram in China, said this em­pha­sis on small­holder farmers is of pro­found sig­nif­i­cance for her coun­try, where farm land has been di­vided up and rented to in­di­vid­ual grow­ers for decades.

“In China we don’t have those big plan­ta­tions that you’ ll find in In­dia or Sri Lanka. In­stead we have vast num­bers of small grow­ers, each with land mea­sur­ing some­where be­tween 10 mu and 30 mu (be­tween 0.67 hectares and 2 hectares). We reach them through the re­gion’s lead­ing tea com­pa­nies, be­cause they are the buy­ers of tea leaves and there­fore have a big say when it comes to green farm­ing.

“We are also work­ing closely with lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing the tea in­dus­try. Faced with tough com­pe­ti­tion and land degra­da­tion, they have taken part in our train­ing for train­ers scheme.”

Hu stressed that zero use of chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides is not a pre­req­ui­site for a grower to be granted the Rain­for­est Al­liance cer­tifi­cate.

“The re­duc­tion of chem­i­cals is bound to a step-by-step process, a process we try to trig­ger with an en­cour­ag­ing at­ti­tude. So we give the cer­tifi­cate to any grower who can prove that ef­forts have been made and that the use of chem­i­cals has been re­duced sev­eral years in a row. On rare oc­ca­sions the use of chem­i­cals may in­crease in a cer­tain year. We will not with­draw our cer­tifi­cate if the grower can demon­strate that there is a very spe­cial rea­son for do­ing so — ex­treme weather or a plague for ex­am­ple.”

But then there is the is­sue of la­bor costs. To do with­out chem­i­cals means that many things, such as re­mov­ing nox­ious weeds, must be done by hand or at least by peo­ple op­er­at­ing por­ta­ble me­chan­i­cal grass re­movers.

Dul­shanka Jay­athi­laka, man­ager of Bear­well Es­tate, says la­bor costs have rock­eted in the past few years. His es­tate was cer­ti­fied by Rain­for­est Al­liance be­fore the UN project started.

“More than 3,300 peo­ple live on the es­tate, which cov­ers 307 hectares, but only 17 per­cent of them work for us. The rest are the work­ers’ fam­i­lies.”

How­ever, he ac­knowl­edges that the Sri Lankan Gov­ern­ment sub­si­dizes the land, which means the pri­vate com­pany has paid less for it than it other­wise would have. In turn, it is ex­pected to take a de­gree of so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity by pro­vid­ing land on which even those who do not work for the es­tate can live.

Im­prov­ing tea gar­den em­ploy­ees’ work­ing con­di­tions and lives in gen­eral is among the UN project’s goals.

“Re­duc­ing the use of chem­i­cals ob­vi­ously ben­e­fits the tea gar­den work­ers, but we need to do more, and we need to have a whole dif­fer­ent mech­a­nism, a whole dif­fer­ent mind­set and even con­sumer habits for any change to be sus­tain­able,” Hu says.

“We have a long way to go.”

By the time I de­cided to turn to sus­tain­able man­age­ment, the tea gar­den was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pro­duc­tion down­turn due to land degra­da­tion.” Sa­man Kumara, small­holder tea farmer

PRO­VIDED BY VISHWAMITHRA KADU­RUGA­MUWA

Tea pick­ers toil in the sun at Ka­hawatte Plan­ta­tions in Rat­na­pura, in Sri Lanka’s cen­tral high­lands.

PHOTO PRO­VIDED BY MALAKA RO­DRIGO

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