Friday, 25 October 2013

A Different Story Of Tea (The One Nobody's Telling)

Some tea.

As a writer, if you ever get asked to pen a feature about tea you know precisely what to do - the vast majority of pieces on Sri Lankan tea consist of a number of trusty tropes. Chinese emperor discovers tea when leaves fall in boiling water, British trade opium for tea with Chinese until they smuggle seeds out of China and plant them in Assam, James Taylor comes to Sri Lanka and establishes a tea plantation after coffee was wiped out by blight, lush highlands of Nuwara Eliya provide 'champagne of teas', workers nip buds, processed by drying, rolling and fermentation bosh bosh there's your 2,000 words. Nah, cheque'll be fine, thanks.

I, too, have in the past been guilty of this very sin of commission.

And yet the true story of Sri Lanka's tea producers is more disturbing than that. It's fascinating, dramatic and in many ways deeply questionable.

As you cruise around the high passes of Nuwara Eliya admiring the misty landscape, a series of very British names passes you by: Palmerston, Edinburgh, Craigie Lea, Dunsinane, Harrington, Preston and many, many more. There's a definitely Scottish flavour around here. There is, naturally, also a Rothschild Estate. The names have been maintained, although the owners of those plantations were forced out of Sri Lanka by a Marxist government hell-bent on ridding the country of the last shreds of colonialism at any price. Today these estates are managed by Sri Lankan companies eager to associate themselves with 150 years of history and the very British sounding brands that go with it - and very eager indeed to avoid any mention of the rather less prosaic nature of their businesses and the means by which they came by those nice, comfy-sounding names.

Tragically, Sri Lanka's critically important tea industry has been ripped apart by the side-effects of that very governmental intervention - and it's staggering into a very bleak future indeed.

Good Old Fashioned Colonialism

Sri Lanka's tea business was founded through good old fashioned colonialism. The British government had turfed the Dutch out of Sri Lanka in the very early C19th and proceeded to cede land to former military officers and other worthies to operate coffee plantations. Sinhalese labour being hard to find, they sourced cheap labour from that Jewel Of Empire - India. Tamil Nadu, to be precise. All went swimmingly until the late 1860s, when a coffee blight started to wipe out crops. Following from pioneer James Taylor, the remaining planters (many had chucked in the towel, upped sticks and gone home to regret their choice of retirement) took to tea, using that same cheap Tamil labour in the fields they had established for coffee and expanding their plantations as demand for tea back in the UK and elsewhere rocketed.

The estate's relationship with its workers would be familiar to any student of mid-C19th Victorian England and, indeed, contemporary UAE labour practice. The estate housed the workers in labour accommodation, known as 'line rooms'. Each 'division' of an estate has its line rooms, an elementary school and a central creche and dispensary. At a basic level, the estate took care of its workers. And they still do - precisely in this fashion, little has changed - today.

The clearance of rain forest proceeded at a rate that makes the biocide currently taking place in the Amazon look like child's play. Tea was the drink of Victorian England - refreshing, invigorating but never inebriating. More land, more labour, more plantations were the order of the day and Sri Lanka had it all - apart from the labour, but the Tamils were pleased to come. So were the Scots - the highlands of Nuwara Eliya are cool, to the point where you'll find fuschias and roses in abundance, with warm but not uncomfortable summers and shivery but not uncomfortable winters. A nice planters' house in the hills was a dream. Well, apart from the malaria...

Settling Down to the Trough

Sri Lankan independence came in 1948 and two of the earliest pieces of legislation the new government passed were to confirm almost a million Tamil tea estate workers stateless. With the new owners settling down to the trough and getting comfortable, many of the British planters could see the writing on the wall and a slow creep ensued, family companies like Mackwoods selling out to Sri Lankan investors - of which N.S.O. Mendis, buying Mackwoods in 1956, claims to be the first.

By 1972, with a fresh socialist government in place, Sri Lanka had found its post-colonial feet. The plantations clearly could not be allowed to continue to be managed by foreigners and staffed by Tamils. Sri Lankan involvement in the tea industry was minimal and you can only imagine how British plantation owners would view the idea of the new, brash crop of Sri Lankan management wannabe's with their strong sense of post-colonial entitlement wanting to muscle in on positions held variously by experienced British or Tamil workers.

The government acted decisively and passed a sweeping land reform act that nationalised the entire country's plantations in one fell, draconian swoop. The law removed foreign land ownership and took any holding above 50 acres into the government fold. The poor chap who owned the Warwick Estate (if he did, as our friend at the Jetwing Warwick Gardens Hotel tells us, buy it from the Scottish owners in 1940 he'd precede NSO Mendis and lay claim to being the first Sri Lankan to buy a British sterling company) - like many others, without doubt - had his heart attack. In a flash, hundreds of owners lost everything. Companies and individuals alike were bankrupted overnight.

The trough had suddenly become a great deal bigger, which was lucky as those busying themselves at it were also expanding at the waistline...

The management of the country's estates (tea, rubber and coconut alike), numbering some 500-odd estates and representing over 130,000 hectares of tea plantation was vested by the government in the Janatha Estate Development Board and the Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation. A great deal of mismanagement, corruption and general idiocy resulted, with yields plateauing and then dropping sharply over the period following nationalisation.

A Quiet Shame

But there was another, quieter movement that took place right after 1972 - the Sri Lankan and Indian governments signed a shameful agreement to divide the stateless Tamils up - a first repatriation agreement in 1964 (directly after 'I don't want them back' Nehru's death, actually) was followed by that of 1974 - India was to take back 600,000 of the Tamils and Sri Lanka was to, finally, grant citizenship to 375,000. It wasn't to be until 1988 that a final act would grant citizenship to Sri Lanka's remaining 'Estate Tamils'. The phrase differentiates them from the secessionist Northern Tamils.

The skills left the plantations and went 'home' to India in one of the biggest - and quietest - forced movements of labour seen in the C20th.

By 1990 it had become all too clear that the whole nationalisation experiment had been a mess. Pressure from the World Bank increased and the government decided to part-privatise the plantations in 1992, retaining ownership of the land but awarding management contracts to the country's 470-odd tea plantations and 700-odd tea factories (as well as rubber and coconut plantations). The whole lot was sub-divided into 23 RPCs - Regional Plantation Companies. Each unit was intended to be a profitable enterprise and consisted of groupings of estates between 6-10,000 hectares in all. A (questionable) bidding process followed, with 39 Sri Lankan companies submitting 102 bids for the right to become managing agents over the 23 RPCs.

The original scheme was a five-year renewable management contract, but it quickly became clear that wasn't going to work and the term was extended to 53 years. The companies awarded management contracts took over the management of estates, workers and factories alike. Many quickly found they didn't have the capital needed to get things rolling again after 20 years of negligence and the government eventually had to bail a number out to the tune of over Rs2 billion.

The Wrong Tea

But there was more trouble in paradise in store. The cost of tea production, especially with the new requirements for social provision for labour and unionisation of the labour force forcing costs up, were high and rising, while market prices were anything but. And Sri Lanka was - and is - producing the wrong tea.

Most of us drink tea made from tea bags these days. There's no time to go around measuring out tea, heating pots and straining the stuff. So demand for tea bags has risen while demand for leaf tea has dropped. In fact, tea consumption generally has dropped. But making tea bag tea - known as CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) - is a different process to making whole leaf tea. In 2004 Kenya overtook Sri Lanka as the world's leading tea producer, principally because it makes CTC tea. Sri Lanka makes, in the vast majority, leaf tea.

You can hear the plaintive voices arguing that it's all about the quality, even as the billowing clouds of fell destiny gather on the horizon.

So Sri Lanka's market is a fast-shrinking one. And the management companies - holders of limited leases with onerous profit-sharing requirements - have little incentive to invest in new plant and equipment - in fact, many of the country's 660-odd working tea factories are operating with ancient plant, even *shudder* British plant from before 1972. Sri Lanka's also working with ancient plants - the strains of tea planted are traditional and they, too, date back to the Brits, while competitors such as Kenya are working with newer, more productive strains of tea - and younger plantations. Production is further reduced by under-fertilised, over-farmed land.

In fact, there's been little investment in the entire industry since the Brits were sent packing. The trough self-fills, no?

There's a labour crunch on, too. Fewer young people are finding a life of picking 18kg of tea a day (the bare minimum per worker, which nets them about Rs500 a day - the price of a beer in Sri Lanka) attractive. The insanely manual business of tea picking is dominated by women, but the estate also has to provide housing and facilities for their dependents - even if they're not actively involved in working on the plantation. Social issues are on the rise, on the back of widespread unemployment comes hopelessness, brutalisation, alcoholism and rape, while basic amenities such as clean water remain patchy. Labour conditions appear to have changed little since the Victorians - they've arguably worsened.

It's all teetering on the edge of disaster.

Worse, Sri Lanka's tea producers appear dangerously set in their ways. Those ancient factories churn out sacks of tea which are traded on the market in Colombo. Tea's a commodity, so its value goes up and down with market demand. People buy and sell tea futures. The product's price is no longer set by true demand or intrinsic value but by money market speculators. And if your cost of production is higher than, say, Kenya you've only got so long before a move in the market punishes you to bankruptcy.

The way out of this would be to produce tea as a value added rather than primary product - take your tea to market by creating branded produce and a distribution chain, products such as iced tea and other tea drinks. The government's even identified that - in a framework that calls for some nice workshops and study committees to take place.

Probably around a lovely cup of tea.

So behind the British-sounding name with '160 years of tradition' stretching back to the very first planters is a mess of mismanagement and wickedness, corruption and cronyism, abusive labour practices, rapacious short-termism and wilful profiteering in the face of the industry's decline and almost certain collapse.

Two sugars, please...
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1 comment:

Meg said...

Excellent article had over a cup of Mackwoods!

One thing's for certain, many catastrophes brew slowly, implicating us all.

Somewhat ironically perhaps, our packet of delicious leaf tea was a gift from a relative whose professional class parents-in-law migrated after independence.

Seems there's no hard feelings.

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