By Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz
Ratnapura, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka is famous for its Ceylon tea, known for being the “finest and cleanest tea in the world for 150 years.”
Tea production is an industry of primary importance for Sri Lanka’s economy but is now facing various environmental threats, such as extreme weather events due to climate change.
Citing data from 1961 to 1990, GiriKadurugamuwa, director of the Alliance for Sustainable Landscapes Management, they have recorded a 0.016-degree Celsius increase in temperature every year.
He also noted that there has been higher variability in rainfall in recent years. With a reduction by 100 millimeter per month, tea productivity has reduced by 30 to 80 kilograms per hectare per month, Kadurugamuwa pointed out.
Several forest fires were reported in some tea plantations in 2015 and 2016.
Ground water level reduction of up to 56.9 meters led to sinking of ground and damaging of 2,800 houses; drying out 900 wells and almost all the springs and steams; and damaging crop land used for tea, paddy, vegetable and other crops.
One tea farmer said prolonged dry spell has taken a toll on tea cultivation.
MahendraPeiris, former chief of the Hapugastenne Estate belonging to the Maskeliya Plantation, pointed out that tea industry in Sri Lanka provides jobs directly or indirectly to 1 million people, while there are 2.5 million dependents.
In a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, Sri Lanka’s tea industry posted its highest-ever earnings from tea exports estimated at $1.63 billion in 2014. However, the report noted that there was a “marginal decline” in production recorded at 338 million kilograms.
In a data provided by the UN and Rainforest Alliance (RA), the global demand for tea grows at more than 2 percent annually. This increases the pressure on land for crop cultivation, much more due to climate change.
Under the Sustainable Tea Landscapes Project, RA works with farmers, tea estates and factories to adopt sustainable tea production practices, such as reducing the use of agrochemicals, protecting soils and hills against erosion, as well as managing vegetation to deal with invasive weed species and improving shading to tea.
Since the project was launched in October 2014, RA and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have made great strides in mainstreaming sustainable management of tea production, particularly in Sri Lanka.
The project is funded by UNEP and Global Environment Facility with an overall budget of $2,189,563 for locations in India, Vietnam, China and Sri Lanka. It will run through April 2018.
Shifting to herbicide-free practices
A tea smallholder SamanUdaya Kumara of UdaHaupe Estate went through non-chemical weed management trainings, which he said helped him increase his income by 60 percent. He is currently managing a 17-hectare land in Kahawatte Plantation.
Kumara admitted that he used to apply 15,000 kilograms of urea fertilizer in 2013 but reduced it to 4,400 kilograms in 2016. He used to spend 35,000 Sri Lankan rupees on herbicide every year, but “now I am saving that amount.” He also stopped using herbicides in 2015.
Kumara said these practices have helped him increase his profit to 75,000 Sri Lankan rupees annually.
B.E. Indralatha, a tea plucker in UdaHaupe Estate, said the method they are following at present is “better than the previous one because there is less use of fertilizer.”
“Chemical fertilizer usage causes the tea production to gradually decrease and tea leaves acquiring diseases,” she added, noting that they are now being trained in weed management.
In Sri Lanka, UNEP project has collaborated with the Tea Smallholder Development Authority (TSHDA) on training smallholder farmers to adopt SLM practices.
As of December 2016, TSHDA has trained around 11,000 tea smallholders.
The demonstration plot at Hapugastenne Estate on non-chemical weed management continued to serve as training site for smallholders supported by the project, as well as other RA projects in Sri Lanka.