Tea Plantations

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Discover the Tea Plantations. When in the land of the most famous tea in the world, one simply cannot afford to miss a tour around one of the many Tea Plantations in the area. High Grown Ceylon Tea, preferably in the unblended form, with its reputation as the "best tea". Of course, to experience that pleasure, you must go to the central tea country of Sri Lanka. Most of the tea estates welcome visitors to introduce the process of making the well known Ceylon Tea

Tea production in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is of high importance to the Sri Lankan economy and the world market. The country is the world's fourth largest producer of tea and the industry is one of the country's main sources of foreign exchange and a significant source of income for laborers, with tea accounting for 15% of the GDP, generating roughly $700 million annually. In 1995 Sri Lanka was the world's leading exporter of tea, (rather than producer) with 23% of the total world export, but it has since been surpassed by Kenya. The tea sector employs, directly or indirectly over 1 million people in Sri Lanka, and in 1995 directly employed 215,338 on tea plantations and estates. The humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall in the country's central highlands provide a climate that favors the production of high quality tea. The industry was introduced to the country in 1867 by James Taylor, the British planter who arrived in 1852


Pre-Tea era

Cinnamon was the first crop to receive government sponsorship in Ceylon, while the island was under Dutch control.[8] During the administration of Dutch governor Iman Willem Falck, cinnamon plantations were planted in Colombo, Maradana, and Cinnamon Gardens in 1769. The first British governor Frederick North prohibited private cinnamon plantations, thereby securing monopoly on cinnamon plantations for the East India Company. However, an economic slump in the 1830s in England and elsewhere in Europe affected the cinnamon plantations in Ceylon. This resulted in them being decommissioned by William Colebrooke in 1833. Finding cinnamon unprofitable, the British turned to coffee.

By 1825 the Ceylonese already had a knowledge of coffee. They started planting coffee as a garden crop and the first coffee plantation was started in Baddegama in Galle District. Although this venture failed due unsuitability of area to the crop, George Bird became first to start planting coffee on a commercial scale. After Bird had begun his coffee plantation in Singhapitiya, Gampola governor Edward Barnes also started a plantation in Gannoruwa. The demand and high price in European market for coffee fueled the rush of coffee planting. Investors flocked to Ceylon from overseas and around 100,000 ha of rain forest was cleared to pave the way for coffee plantations. The term "Coffee rush" was coined to describe this developing situation in 1840.[8] In 1869 the coffee industry was still thriving in Ceylon but shortly afterwards, coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease called Hemileia vastatrix or coffee rust, better known as "coffee leaf disease" or "coffee blight".[9] The planters nicknamed the disease "devastating Emily"[10] when it was first identified in the Madolsima area in 1869. Production dipped rapidly as the disease set in and every effort failed to revive coffee production. Of 1700 coffee planters, only 400 remained on the island as the rest left for their home countries. The coffee crop died, marking an end of an era when most of the plantations on the island were dedicated to producing coffee beans. Planters experimented with cocoa and cinchona as alternative crops but failed due to a bug, Heloplice antonie. In the 1870s virtually all the remaining coffee planters in Ceylon had switched to the production and cultivation of tea because of the devastating Hemileia vastatrix fungus.[11] By the year 1900, only 11,392 acres were still under coffee cultivation.

Foundation of tea plantations

In 1824 a tea plant was brought to Ceylon by the British from China and was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya for non-commercial purposes. Further experimental with tea plants brought from Assam and Calcutta in India were brought to Peradeniya in 1839 through the East India Company and over the years that followed. In 1839 the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce was also established followed by the Planters' Association of Ceylon in 1854. In 1867, James Taylor marked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon by starting a tea plantation in Loolecondera estate Kandy in 1867. He began the tea plantation on an estate of just 19 acres (77,000 m2). In 1872 he started a fully equipped tea factory in the same Loolecondera estate and that year the first sale of Loolecondra tea was made in Kandy. In 1873, the first shipment of Ceylon tea, a consignment of some 23 lb, arrived in London. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remarked on the establishment of the tea plantations, “…the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo”.

Soon enough plantations surrounding Loolecondera such as Hope, Rookwood and Mooloya situated to the east and Le Vallon and Stellenberg to the south began transforming into tea plantations and were amongst the first tea estates to be established on the island.

The total population in Sri Lanka according to the census of 1871 was 2,584,780. The 1871 demographic distribution and population in the plantation areas is given below

Kandy District, the heartland of tea production in Sri Lanka
District Total population No. of estates Estate population
Kandy District 258,432 625 81,476
Badulla District 129,000 130 15,555
Matale District 71,724 111 13,052
Kegalle District 105,287 40 3,790
Sabaragamuwa 92,277 37 3,227
Nuwara Eliya District 36,184 21 308
Kurunegala District 207,885 21 2,393
Matara District 143,379 11 1,072
Total 1,044,168 996 123,654

Growth and history of commercial production

Tea production in Ceylon increased dramatically in the 1880s and by 1888 the area under cultivation had exceeded that of coffee, growing to nearly 400,000 acres in 1899 .British figures such as Henry Randolph Trafford arrived in Ceylon and bought coffee estates in places such as Poyston, near Kandy in 1880, which was the centre of the coffee culture of Ceylon at the time. Although he knew little about coffee, he had considerable knowledge in regards to tea cultivation and he is considered one of the pioneer tea planters in Ceylon. By 1883, Trafford was the resident manager of numerous estates in the area, now switching to tea production. By the late 1880s almost all the coffee plantations in Ceylon had been converted to tea. Similarly, coffee stores rapidly converted to tea factories in order to meet the increasing demand for tea. Technology for processing tea developed in the 1880s, after the manufacture of the first "Sirocco" tea drier by Samuel C. Davidson in 1877 and the manufacture of first tea rolling machine by John Walker & Co in 1880 set the conditions that would be required to make commercial tea production a reality.[13] This was consolidated in 1884 with the construction of the Central Tea Factory on Fairyland Estate (Pedro) in Nuwara Eliya.  As tea production in Ceylon progressed, new factories were constructed, introducing innovative methods of mechanization brought from England. Marshals of Gainsborough of Lancashire, the Tangyes Machine Company of Birmingham, and Davidsons of Belfast supplied the new tea factories with machinery which they still supply today.

Early planters in Loolecondera

Tea was increasingly sold at auction as its popularity grew. The first public Colombo Auction was held at the premises of Somerville & Co.on 30 July 1883, under the auspices of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. One million tea packets were sold at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. That same year the tea established a record price of £36.15 per lb at the London Tea Auctions. In 1894 the Ceylon Tea Traders Association was formed and today virtually all tea produced in Sri Lanka is conducted through this association and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. In 1896 the Colombo Brokers' Association was formed and in 1915 Thomas Amarasuriya became the first Ceylonese to be appointed as Chairman of the Planters' Association. In 1925 the Tea Research Institute was established in Ceylon to conduct research into maximising yields and methods of production. By 1927 tea production in the country exceeded 100,000 metric tons, almost entirely for export. A 1934 law prohibited the export of poor quality tea. The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board was formed in 1932.

In 1938 the Tea Research Institute commenced work on vegetative propagation at St. Coombs Estate in Talawakele, and by 1940 it had developed a biological control (a parasitic wasp, Macrosentus homonae) to suppress the Tea Tortrix caterpillar, which had threatened the tea crop.  In 1941 the first Ceylonese tea broking house, M/s Pieris & Abeywardena, was established, and in 1944 the Ceylon Estate Employers' Federation was founded. On October 1, 1951, export duty on tea was introduced and in 1955 the first clonal tea fields began cultivation. In 1958 the State Plantations Corporation was established, and on June 1, 1959, Ad Valorem Tax was introduced for teas sold at the Colombo auctions

Tea processing plant in Kandy exhibiting machinery dating back to the 1850s

By the 1960s the total tea production and exports exceeded 200,000 metric tons and 200,000 hectares, and by 1965 Sri Lanka became the world's largest tea exporter for the first time.  In 1963 the production and exports of Instant Teas was introduced, and in 1966 the first International Tea Convention was held to commemorate 100 years of the tea industry in Sri Lanka. During 1971–1972, the government of Sri Lanka nationalised the tea estates owned by the British companies. The state took over some 502 privately owned tea, rubber and coconut estates, and in 1975 it nationalised the Rupee and Sterling companies. Land reform in Sri Lanka meant that no cultivator was allowed to own more than 50 acres for any purpose. In 1976 the Sri Lanka Tea Board was founded as were other bodies, such as the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB), Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC) and the Tea Small Holding Development Authority (TSHDA) to supervise the state's acquired estates. In was in 1976 that the exports of tea bags also commenced

In 1980 Sri Lanka became the official supplier of tea at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games, in 1982 at the 12th Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and again in 1987 at Expo 88 in Australia. In 1981, the import of teas for blending and re-exports was introduced and in 1982 to production and export of green tea commenced in Sri Lanka, CTC teas commenced in the country in 1983. In 1992 the 125th anniversary of the industry was celebrated in an international convention in Colombo. On December 21, 1992 Export Duty and Ad Valorem Tax were abolished and the Tea Research Board was established to further research into tea production. In 1992-1993 many of the government-owned tea estates which had been nationalized in the early 1970s were privatized again. Heavy losses to the industry had been incurred under state management, and the government made the decision to return its plantations to private management with the sale of its 23 state-owned plantations.

By 1996, Sri Lanka's tea production had exceeded 250,000 metric tons, growing to over 300,000 metric tons by the year 2000. In 2001 the first on-line sales of tea commenced, sold by Forbes & Walker Ltd., at the Colombo Tea Auctions. A Tea Museum was established in Kandy and in 2002 the Tea Association of Sri Lanka was formed. According to minister of plantation industries, Lakshman Kiriella the Tea Association of Sri Lanka is "intended to transform the 135-year-old industry into a truly global force and facilitate a greater private sector role in strategy formulation, and implementation, and plantation industries". The association, which works with those that preceded it in Sri Lanka, represents tea producers, traders, exporters, smallholders, private factory owners and brokers, and is funded funded largely through Asian Development Bank.


A female plantation worker

Directly and indirectly, over one million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry. A large proportion of the workforce is young women and the minimum working age is twelve. As tea plantations grew up in Sri Lanka and demanded extensive labour, finding an abundant workforce was a problem to planters, Sinhalese people were reluctant work in the plantations as they were used to paddy farming. Therefore Indian Tamils began to be brought to Sri Lanka from the beginning of the coffee plantations. Immigration of Indian Tamils steadily increased and by 1855 there were 55,000 new immigrants. By the end of the coffee era there were some 100,000 in Sri Lanka.

Tamil workers in central Sri Lanka

Young girls typically follow their mothers, grandmothers and older sisters on the plantations, and the women are also expected to perform most of the domestic duties. They live in housing known as "lines", a number of linearly attached houses with just one or two rooms. This housing system and the environmental sanitation conditions is generally poor for laborers in the plantation sector. There are typically 6 to 12 or 24 line rooms in one line barrack. Often rooms for laborers are without windows and there is little or no ventilation and as many as 6 to 11 members may often live in one room together. In the housing system for plantation workers in Sri Lanka, women and girls have no privacy from the male workers, which places them at a higher risk for sexual harassment. In a June 2007, a study conducted in the Nuwara Eliya tea growing area revealed that the serious lack of privacy has led several women to commit suicide, especially newly wedded women. According to studies by Christian Aid, the female Indian Tamil plantation workers are particularly at risk from discrimination and victimization.[7] Some concern towards women's rights have been made in regards to the female plantation workers in Sri Lanka, resulting in some 85 neighborhood women's groups being formed across the country, educating them in gender, leadership and preventing violence against women.

The tea plantation is structured in social hierarchy and the women who often consist of 75%-85% of the work force in the tea industry are at the lowest social strata and are powerless.[19] This is not unusual as the subordinance of women under men is present domestically and in the social community in many parts of Sri Lanka.[19] Wages are typically particular low. In Nuwara Eliya, women were once paid as little as paid 7 rupees per kilogram, the equivalent to 4 pence or 7 cents and many must complete 16 kilograms a day. Given the social stratification in Sri Lanka, the pay has to be collected by a husband or father.[7] The men who work on the tea plantations, typically cut down trees or operate machinery and were better paid at 155 rupees (82p) a day and finish the day hours earlier.[7] Due to the severely low wages, industrial action took place in 2006.[20] Wages in the tea sector were increased with the average daily wage earned in the sector now significantly higher at 378 rupees for men and 261 for women in some places.[20] However studies have revealed that poverty is still a major problem and despite the tea industry employing a large number of poor people, employment has failed to alleviate poverty since workers are often highly uneducated and unskilled.[20] Poverty levels on plantations have consistently been higher than the national average and although overall poverty in Sri Lanka has declined in the last thirty years, it is now significantly concentrated in rural areas. Poverty in the estate sector has been reported to be increasing with roughly one in three suffering from poverty, rising from 30 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2006/07. Nuwara Eliya is showed a significant increase in poverty among workers from 2002 to 2006/07 from 22.6 percent in 2002 to 33.8 percent in 2006/07 likewise. But by no means is employment secure in the tea sector in Sri Lanka. Like other industries, job security in the tea industry has been threatened by the current financial crisis. In Sri Lanka over 50,000 private sector employees are expected to lose their jobs in 2009 due to the current slump.

Cultivation and processing

A tea picker in Sri Lanka

Over 221,000 hectares or approximately 4% of the country’s land area is covered in tea plantations. The crop is best grown at high altitudes of over 2100 m, and the plants require an annual rainfall of more than 100–125 cm.

Tea is cultivated in Sri Lanka using the ‘contour planting’ method, where tea bushes are planted in lines in coordination with the contours of the land, usually on slopes. For commercial manufacture the ‘flush’ or leaf growth on the side branches and stems of the bush are used. Generally two leaves and a bud, which have the flavour and aroma, are skilfully plucked, usually by women.[22] Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where each tea leaf is picked by hand rather than be mechanisation given that if machinery operated, often a considerable number of coarse leaves and twigs could be mixed, adding bulk not flavor to the tea.[22] The women after experience acquire the ability to pluck rapidly and set a daily target of around 15 to 20 kg (33 to 44 lb) of tea leaves to be weighed and then transported to the nearby tea factory. Tea plants in Sri Lanka require constant nurturing and attention. An important part of the process is taking care of the soils with the regular application of fertiliser. Younger plants are regularly cut back 10–15 cm from the ground to encourage lateral growth and are pruned very frequently with a special knife.

Pluckers with baskets

The tea factories found on most tea estates in Sri Lanka are crucial to the final quality and value of manufactured tea. After plucking the tea is very quickly taken to the muster sheds to be weighed and monitored under close supervision, and then the teas are brought to the factory.[22] A tea factory in Sri Lanka is typically a multi-storeyed building and located on tea estates to minimise the costs and time between plucking and tea processing. The tea leaves are taken up the upper floors of the factories where they are spread in troughs, a process known as withering which removes excess moisture in the leaf. Once withered, the tea leaves are rolled, twisted and parted which serves as a catalyst for the enzymes in the leaves to react with the oxygen in the air, especially with the production of black tea.

The leaves are rolled on circular brass or wooden battened tables and are placed in a rotating open cylinder from above. After rolling is finished, the leaf particles are spread out on a table where they begin to ferment in being exposed to heat. However, the preliminary heat is natural from the air temperature, so fermentation time may fluctuate according to the temperature and humidity. Regulating the temperature, humidity and the duration of fermentation times requires a great deal of attention and failure to follow the exact guidelines will make the flavor of the tea disappear.[22] As oxidisation occurs the colour of the leaf changes from a green to a bright coppery color. It is now that artificial heat comes into play as the fermented leaf is inserted into firing chamber to prevent further chemical reaction from taking place. The tea leaves are fired to retain the flavour after the fermentation process is complete.[22] Again the regulation of the temperature plays an important role in the final quality of the tea and on completion, the tea will become black and harder.

Graded tea

Grading (ordered by size in Sri Lanka) then takes place as the tea particles are sorted into different shapes and sizes by sifting them through meshes. No artificial preservatives are added at any stage of the manufacturing process and sub-standard tea which fails to initially comply with standards is rejected regardless of the quantity and value. Finally, then, the teas are weighed and packed into tea chests or paper sacks and then given a close inspection. The tea is then sent to the local auction and transported to the tea brokering companies. At the stage of exporting the Sri Lanka Tea Board will check and sample each shipment after the completion of packing to ensure that the finest quality tea is exported and then it is finally shipped in various forms of packing to many parts of the world.

Cultivation areas

Plantation workers

The major tea growing areas are Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in Central Province, Badulla, Bandarawela and Haputale in Uva Province, Galle, Matara and Mulkirigala in Southern Province, Sri Lanka, and Ratnapura and Kegalle in Sabaragamuwa Province.There are mainly six principal regions planting tea. Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Kandy Uda Pussellawa, Uva Province and South Nuwara Eliya is an oval shaped plateau of 6,240 feet of elevation. Nuwara Eliya tea produces a unique flavour.

Dimbula is one the first areas to be planted from 1870s. Height of ranging between 3500 ft to 5000 ft defines this planting area. South-western monsoon rain and cold weather from January to March are determining factors of flavour. Eight Subdistricts of Dimbula are Hatton/Dickoya, Bogawanthalawa, Upcot/Maskeliya, Patana/Kotagala, Nanu Oya/Lindula/Talawakele, Agarapatana, Pundaluoya and Ramboda.

Kandy is famous for Mid-grown tea. The first tea plantations were grown here. Tea plantations located 2000 ft to 4000 ft. Pussellawa/Hewaheta and Matale are the two main subdistricts of the region. Between Nuwara Eliya and Uva Province, Uda Pussellawa situated. Northwest monsoon prevails in this region. Plantations near Nuwara Eliya have a range of rosy teas. The two subdistricts comprised are Maturata and Ragala/Halgranoya.

Uva area's tea have quite a distinctive flavour and widely used for blends. Tea plantations elevation rage from 3000 ft to 5000 ft. Being a large district Uva has a number of subdistricts, Malwatte/Welimada, Demodara/Hali-Ela/Badulla, Passara/Lunugala, Madulsima, Ella/Namunukula, Bandarawela/Poonagala, Haputale, Koslanda/Haldummulla.

Low-grown tea is mainly originates from southern Sri Lanka. These teas grown from sea level to 2000 ft, thrive in fertile soils and warm conditions. These areas spread across four main subdistricts, Ratnapura/Balangoda, Deniyaya, Matara, Galle.

The high-grown tea thrive in above 1200m of elevation and warm climate and sloping terrain. Hence this type is common in Central highlands. Mid-grown tea is found in 600m-1200m altitude range. Various types of tea is blended to obtain required flavour and colour. Uva Province, and Nuwara Eliya, Dimbuala and Dickoya are the area mid-grown tea originate. Low-grown tea is stronger and less-subtle in taste and produced in Galle, Matara and Ratnapura areas.

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