FAIR TRADE & ORGANIC
by Lalith Guy Paranavitana President Empire Tea Services
The tea industry is Sri Lanka was started by the British Planters nearly 150 years ago. The British pioneer planters were a law unto themselves, but were also benevolent owner/operators because their success depended on the work force. During these times there were no organized unions to protect the rights of workers, but the planters had a fairly satisfactory system in place, governed by the Planters Association. Workers lived on the estate and were provided housing, water service, medical facilities, child care and even an elementary school for their children. The cost of these social programs was built into the cost of production. Dry rations were distributed through a store on the estate and the cost deducted from the wages. The workers were pretty much dependent on the estate management and vice versa. In about the early '40s trade unions started recruiting estate workers and formed several estate worker's trade unions. Initially the British owned tea companies opposed them, but the laws in the country were such that they were compelled to recognize them. The unions grew very strong and there was much agitation and clashes with management over several major issues like wages, living conditions, work norms etc.
After the British government gave independence to Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as it was then called, organized labor became more powerful and clashed with management frequently. The estates were at this time managed by agency houses looking after the interests of the owning companies. The agency houses were located in the city and they appointed Superintendents (Managers) to live on the estate and manage it for them. Like all organized labor unions, they fought for worker rights and minimum wages etc and the labor laws were becoming more and more stringent against management. Over a period of time worker benefits, wages and work norms were adjusted in favor of the workers under the auspicies of the labor department.
Today, some of these union representatives are elected members of parliament in the Government of Sri Lanka and continue to be presidents of the Workers Union also. One might even consider this a conflict of interest, but that is how it is! Wages (daily, not hourly) are set by the government and workers have to be guaranteed 5 days work per week and have to be given 8 hours work a day. Unlike in the US where hourly paid workers can be sent home if there is insufficient work, in Sri Lanka any person who reports for work in the morning has to be given a full days work or paid full wages in lieu!!! Disciplinary action and termination of services of estate workers is contested by the unions at Labor Tribunals which come under the purview of the Department of Labor. A worker who is dismissed from employment cannot be evicted from the house that he/she is living in on the estate!!! This is the law!!! In a sense, estate management is crippled as a result of such stringent labor regulations. Unlike here in the US where the laws are pro management, in Sri Lanka they are pro labor and stifles management. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is still a third world country whereas countries like Singapore which were economically behind Sri Lanka in the '50 and '60s are well ahead today and on par with any western country.
Let me assure you that tea estate workers rights are better upheld in Sri Lanka than a comparable worker in the USA!!! As such when people talk about fair trade, they should put everything in perspective and not merely go by a label. According to the facts as described above, every single estate in Sri Lanka (about 650) qualifies for fair trade certification!!!
There are close to 650 tea estates in Sri Lanka and at least 80% of these are managed by professionals. They have staff and labor that have been well trained and follow a tradition of over 100 years. Their skills are such that collectively they produce some of the finest teas in the world. During the flavor seasons, they change their methods and techniques in keeping with changes in climate to produce even better teas. These teas are far superior to the teas that are produced by the so called 'fair trade' and 'organic' tea estates. The best estates should not need a ‘label’ to benefit from higher prices. As a former tea planter who had worked in these areas, I know that some estates that are 'organic' are the ones that could never 'make it' as a conventional estate due to mismanagement, location and climate, substandard agricultural practices and poor skills. However, their teas now fetch better prices than some of the conventional tea estates with far superior management. How would that effect the morale of the workers? Does that seem fair?
The perception of 'fairtrade' and 'organic' that apply to some situations do not necessarily apply to others. It has to be viewed with a very open mind, so that the workers and management of estates that are following a conventional path with utmost dedication, do not fall victim to reverse discrimination by the pressures of ‘labels’ which are mere 'gimmicks' in marketing.
The majority of Sri Lanka tea gardens are not 100% organic, but the line distinguishing chemical use and non chemical use is such a fine line. For example the commonly used chemical is a weed killer called Gramoxone which is sprayed on to the weeds on the ground usually about 2 - 3 feet below the plucking surface and therefore not contaminated with plucking foliage. This chemical gets deactivated in contact with soil. In well maintained estates, the cover of tea bushes is so thick (like a carpet) covering the entire extent of land that there is hardly any weed growth possible. In such cases, weedicide use is limited only to the first year after pruning when the ground is exposed. Before the advent of weedicides, removal of weeds was carried out using a 'sorandi' a very small mammoty like appliance and the British planters called it a 'scraper', because that is exactly what is was used for ... to scrape the soil of weeds! In a tropical climate where monsoonal rains lash the ground, you can just imagine the amount of soil erosion on the slopes of tea fields due to this method. Some of these fields have steep gradients as much as of 30 - 40 degrees and the amount of soil lost due to weeding and resulting erosion due to heavy rainfall was staggering. Careful use of chemicals combined with some removal by hand has reduced weed growth dramatically and also reduced soil erosion.
Pests & Deceases - Unlike in the distant past, there are hardly any outbreaks of pests such as Tea Tortrix and Mites these days. The reason is that in well managed estates there are shade trees inter spaced with tea bushes. These trees and shrubs do not compete with the tea for nutrients. On the contrary they take up moisture and nutrients from below the accessible depths of tea roots and the leaves that fall form a mat of loose dried leaves on the ground. This controls weed growth to some extent, prevents erosion and also adds nutrients to the top soil after decomposition. Another significant aspect of these trees are that bird are able to roost and feed on pests that cause damage to tea foliage. This is called biological control. Even in high altitude misty regions prone to a fungus called Blister Blight, chemical spraying is only resorted to as a last resort. A certain amount of crop loss is tolerated over the use of chemicals which also adds to the cost of production. If chemicals are used as a last resort, the Tea Research Institute's guidelines on quarantine procedures for the sprayed areas are strictly adhered to. Unlike some less reputed tea growing nations, Sri Lanka has a world class Tea Research Institute manned by scientists, which tests the harmful effects of chemicals and stipulates the dosage, quarantine periods and the recovery periods, which when followed (as in the case of well managed estates) amount to no significant residual effect.
Fertilizer - The commonly used fertilizer is inorganic and contains Nitrogen, Potash, and Phosphates plus Zinc, Boron and Manganese as trace elements. Calcium Hydroxide in the form of ‘Lime’ is applied immediately after pruning to balance the pH levels in the soil. The Nitrogen replacement ratio is 10 pounds of N to 100 pounds of black tea (400 pounds of Green leaf) per Acre per annum. If recommended amounts of fertilizer is not applied, the leaves that are harvested comprise more of 'Banji' or dormant shoots (two leaves and dormant bud) and less of 'flush' (two leaves and a bud). Let us consider the situation on an 'organic' estate. There is no way that these high levels of Nitrogen replacement can be achieved using cattle manure or decomposed mulch. For one, there are not enough cattle for this purpose and the application of cattle manure aggravates the weeding problem because the grass that is fed to the cattle have millions of seed and gets transferred to the tea fields!!!! Another important factor is that you cannot determine the amount of Nutrients applied to the field by way of compost. On the other hand, the composition of nutrients in inorganic fertilizer, which is available in either a Sulphate of Ammonia or Prilled Urea based mixture, is very accurate.
One must also take into cognizance the fact that unlike growing Tomatoes, Strawberries or other similar seasonal crops where crop rotation is possible (crop rotation provides a means of 'fixing' nitrogen to the soil by cultivating legumes in between crops) tea cultivation is unique in that some tea plants are over 100 years old. The end result is that on 'Organic' estates, yields will decline over time and the quality of leaf harvested will also decline resulting in manufactured tea not having a good flavor. The use of 'flush' and not Banji is a fundamental requirement for quality manufacture.
In my view the agricultural practices on well managed tea estates are of a much higher standard and I have absolutely no hesitation in calling these estates 100% environmentally friendly estates. After all any farmer worth his salt knows that the soil has to be treated with respect. I can categorically say that the tea planters in Sri Lanka are so committed to their estates that the last thing they would do is to degrade the agricultural condition of the property.
Considering the foregoing, I am of the view that if the facts are not presented to the consumer the way they should be, the labeling of 'Organic' and 'Fairtrade' amounts to another way for companies to create yet another marketing niche in order to distance themselves from the pack, this time with dubious and misleading intentions.
The author was a Tea Planter in Sri Lanka from 1970 - 1987 and then a Director of one of the largest tea corporations in Sri Lanka till 1989 when he immigrated to the US (please check out 'about us' on the web site www.empiretea.com
). He was trained by a British tea company called George Stuart & Co. which, like all other privately owned tea companies was nationalized in 1973. Thereafter he was absorbed into the State Plantations Corporation, became a Superintendent in 1977 and a Director in 1987. He flies to SL every year to visit tea estates and meet with tea management companies (tea estates were de nationalized in 1994 and sold back to the private sector).