Cup of tea anyone?

I’m at the Galleface hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and halfway through my latest work trip.  Various meetings and seminars brought me out here, but I was lucky enough yesterday to be taken “up country” to visit some of CARE Sri Lanka’s project work in the country’s tea plantations. 

I have stayed at the Galleface before, and find myself again fascinated by its heritage.  Built in the 1860’s there are many original features, including one of the doormen, called Kuttan, who is one of the longest serving employees – possibly in the world.  The first car Prince Philip bought sits in the hotel’s museum.  The Prince was a young midshipman serving in the Royal Navy in what was known then as Ceylon, in 1940, at the time he bought the car, a 1935 model Standard Nine.  The car cost £12, which is about the price you’ll pay in new money for a meal for 2 in the hotel’s restaurant, 71 years later.  

The signage here is particularly good.  Inside the bathrooms: “Guests are asked not to bathe outside the bathroom”, and at the top of the stairs: “Galleface respects your decision not to smoke in the hotel.  Why not take the healthy option of the stairs, it’s only two floors down.”

The hotel is on the seafront, and in the evening the sidewalk is dominated by a long line of vendors selling soft drinks, ice cream and samosas, with crowds of families and couples gathered under lanterns and gazing out at the waves of the Indian ocean.  Groups of children gleefully fly kites on the lawns behind, and a heap of tuk-tuk drivers smoking and laughing with each other are a permanent feature outside the hotel’s main gates. 

Sri Lanka seems a country transformed and at ease with itself.  It appears a peaceful place, given where it has come from in recent years, although the military presence everywhere you go is obvious.  Yesterday two people, including an MP, were shot and killed at a political rally, a fact which produced no emotional reaction from the CARE driver I was with at the time we heard the news on the radio, but which reflects just how precarious perhaps the political situation remains.

Ruwan, the driver in question, did a great job yesterday getting me safely out and back to some of the country’s most exquisite scenery.   Ruwan is a gentle giant, bearded, with forearms the size of most men’s thighs, and hardly fitting into his blue CARE branded polo neck top.  He spent much of our day together chewing on local betal leaves, and spitting the discarded remains out of the window.  I was slightly struck by his opening words as we meandered through Colombo city centre yesterday at dawn, when he offered the following: “your perfume smells very nice, Mr Tim,” however, as we left the city and the roads opened up, I had plenty of other distractions with which to preoccupy myself…

Like most drivers over here, when not at the wheel, Ruwan’s demeanour is a calm, easy going one, no sense of urgency attached to anything he does or says.  Yet, once driving, a different approach to life is adopted all together, one in which speed plays a central role.  The driving etiquette followed by Ruwan was that any vehicle smaller than our 4×4 must be overtaken immediately without consideration, and any vehicle larger than ours must also be overtaken, with merely a hint of hesitation.  

It reassured me, momentarily and early on in the journey, to hear Ruwan comment, whilst watching a car zoom past us as we rounded a bend, “overtaking on corner, big problem”.  This reassurance was itself short lived, after quickly realising that Ruwan’s statement didn’t in fact mean he was opposed to the concept.  Overtaking on corners, it transpired, was fair game for Ruwan, given his cunning tactic whilst doing so of casually beeping his horn, thus protecting us from disaster.  Genius.

My getaway vehicle for use in emergencies only

However, the nervy moments as a passenger were worth it, for the incredible views we were gifted once up in Hatton, and its surrounding area, all of which is tea estates and vistas of tiered plantations, hill peaks touching the clouds, and the bobbed heads of tea pluckers filling their sacks with the day’s leaves.

CARE Sri Lanka have been providing social development interventions in these plantations for over 25 years, in which time their main focus has been on supporting workers on the plantations, who have typically been dealt a lousy hand in terms of wages, respect from management, gender inequality and access to facilities such healthcare, housing, water, and so on.

During the last 3 years, through an EC funded project called “A Different Cup of Tea”, CARE has introduced a new model, called a Community Development Forum, which brings together workers and estate managers (and other stakeholder from the community) at regular meetings designed to break down barriers and address issues in the workplace.  This took some time to set up and settle in, but is now working and is proving to be an effective way of empowering workers and also improving morale and productivity on the estates themselves.  What I had not appreciated until visiting the project was just how many people live on these estates, two thirds of whom do not actually work there, but are rural communities who have been residing there for hundreds of years.  

The other compelling piece to this goes back to the history side of things.  For much of the successes and progress made during the Raj years, it was the introduction of hierarchical systems and norms back then that left a long term scar on the way in which society and everyday life on the plantations evolved in the years following.  This is changing, and many workers can now expect more appropriate levels of respect given to them by their bosses.  It’s by no means mainstreamed yet, but improvements have been made, and the work of organisations such as CARE have well played their part.

Members of a plantation Community Development Forum

As an Englishman, there is an affectionate response which greets you on most meetings with Sri Lankans, and the people I met yesterday (pictured, right) who are members of one of the Community Development Forums, and who work on the tea estates, were even more enthused by my visit, and my eagerness to understand in what ways CARE could continue to support their community, and its situation.

Looking to the future though, the tea industry is facing some tough times out here – global pricing drops and climate related problems to name a few issues on the industry’s radar – and there will have to be some difficult decisions made by those in charge of the estates themselves, as to how to maintain the status quo. 

The introduction of Fairtrade as an increasingly core UK consumer requirement is, somewhat ironically, causing ripple effects out here for tea manufacturing which are not always positive.  Producing Fairtrade tea, and creating a new market demand, whilst clearly offering some noble outcomes, can also complicate the order and production side of things, and put unwanted pressure on the industry.

This is one reason perhaps why the UK market is now a much less lucrative proposition for Sri Lankan tea producers, compared with exporting to the likes of Russia, the Middle East and Japan.  Sri Lankan tea is renowned for being of high quality, however with demand for high quality dropping and other major players – India, China, Indonesia and even the USA – in the tea business gradually advancing their market share, and trading as they do on lower quality leaf, it is hard to tell to what extent growing tea in Sri Lanka will be a sustainable trade in the next 10 – 20 years. 

The pros and cons of ethically sourced tea is a conundrum.  Selling more, “less ethical” tea to larger markets who are not as motivated by a Fairtrade label, may well offer better, longer term viability for the Sri Lankan industry, and therefore its workers.  But does this then compromise too much on the conditions in which these workers might be operating?

Due to the terrain and soils of much of this part of the country, growing any other crop aside from tea is not an option for up country estates.  For the many Sri Lankans like those in the photo, planting, plucking and making a living out of tea has been their only way of life, all they have ever known, for generations.  Their children are increasingly seeking careers elsewhere, however I was told categorically by each and every person I met that if conditions and wages continue to improve favourably, then young people will stay and want to work in the tea plantations. 

There are many variables to this whole situation, and my enthusiasm, and that of CARE’s, to intervene in a way that will ultimately bring economic and social gains to those living on the plantations, is not enough on its own to influence all of the wider issues. 

However, as a successful means of addressing at least some of the problems, replication and expansion of CARE’s Community Development Forum model is now underway, and progress on this front can make measureable differences to people’s lives out here. 

In a similar way, so too can making sure your next cup of tea is a Ceylon one.

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