Television news bombards us daily with images of global destruction, famine, disease, and wars. No wonder we despair at the future mankind is forging for itself, one filled with hopelessness and religious fanatics hiding behind guns.
However, what the news does not show is a modified trend amongst the citizens of the world – a transfer from salvation to liberation; a change in mindset and taking responsibility, teaching other like-minded individuals by example.
As a reporter I travel to many third-world countries, those with just emerging markets, and of late have seen this thread as a constant in all of them.
In poverty stricken Africa I met a Ugandan businessman who formed Rwenzori Coffee Company and empowered his farmers by teaching them how to tend to their plants and negotiate good market prices. Recently I met a group of Malawian coffee growers who were facing the near collapse of the industry and banded together to form the Mzuzu Coffee Company – now one of the most sought after coffee exporters in Africa. It only takes one person with foresight, a person who has lost faith in government policy and decides to take control of his own future, enhancing his community and benefiting everyone surrounding him.
I had the privilege of meeting another such pioneer when I recently travelled to the tropical paradise island of Sri Lanka, just off the southern tip of India; home to arguably the world’s best cricketers and legendary Ceylon tea.
What the guidebooks promised and what I found were worlds apart. Sri Lanka’s cities are full of dilapidated buildings, untouched since independence in 1948, with garbage strewn everywhere. The markets – noisy and confusing – are shrouded in tropical cloaks of decay. Nobody seems too concerned about living in squalor.
With no motorways and no sidewalks, pedestrians are forced to walk in the chaotic traffic where the ‘every man for himself’ rule applies. There seems to be a type of frenetic Morse code Sri Lankan drivers use. Everyone leans on their horns – not signifying an urgent alert, mind you, but rather to communicate to other road users that they are approaching, or to move out the way, perhaps mobilise a sleeping street dog, give another vehicle access, hello, thank you. Each honk seems to convey a different message. Thus I extracted myself from this mayhem and headed to the mountains.
The Tea Country, as it is known, is Sri Lanka’s most magnificent region – tropical waterfalls spilling to bottomless gorges, views of pastoral splendour to undulating horizons. One lookout I particularly recall was reminiscent of a shaken-out quilt just settling back onto a bed. Punctuating these tranquil settings are cool mountain resort towns acting as gentle reminders of an era dominated by monied English tea barons’ colonial Tudor-styled homes, complete with trimmed rose bushes and manicured lawns.
Sri Lanka – still referred to as Ceylon by the industry – was initially a colonial coffee island until a rotting fungus destroyed the crops in the 1860s. A few years later James Taylor, a Scottish coffee plantation manager, tested a few acres of tea and changed the islands future. Today Sri Lanka is the world’s largest tea exporter.
I became quietly excited as I neared my first appointment; a sign announced the name of the estate I was entering. My driver stopped so I could take in the landscape – glorious swathes of intensely green tea acreage which not so much dazzled my senses as reawakened them.
At the entrance to the factory I was met by a locked gate. A security guard, a formidable-looking stick of a man, indicated the factory to be closed for the day. I asked that he call the manager as I had an appointment. The manager sent his deputy, who could not bring himself to come down to meet me but instead gesticulated to my driver that we should leave and come back when the factory was open – tomorrow maybe.
On our way out, we passed the tea picker’s living quarters. What I saw there took filth to a different level. To prevent myself from gagging, I needed to cover my nose and mouth as we drove by their stable-like accommodations. I saw no electric power lines to their dwellings and from the foul stench presume their outdoors latrines were not functional. I was therefore not shocked to see an adult squatting over a long trench, running down one end of the enclosure, voiding his bowels, whilst a toddler played in the very same trench but a few feet away.
And thus it was, in a shocked and sickened state that I arrived at my next plantation appointment near the town of Haputale – the Thotulagalla Estate, part of the Greenfield Bio Plantations Group.
A barrel of a man extended his meaty hand giving mine a vigorous shake.
“Welcome”, he growled, “I’m Newman. Mike Newman.” He indicated that I should follow him up the sloping driveway to his house beside the factory. The Thotulagalla Estate is some 6,000 feet above sea level and produces organically grown tea which is processed at the on-site factory.
Mike Newman, a seasoned planter who hails from a respected cultivating family, manages the Thotulagalla Organic Tea plantation with a labour force of some 350.
Mindful of the impact conventional farming practices have on the environment and society, the Thotulagalla Estate is committed to using only organic, environmental and socially ethical methods in the growing and processing of their product and carry the certified Level A (full organic) status.
We decanted into Mike’s 4×4 and drove through the immense Estate. I asked that he stop for a while so I could photograph and observe the spellbinding image of the vivid saris amongst the waist high emerald bushes. The hands of the tea pickers resembled butterflies flitting over the shrubs, moving independently of one another, nipping off the youngest and topmost leaves by snapping the stem, then tossing the pickings into the large baskets on their backs.
“Ceylon Tea,” Mike announced, “has for the past century had the clear distinction of being the finest, most fragrant tea in the world.” He considered the landscape before him.
“We are blessed with the ability to grow tea in an ideal climate and in near perfect conditions here in the Uva province. By us using only purely organic methods of growing and harvesting, we reduce the caffeine and tannin, which undoubtedly contributes to the distinct richness and flavour you’ll find in your cup – which is as nature intended.”
I enquired after the need to go organic, seeing that conditions where already so agreeable.
“The health benefits, to start with, are numerous,” Mike claimed. “An organic workplace provides for a safer working environment. In conventional agriculture there is widespread misuse of agro-chemical fertilisers, herbicide and pesticides due to lack of awareness, due to not reading instructions, due to not wearing protective clothing or lack of chemical storage knowledge. No such issues exist with organic products.”
He continued. “The misuse of chemicals often leads to products reaching local markets with harmfully high level of pesticide residue. This does not occur with organic food.”
Mike went on to explain that organic crops may initially yield less, but this is outweighed but the cost of production which is much lower.
“There are social benefits to organic agricultural practices too. Firstly, it’s essentially sustainable and requires no external inputs to keep the system going indefinitely. As nothing is paid to national- and multi-national companies for the supply of chemicals, money stays on the farm, in the farming community, and in the country, thus ending the poverty trap.”
“You can only image the environmental benefits this has,” Mike gesticulated at the plantation before us. “Use of agro-chemicals over time reduces the quality of the topsoil, vital for plant growth. As a result, as time evolves farmers need to use more and more chemical fertiliser to achieve the same results. Sustainability of organic farming systems involves soil development and conservation as a major aspect. Use of manure, compost and vegetable matter improves the soil structure and consequently improves soil quality. Over time the productivity of the soil increases the output or harvest.”
“Then you also need to think of the water which drains through soil laden with agro-chemicals, eventually entering rivers and the ocean. Agro-chemicals are not only harming the fish but also the environment and the wildlife that drink from the rivers. Organic farming means no contamination of any kind.”
Mike detailed the adverse effects of agro-chemicals on the many species of wild plants, animals, insects and birds, as can be seen in Europe and other Western countries. There has been a steady decline in numbers of songbirds, wild flowers in hedgerows and fields, and native animal species.
I noticed some tea pickers being bussed off to a building in the valley and enquired after their destination.
“Nursing mothers are transported to the crèche three times a day,” Mike claimed.
Encouraged by this show of humanity, I enquired after the other facilities Thotulagalla Estate provides their staff and discovered that not only was there a crèche, but a primary school and a newly built secondary school too, with teachers provided by the Education Department; an estate medical practitioner, a brand-new community centre, and really good housing – each with a patch of land for self cultivation or live-stock grazing.
I asked to me taken to these facilities and later met Malar, a soft spoken kindergarten teacher with large doe eyes who showed off her spotlessly tidy amenities; and Shilpa, the Estate’s head teacher who showed her eager class a scrapbook containing letters and photographs I brought for them from a school in my hometown.
Thotulagalla Estate has a medical-centre with a newly retired pharmacist (according to Mike he needs replacing as he plans to visit relatives in India); medicines and midwife facilities are provided free to the employees and their families; family planning is available to all and a women’s medical officer works on the Estate. Free treatment is offered to Estate employees and their families at the hospital in the nearby Haputale.
I walked around the little village which contained neat brick houses (water and energy supplied by the Estate) and found willing models for my camera. Mike and his petite wife, Hirani, chatted with off-duty staff that came out to greet them. Clearly the Newman’s were held in high esteem.
“This is our newly built community centre,” Hirani Newman announced. “It was built with funds partly derived from Fair-trade and partly our Social Committee.”
Although it is optional to buy Fair-trade labels the Thotulagalla Estate take it a step further and direct a sizable chunk of their profit towards the Estate’s Social Committee.
“I have taught a few of the ladies how to make decorative ornaments, the finer points of cooking, the art of decorating a wedding-cake and very soon I’ll have a beautician from Colombo visit and teach us how to dress and make-up a Buddhist and Hindu bride,” Hirani beautiful face smiled brightly. “This way the Social Committee will be able to derive an income from the community centre by hiring it out to neighbouring Estates and villages, offering a package deal.”
The Thotulagalla Estate is owned by Greenfield Bio Plantations and has five foreign directors – two based in India, two in Australia and one in Switzerland, and promoted worldwide by Lanka Organics based in Colombo.
“They give me a free hand and let me run the Estate as I see fit,” Mike volunteered.
We proceeded to the large white tea factory where Mike guided me through the complicated process of tea withering, rolling, firing, drying and grading.
“Our present range of organic teas includes organic black tea from pure Ceylon to English Breakfast, green teas, herbal and fruit teas.” I sampled each one and could not decide which I liked more, then decided to try them all again.
On our way out of the factory I spotted a room containing a couple of warped old tables, rickety chairs and a few computers dating back to the 80s.
“This is where Hirani teaches secondary school pupils the fundamentals of I.T.,” Mike said.
“You see we are not only dedicated to the highest standards of production – we are equally passionate about the quality of life our staff enjoy. You see, our social and environmental objectives have ensured that our community benefit through our extensive work programme.”
Standing at the precipice of the Thotulagalla Estate, mist swirling around my ankles and a light breeze dancing with my hair, I surveyed before me a mystic valley in hues of blue and lavender, stitched with wisps of silver mist. I half expected a dragon to swoop out of a hidden cave but instead found the branches around me were hung heavy with birds who sought a suitable vantage point from which to drink in the timelessly fetching visa.
I could hear shrieks of hilarity of a joke being told by the usually serene pickers behind me and distant laughter of school children ambling home. I turned to look at Mike and Hirani, who were embraced, and quietly wondered where the television news cameras were now and how refreshing it would be if, for just one day, we were bombarded by images like this – images portraying citizens of the world offering hope and prosperity, kindness and guidance. I felt somewhat humbled standing in the presence of true leader.
Lanka Organics (Pvt) Ltd
23 Braybrooke Street, Colombo 2, Sri Lanka
UK branch office:
Driftwood, The Marrams, Sea Palling, Norfolk, NR12-0UN, England
Phone +44-1692-598135; Fax +44-1692-598141