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The Land, the People and the Economy

Carsten and Jay have joined Community Friends’ naturalist Jeewaka Maddumage, and Sri Lankan Community Friends’ co-founders Deva and Seevali Ratnakara for the first formal survey of the property. Having Jeewa along to help us interpret the landscape helped bring the landscape to life for us. Within the first hour of walking the property, we spotted Serpent Raptors, evidence of boar, rabbit, and fishing cats, kingfishers, parrots, plucked tea and wild cardamom, peeled cinnamon, and on and on. We walked and walked. Somehow this parcel of land seems to go on forever. There is a path upslope along the ridgeline that climbs steeply providing an incredible view. At the top of this first ridge, where we spot porcupine, the trail heads down toward a natural thicket that serves both as firebelt and forest preserve. After winding our way through a dry creek bed that runs at the center of this thicket, we emerge into a whole new landscape. Somehow, it appears as if we are somewhere else, with no way to view the area we just left. It’s like a private, hidden valley.

This valley has a southward view, dropping away just in front of us down towards a riverbed far below. On the far side of this river, the terrain climbs again and is planted in tea. Rising above the waist-high tea shrubs is a towering canopy provided by “mara” trees, which look to us like cousins of acacia trees with open canopy and soft dappled sunlight partially shading the tea. It’s a beautiful vista.

Up and over another ridge we go, again heading South, and over this ridge, too, we are offered another hidden landscape. So now we can see that there are three of these separate, secluded mini-valleys distributed around the land. Here and there as we go we find vestiges of former habitation. We see rock embankments that were erected long ago, small footpaths and bridges, dilapidated groves of cinnamon and spice and the odd campfire left behind by the locals who work and live around the land.

During our stay we met our first employee, a man named KP. These initials correspond to the Tamil word for overseer, so that is both his name and his job title. KP is helping Community Friends own and operate this land. We have about 15 acres of planted tea scattered around, which needs to be tended and plucked. KP arranges for the workers to be there when they are needed. The tea that we drink comes from the uppermost new growth of the tea plant (which is related to the camellia). The way the system works is that tea pluckers take this new growth and then return about two weeks later and remove the replacement leaves that the tea plant has just created. These soft new leaves are then graded and processed. So, KP has a crew on our land at least once every two weeks.

The crew is glad to have work. In fact, there is much more work needed than simply plucking leaves. We have to clear weeds, manage fire danger, repair roads, and so on. During our visit, we saw numerous crews working the land, different people on different days. This is hard work, done mostly by women with small children in tow. The women spend the whole day working up and down the steep slopes of the land, winding through the rough, branchy shrubs. For protection, they wear burlap sacks tied around their bodies and a headdress of some sort atop their heads to fight off the sun.

It is hard to imagine how the workers can make it on the wages that the plantation owners provide. These villages are some 10 kilometers away from the nearest paved roads. Since the roads up to the villages and plantations are so rough, only three-wheeler or the very occasional minibus ever make it up here. So the workers typically walk the 10 KM down to the road, pay for a ride to town where they find goods and food in the market. Food and fuel are their two largest expenditures and they must settle with much less than they actually need, due to the high costs of everything. Thus the constant choice: will it be food or fuel?

Regrettably, the tea economy is difficult on those who rely on it. World prices are set at commodity levels and since the overwhelming percentage of tea goes into a very generic product, like tea bags or bottled tea, the price is held very low. What makes the situation in Sri Lanka a bit more complicated is that plantation owners often invest very little in tea operations, since they view their holdings as more of a land investment than tea operation. They attempt to squeeze whatever revenue they can from the operation while expending as little as possible. The roads and buildings are all in disrepair, the plantations tend to be in decline, and the population interwoven with this, the Tamils, face tough challenges. For the Tamils, their plight is made hasher by the fact that the country is at war with disaffected Tamils in the North. So even though these people have nothing to do with any of that, their marginalization is increased by this war nonetheless.

Community Friends is committed to developing a holistic response to the difficult conditions that we have found in upcountry Sri Lanka. Not only have we found the local population to be in desperate need for economic revitalization, but the very land needs immediate attention too. Decades of tea production have caused soil deplete, erosion, loss of native species and the like. Whatever we do here must address these twin needs; revitalizing community and improving land stewardship.

Jay Goodfriend




Land Purchase

Community Friends in tandem with a local partner has just purchased 40 acres of land in the upcountry region in the foothills of the Knuckles Range. Our land has a sweeping westward view of thousands of acres of planted tea and Victoria Reservoir. Above us, the terrain becomes more mountainous and is covered by lush, virgin jungle. There are several villages dotted around the area, although village is not really a correct description. Actually, they are “company homes”, owned by the plantations, placed on plantation property. The inhabitants of these villages are fourth and fifth generation descendants of Tamil workers originally brought here by the British during colonial times. Today they still live as ethnic Tamils, speaking their own language and practicing their native Hindu instead of Buddhism like the rest of the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. They work the tea plantations, providing the necessary labor to make the whole enterprise possible. This means fertilizing, pruning, and plucking the tea, tending to roads and trails, managing terraces, and providing maintenance for fire protection.

Jay Goodfriend