Ceylon Tea and the Environment
Sustainability is not just a fashionable catch-phrase among members of Sri Lanka’s Tea industry. In recent years, the drive towards sustainable practice in all aspects of the cultivation, manufacture, storage, transportation and distribution of Ceylon Tea has gathered momentum, with new legislation and industry rules being put in place.
Alliances have been forged with international conservation bodies and hundreds of individual initiatives are being practiced on estates and smallholder farms throughout Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts. Concern for sustainability is not new to the Ceylon Tea industry.
A tradition of sustainable forestry
Although the central mountains of Sri Lanka were sparsely inhabited in ancient times, historical authorities hold that a kind of forest conservation was practiced under the Sinhalese kings who ruled the island. Its purpose was to preserve local ecosystems which ensured that the monsoon winds would shed most of their moisture in these mountains as rain, and that this rainfall should run freely down natural watercourses in the mountains to reach reservoirs built among the foothills.
Hence, the water would be channeled through a network of canals and naturally-occurring streams to fill the vast artificial reservoirs or tanks that irrigated the rice-fields of the central and southern plains of ancient Lanka. The remains of ancient hydraulic works are still found at various locations in the hill country.
Preserving the Forests
Above the estates of the Sabaragamuwa tea-growing district lies the Sinharaja, a tract of virgin high-altitude rainforest that is home to hundreds of species of plant and animal found nowhere else in the world.
Apart from its natural treasures, the Sinharaja Forest also has important climatic effects on the surrounding countryside. Other high-altitude ecosystems, such as the Hakgala Forest Reserve in Uda Pusselawa district, Horton Plains and the Peak Wilderness around Adam’s Peak, are also essential elements in the web of climatic and ecological interactions that give Ceylon Tea its unique character.
Tea planters have long understood the importance of preserving the forests that lie above the tea, and a considerable part of the labour of running a tea-estate is dedicated to this task. To an experienced planter, the condition of the surrounding forests is one of the marks by which a well-run tea plantation is judged.
Today, when climate change is a reality experienced daily and deforestation is a worldwide issue, the emphasis on forest conservation in the Ceylon Tea industry is stronger than ever. It is, in fact, part of a wider concern for environmental issues relating to tea cultivation, such as competition for water resources and pollution from fertilizers, on which the industry is now acting.
Many Sri Lankan estates and smallholder cooperatives have partnered with the Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit organization that sets standards for sustainable practice by land users of all kinds, including tea cultivators. The Alliance offers valuable certifications to cultivators who conform to these standards and works with some of the world’s leading tea producers to promote them.
Standards and Best Practices
Sri Lankan tea growers now follow the standards the Sustainable Agriculture Network, an international body that sets standards and recommends best practices for sustainability.
Inspection and certification are undertaken through the Rainforest Alliance. The first estates to achieve this were in Uva, among the Passara and Namunukula mountain ranges; other regions soon followed, with estates in Dimbula, Kandy and Uda Pussellawa being among the early adopters.