The Price of a Cup of Tea

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday November 7 2014

The causes of the Haldummulla mudslide lie in the history of colonialism and globalisation.


A few weeks ago, I wrote in these pages about Colombans inhabiting a different planet from we hicks in the “outstations”. Now “upcountry” and in particular Uva province, even more particularly Badulla District, where I live, is getting attention, not only from Colombo, but also from the whole world.

After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta tea estate near Haldummulla around 7.30 a.m. on October 29 and buried houses and people under thirty feet of mud. Cracks appeared in the ground and goats ran down the slopes just before the slide.


Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said interviews with survivors and officials found the number of victims was far below early estimates of 400 or more. Many of the people thought to be missing were at work or school when the mud destroyed their homes. The number of houses destroyed is now 66, revised from an earlier figure of 150. The authorities say they are able to name 38 people who died. Although one is relieved that fewer perished than had been feared, that is still too many dead. One driver told how his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and a six-month-old baby girl had been swallowed by the mud.


Politicians have reacted to the disaster, as politicians will, by saying it is all someone else’s fault. Politicians were recently courting the votes of plantation workers in the elections for Uva Provincial Council.

Managing yet another Disaster

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that his ministry had issued warnings but the victims had not heeded them. Perhaps they were afraid of losing their jobs. Cabinet Ministers WDJ Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said they would investigate why the plantation company employing the workers who perished had not acted upon warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area. Mr Samarasinghe is co-chair of the Permanent Standing Committee on Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Mr Samarasinghe also heads the Ministry of Plantation Industries whose vision is “achieving national prosperity through development of the plantation industry”. The mission statement of the plantation company says:Our strength is in our people”.

History of Tea Production

The 38 who perished were workers on a tea plantation. In the 1870s, one monoculture replaced another in Ceylon. George Bird was the first to start planting coffee on a commercial scale and in the “coffee rush” of the 1840s, speculators cleared around 386 sq miles of rain forest to pave the way for coffee plantations. “Devastating Emily” (the coffee blight Hemileia vastatrix) was first identified in the Madolsima (I can see it from my front garden) area in 1869. In the 1870s, of 1700 coffee planters, only 400 remained on the island. Most of those remaining turned to the cultivation of tea. By 1900, only 11,392 acres were still under coffee cultivation.

Tea was first introduced to the island in 1824 at the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya with a few plants brought from China. In 1867, a Scottish planter, James Taylor, cleared 19 acres of forest in the District of Hewaheta Lower to plant the first seedlings in what is now known as the No.7 field of Loolecondera Estate. The first consignment Taylor exported to London was 23lbs, this rose to 22,900 tons by 1890. Today, tea plantations cover 188,175 hectares, approximately 4%, of the country’s land area. The crop is best at high altitudes of over 6,890 ft, and the plants require an annual rainfall of more than 39 inches.

This sounds like a recipe for disaster – clearing forests, which held the soil together, to grow a crop that needs heavy rainfall, which washes soil away.

Indentured Labour

The plantation system as we know it in Sri Lanka today developed in colonial Assam to facilitate tea production on a large scale with a division of labour and financial arrangements more typical of industry than agriculture. I was surprised to hear Sinhalese people disparaging themselves by saying that the British had to import labourers from India because local people were too lazy to work. It seems more likely that local people were reluctant to be exploited and the British wanted a docile labour force.

In 1827, Governor Sir Edward Barnes, at the request of George Bird, initiated the recruitment of workers from Tamil Nadu to work on the coffee plantations of Ceylon. Immigration of Indian Tamils steadily increased and by the end of the coffee era, there were 100,000 Indian labourers in Sri Lanka. The numbers increased as tea cultivation became the country’s main industry.

The Indian labourer community remained separated up in the hills from Sinhalese villagers who lived in the valleys. In 1949, the UNP government disenfranchised Indian Tamils. As they had no means of electing anyone to Parliament, they ceased to be a concern of parliamentary politicians. The Srima-Shastri pact of 1964 and Indira-Sirimavo supplementary agreement of 1974 paved the way for the repatriation of 600,000 persons of Indian origin to India. Another 375,000 became Sri Lankan citizens of Sri Lanka, and through trade unions became a significant force in politics.


Commercial agriculture, including most tea production, requires as much of the land as possible to be planted with a single crop. This does not happen in nature, where a balance is maintained between different kinds of plants and the animals and insects that live among them. In an intensively cultivated monoculture, there is no natural ecosystem and pests will gobble up the abundant food supply unless chemical pesticides are used. Chemicals are essential for most commercial growing enterprises, including most crops certified as “organic”.

Many countries have banned Glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds. A scientific study showed  that Glyphosate is linked to chronic kidney disease as well as many other health problems including cancers, infertility, along with neurotoxicity, reproductive problems, and birth defects.

A World Health Organization report estimated 15% of the population in North Central and Uva Province, about 60,000 people, had kidney disease probably caused by chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and that 22,000 had died from it from it in the past 20 years in Anuradhapura alone. The prevalence of the disease is estimated at 15 % affecting 400 000 people.

The Sri Lanka Agriculture Department claim that they have not found conclusive evidence linking kidney disease to agricultural chemicals. They are reluctant to institute a ban on glyphosate saying that a ban will drastically affect tea and paddy cultivation as it is the only effective herbicide for commercial crops.


Prasad Dharmasena and MS Bhat of the University of Kashmir did a study of the Uva plantations, focusing on Passara, where I live. They found that 80% of the land is old seedling tea, poorly managed. About 30% of the entire tea land is marginal or uneconomic. Steep slopes and poor management practices are responsible for severe soil erosion. The research found more abandoned lands in the Passara area than in other tea growing areas of the district.

The land was compromised when planters cleared forests for tea. They are further compromised when tea is cleared to make way for vegetables. “These tea estates were once natural forest, which is best for river flow,” said scientist DK Pushpakumara, of the World Agroforestry Centre. “Cultivation of vegetables threatens the heart of our water system.” The Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific notes that one-third of the land suffers considerable erosion. “Poorly managed tea lands as well as abandoned tea lands lose sediments 15 times more than in a homestead, and 20 to 22 times more than in the wet zone forests.”

Workers’ Conditions

Cheap labour was one of the essential ingredients of the success of the tea industry. Immigrant workers were bonded and underpaid. In 1921, workers were allowed to break ties to the estates; trade unions with political power helped improve wages. Nevertheless, poverty levels on plantations have consistently been higher than the national average. Overall poverty in Sri Lanka has declined in the last thirty years, but what poverty remains is concentrated in rural areas. Poverty in the estate sector increased, rising from 30 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2006/07. The welfare system within the estates and job security used to offset poor working conditions, but this no longer applies, as employment is no longer secure in the tea sector in Sri Lanka. Tamil workers are trying to better their lot by voting with their feet.

Sri Lanka is losing international markets because Ceylon tea is expensive. The cost of production is high because the large tea plantations in this country are the most inefficient in the world with the lowest yields. There is a labour shortage because what used to be captive Tamil youth are leaving to find a better life in urban areas.


I do not need academics to tell me about erosion, pesticides and poor estate management. For twelve years, I have been surrounded by tea and have consumed vast lakes of the stuff. I have talked to many people connected with the tea industry: veteran estate managers, current young superintendents, brokers, SDs, labourers and pluckers. Many people seem to take a pessimistic view about the future of the industry. Retired managers visiting our home look at the tea fields abutting our property and remark on the abysmal state of maintenance and the poor quality of the tea bushes. Most estate roads are dilapidated as managers say they do not have the funds or labour to maintain them. We do notice labourers in the field right next to us spraying chemicals. They are not wearing masks and they do not care about contaminating our water supply. We often see labourers hacking away at the roots that hold the soil together and scraping soil and rock from the embankments. It is no surprise when landslips block the main roads. Small inconveniences easily grow into disasters. Mother Nature fights back.