Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: globalisation

The Price of a Cup of Tea

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.

Just because you’re paranoid…

This article was posted on The Agonist on September 30 2009. It still seems relevant following David Cameron’s visit in November 2013.


One can detect something of a siege mentality in Sri Lanka. There is a strong feeling that, after winning a long and brutal war, the country’s independence is threatened by unfair criticism from abroad. An important element in this is in the complex relationship with INGOs (International Non-governmental Organizations).

Susantha Goonatilake called his book on foreign-funded NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonization.

In his conclusion he wrote:”Sri Lankan NGOs emerged in the late 1970s when the then government cracked down on democracy, transparency and accountability and killed locally-grown civil society… Sri Lanka thus became a partial NGO franchise state, with the NGOs attempting to erode the country’s sovereignty …The NGOs are now being squeezed and widely criticised, not only by the media, but also through massive street protests and countrywide posters. The coming years will see an outcome of the struggle between real civil society and foreign-funded NGOs. This struggle, which is partly between a reconciliation agenda and local voices, echoes Sri Lanka’s 500-year-old struggle with western colonial powers.”

There is a common resentment among Sri Lankans about the perceived arrogance of NGOs and the foreign correspondents that rely on them for access and information.

Gomin Dayasri has written about this: ”It’s a stopover in paradise for a Foreign Correspondent to live majestically on his overseas allowance. Such comfortable digs are not in the market in the recession-stung home country. There is exotic food and groovy watering holes at affordable prices. NGOs provide the freebies and roll out the red carpet…With the LTTE gone where they will go? After a few more horror stories to demean the Security Forces and back to the west to face the shock treatment of recession. War is an investment relief to the Foreign Correspondent. The order will soon come to pack the flak jackets and return to a not so sweet home and to wait patiently for a call to another exotic destination?”

I used to wonder why the Sri Lanka government was so paranoid about NGOs and foreign criticism. It seemed a bit crass to seek international help and get all huffy about foreign interference.

During the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), to the outside world it would have seemed that the Norwegian facilitators were doing a difficult job in trying to bring peace to the war-torn island and getting very little thanks for it.

The leader of the Norwegian team was Erik Solheim, currently Norway’s International Development Minister. He recently called on the UN to investigate charges of war crimes in Sri Lanka, following the screening of a video on Channel 4 purporting to show Sri Lankan soldiers shooting unarmed Tamils. The Sri Lanka government claims that the video has been proved to be a fake.

The interrogation of Kumaran Padmanathan aka ”˜KP’, the LTTE’s arms procurer caught over two months ago, is helping to expose an international network that kept the Tigers in fighting trim. It has been revealed that the Norwegian government helped the LTTE to establish relations with Eritrea, which allowed the group to purchase arms, ammunition and equipment from China on Eritrean end-user certificates and other documents. Erik Solheim had been directly involved in forming the Eritrean-LTTE relationship. The LTTE had used Eritrean and also North Korean end-user-certificates to procure arms from China which were smuggled in several consignments before the Sri Lanka Navy destroyed eight floating arsenals September 2006 and October 2007.

Sri Lanka recently established diplomatic relations with Eritrea with a view to pursuing LTTE assets in that country. KP has revealed that an LTTE-owned business venture was entrusted with operating the International Airport in Asmara and that during the last leg of the war, it had been planned to smuggle the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran to Eritrea.

Over 90 per cent of the entire Tigers’ heavy equipment, including a range of artillery pieces and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns captured by the Sri Lankan army were of Chinese origin.

Many Sri Lankans have long been suspicious about Norwegian influence in their country. Eyebrows were raised when Norwegian People’s Aid, a Norwegian Government-funded NGO said its heavy earth-moving vehicles, trucks & tractors had been ”stolen” by the LTTE. NPA had been implicated in smuggling arms to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When the Sri Lanka Army captured the LTTE’s Stanley Base and other camps they found electricity generators, water pumps, tents, water dowsers belonging to INGOs. The massive bunkers could have been built with the stolen vehicles.

Norwegians were suspected of training LTTE Sea Tigers in Thailand. There was also speculation that Norway provided sophisticated satellite and communication equipment to the LTTE during the 2002 CFA truce.

CARE is a leading international organization based in Atlanta, Georgia which operates in more than 65 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. On its website it acknowledges that, although there is a great deal of poverty to be addressed in the USA itself, it prefers to work in foreign countries. It has more than 14,500 employees worldwide. More than 90 percent of CARE International staff are nationals of the countries where it operates.

According to the Kotahena Police, investigations have revealed that the bomb exploded at the Pittala Junction in Kollupitiya targeting Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was taken to Colombo from Kilinochchi in a vehicle belonging to CARE International. Police arrested Sivalingam Arunan, Patmanathan Iiyer Sriskandaraja Sharma and Arunasalam Arumugam Perumal in connection with the assassination attempt. The bomb material had been buried at a safe house in Wellawatte after being carried in a CARE International van. Later, it was transported to Modera and fixed to the three-wheeler of the suicide cadre Lateef Mohamed Faris.

Two Sri Lankan UN workers were arrested in June on suspicion of using NGO activity as a cover for aiding the LTTE. The two men in detention are a 45 year old employee of the UNHCR and a 31 year-old man employed by the UN Office for Project Services.

Recent reports indicate that five Russians were ”˜smuggled’ into the country in the guise of NGO personnel, to provide special training to personal bodyguards of Prabhakaran in the Wanni. A local bodyguard, who was arrested at a refugee camp in the Wanni, revealed that 35 bodyguards had been trained by the Russians. The training included firing, driving and dismantling a vehicle and reassembling it in a very short time. Prabakharan’s son Charles Anthony had received training from the Russians. An extensive investigation is under way to identify these Russians and the NGO that supported them. Defence officials suspect these Russians could be retired members of a Russian defence unit.

Police believe that some NGO employees in the IDP camps are Black Tigers whose mission is to assassinate VIPs visiting the camps. A report in The Island newspaper of 30 September claims that 20,000, believed to be LTTE cadres, have escaped from the IDP camps. Senior Superintendent Kasturiratne said special police teams from Kandy had been dispatched to the IDP camps in the north to conduct investigations. The SSP said that followers of the terrorist organisation were still moving around though the leadership of the movement had been destroyed. He said explosives and arms had been recovered from Pudikudiiruppu and other locations in the north and east on information provided by the LTTE suspects in custody.

Sri Lanka is waiting trepidatiously for the EU to report on GSP Plus, which, simply put, is a preferential tariff advantageous to the exports of the Sri Lanka garment industry. The EU created the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from the early 1970s onwards, pursuant to a series of decisions made by the signatories of GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).

Following a challenge from the WTO the EU had to redesign the GSP scheme. Countries lose the standard GSP scheme concessions when they are no longer classified as developing nations. The least-developed countries also lose their duty- free preferences once they become middle-income countries. They then fall into the standard GSP category and pay the 10% duty.

In order to qualify for GSP+ applicant nations had to ratify and implement 27 international conventions, account for less than one per cent of total imports into the EU, and its five main exports should account for more than 75 per cent of its total exports. If recipient countries fall short of the three GSP+ criteria, they will automatically be out of the scheme.

The EU seems to be implementing the GSP+ scheme in such a way as to spite the WTO for ruling against them. The EU is trying to disqualify Sri Lanka on the grounds that she is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What the WTO seemed to have had in mind were de-selection criteria in keeping with the ”˜development, financial and trade needs’ of the recipient country and stability and predictability in tariff regimes.
The EU paid local NGOs to make representations to itself to the effect that Sri Lanka was not in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Then they paid another committee of experts to examine the documents they had paid for earlier. Nobody knows who made submissions to this three-member committee of experts appointed by the European Commission.

The irony of the situation is that Sri Lanka is trying to recover from a horrendous thirty-year civil war and the garment industry has an important role to play in rebuilding the north and east by providing employment and helping rebuild the infrastructure.

The association of companies called Sri Lanka Apparel is contributing to post-war reconstruction by establishing a new garment factory, specialising in baby clothes, in the war-affected district of Trincomalee. The factory benefited from a special incentive scheme to attract investments into the Eastern Province and has generated 1,000 jobs. The factory opened in September, 2009 and will initially export all of its output to the UK. It has the capacity to produce 100 pieces per month and in six months will increase capacity to 1.2m – 2m pieces per month.

Another Sri Lanka Apparel member company has made water and sanitation the central theme of its corporate social responsibility programme. It has been building hygienic bathing facilities for displaced people in the camps at Menik Farm in northern Sri Lanka. The project employed people living in the camps and provided them with income.

That particular company has also supported the Government’s efforts to rebuild the economy of the Eastern Province by investing 250 million rupees in a factory at Punani in the Batticaloa District, which currently employs 220 people, most of whom are from families that were displaced by the conflict.

A key feature of the Sri Lankan garment industry is that it seems to do more than pay lip-service to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Sri Lanka, as a nation, has fostered enlightened, socially-responsible legislation and has committed itself to 27 of the ILO Core Conventions. The mission of the industry is to employ ethical practices, thereby contributing to the economic development of the country while improving the quality of life of the apparel industry’s workforce and their communities.

An initiative called Garments without Guilt enabled Sri Lanka Apparel to forge a niche for itself in western markets where companies and consumers were uncomfortable after revelations about Asian sweatshops. This success has been threatened by the financial crisis and will be further threatened if GSP + is withdrawn. Was ethical marketing merely a luxury of a booming world economy which will have to be jettisoned in grimmer times? Kumar Mirchandani of Sri Lanka Apparel told me that the association will not abandon its principles. Whatever the competition might try, Sri Lanka Apparel is committed to ethical business. ”There is no excuse for unethical behaviour, no matter what the economic conditions are. This is the message Sri Lanka Apparel is sending”.

It is ironical that because of the perceptions of the EU about human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, thousands of innocent Sri Lankan workers in an industry that achieved success because of its ethical business practices will be thrown out of work and factories in the war-torn north and east may have to close.

Much of what is called loosely ”aid” is in fact investment for a return or loans on which Sri Lanka pays interest. GSP + is not charity. Sri Lanka was one of the original 24 signatories to GATT in 1947, and what Article 1 of GATT envisaged was equal opportunity for everybody whereby member states would refrain from discriminating between one another and grant similar treatment to all countries. The stability as well as predictability of tariffs is essential for traders to make investment decisions. At the time they load their ships, they should know that the applicable tariff will not be higher when the goods reach the destination.

The EU may push Sri Lanka to the position where she has no alternative but to mount a challenge in the WTO.

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -


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