This is an island built upon tea. And proud of it.  

 

B angles around her ankle tinkle as she bustles about. Chairs scrape the floor as they are moved to add space. Warm, lilting tones fill the air. Pungent odors of freshly brewed tea leaves drizzled with honey waft around the room. She pours tea for a guest, greeting him in Chinese. She sashays to another group, smooths her sari and sits, introducing herself in English: I am Malki Perera, your tour guide. Welcome to the Kadugannawa Tea Factory.

The Kadugannawa Tea Factory is just one out of nearly 2,000 tea factories, plantations, and estates within Sri Lanka. Employing more than 1 million people, comprising the island’s top export commodity, and steeped in history, tea has become the lifeblood of this ancient land.

Peculiar as it may seem, the story of world-famous “Ceylon Tea” begins with coffee. It starts in the early 1820s, just after the surrender of Kandy (the island’s last surviving indigenously ruled state) to the British Crown. Though the island, then known as Ceylon, was considered crucial to imperial interests in India and the Far East, the cost of military and infrastructure upkeep was exorbitant. The British had to find a way to make the colony pay for itself. As luck would have it, the colonial governor spotted coffee plants growing naturally in the hill country.  Opportunity was born.

By the mid-1870s, coffee was king. Ceylon catapulted into the world’s largest coffee producer. The bean transformed the colony into an imperial showpiece, and the island into a modern industrial center. Overnight, it seemed, railways threaded coffee-clad hillsides, and networks of roads connected the interior.

But the beverage’s reign was to be short-lived. Coffee rust, a new disease, showed up in 1879 and took just over a decade to demolish Ceylon’s entire coffee enterprise. The economy crumbled. Besides frequent runs on banks in Colombo, roughly 1,700 coffee planters threw up their hands and left for England. Plantations “up-country” sold for pennies.

Meanwhile, reclusive Scots planter James Taylor was experimenting with a new plant, sowing it along the margins of his coffee estate, Loolecondera. When the coffee blight hit, Taylor had already shipped his first modest delivery – 23 pounds – of tea to England. Soon, planters from around the region were visiting Loolecondera to learn how to produce tea.

The transformation was arduous. More than 300,000 acres had to be stripped of coffee bushes and replanted in tea. But by 1890, Ceylon had become an island synonymous with tea, a colonial jewel glittering once again.

However, colonial oversight is seldom without far-reaching consequences. In need of cheap labor for the burgeoning tea plantations, the East India Company brought more Indian Tamils to the country, increasing the number originally brought to work the coffee plantations.

As part of their traditional “divide and conquer” strategy, the British disproportionately employed the native and foreign Tamil minority, much to the frustration of the Sinhalese majority, as the Tamils rose through tea plantation ranks to become supervisors, managers, and even owners. The wounds from this display of colonial favoritism have never quite healed. To this day, Sri Lankan social tensions claim their roots in the British exclusion of the Sinhalese.

“I am Sinhalese. We can’t work as a Tamil,” Kadugannawa Factory manager Madawa Marasinghe said. He explained that in the beginning, Sinhalese didn’t like to work the tea plantations, leading the British to import Indian-origin Tamils.  Now, Tamils are the best workers, with an innate knowledge of the tea process, he suggested.  

Renowned worldwide, tea production in Sri Lanka is perfectly primed because of the island’s nearly flawless climate, balancing tropical warmth with hilly coolness, lushly fertile soil, and varying altitudes. Because Sri Lanka’s checkered monsoon seasons soak the eastern half of the island from January to May and the western half from July to October, dropping as much as 45 to 70 inches of rain annually and sometimes much more, tea can be harvested year-round. Tea leaves grow so fast that some plantations must pluck fresh leaves nearly every week.

I have learned something from here, you know. It’s not like a job. This place is like a home. These people are like my sisters, my brothers. It’s like a family.

-Malki Perera

The higher the altitude, the bolder the flavor of the tea. Sprawling tea gardens and plantations cover the landscape of Sri Lanka’s hill country. Short bushes cling to the hills, their tea leaves pointed upward in an eternal search for sunlight.

Low-grown teas are produced at elevations below 2,000 feet, like in Galle to the southeast. Mid- or medium-grown teas are grown between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, such as those within Sri Lanka’s ancient hill capital, Kandy. And high-grown teas are grown between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. The misty hills of Nuwara Eliya are one of the highest and oldest tea-growing regions, producing the dark, flavorful Ceylon teas Sri Lanka is famous for.

Equally crucial is the manufacturing process. The Kadugannawa Tea Factory is relatively young – just five years old – unlike its main 114-year-old counterpart in Geragama. Nestled outside Kandy, these factories take hand-plucked leaves from many gardens and plantations.

First, the tea leaves must be withered. Damith Dananjaya, 23, ushers a tour group into a spacious room. The whooshing hum of large fans threatens the moisture in the leaves and drowns Dananjaya’s voice. In 20 hours, nearly a full day, the leaves will almost completely dehydrate, he explains. While 1,450 kilograms (about 3,190 pounds) of tea leaves curl up on the long counters, only one-half that weight will be left, he says.

Withered leaves move to machines for the second stage: rolling. Twenty minutes of pressure rolling breaks the leaves down to be sifted. Quickly, workers push them down the vibrating sifter belt. The pieces are re-rolled until they reach the desired size. Leaf and stem particles are separated in another manual machine. Then it is time for the heart of the tea-making process: fermentation.

A wood furnace further dries the leaves, causing them to lose all moisture. Unlike black tea, golden and Ceylon teas are much more delicate. They are only dried via sunlight, and only part of their leaves are used in the tea-making process. This results in a much rarer, more expensive type of tea.

A fancy Japanese machine (one of the very few machines in the factory not operated by hand) further separates leaf pieces not just according to size, but to color in tea-making’s final stage. This allows the factory to more specifically organize the various tea flavors.

By the end of the day, the Kadugannawa Tea Factory will produce 1,000-2,000 kilograms of black tea, while only 20-25 kilograms of golden and Ceylon teas are produced per month.

What’s Dananjaya’s favorite tea? He casts an awkward glance downward. “I don’t like tea,” he admits sheepishly. “It’s difficult.”

A trip to any upscale hotel within the region will be marked with pictures of smiling plantation women, their fingers eagerly entwining leaves of tea. Vestiges of a colonial past beckon to tourists even from the walls of the tea factory as dapper Englishmen are served tea by beaming factory workers. The reality of tea does not always leave a pleasant taste in the mouth.

While Sri Lanka’s orthodox tea system can account for its quality – hand-plucked leaves and manual machines – it comes at a cost. Despite snakes, steep inclines, and other hazards, women and other young workers on the plantations must pick at least 16 kilograms (about 35 pounds) of tea every day.

The wages? Just seven rupees per kilo in Nuwara Eliya – or about 4 cents. Just a 1-kilo bag of rice from the supermarket costs about 115 rupees, taking up nearly a day’s wages.

Women on the plantations often comprise 75 to 85 percent of the industry’s workforce, yet they face a controlled social hierarchy that leaves them virtually powerless as the bottom of the social strata.

Dananjaya mentions that at Kadugannawa’s sister factory, Geragama, a woman broke her hand in the machines. Though he says this doesn’t happen often, he readily discloses that the machines are very dangerous – chiefly because they require manual operation.

“That’s why we use the special, experienced workers for the machines,” Marasinghe explains. The manager of both tea factories says that beginners are sent to do small jobs – not operating equipment – to eliminate injuries. When asked if workers get hurt, Marasinghe shifts in his seat, looking away. “Yes,” he says.

And trouble of another sort may be brewing. Sri Lanka Tea Board statistics reveal that production declined by 36 million kilograms, or 11 percent, last year compared to 2015. The same trend has held true for the last few years and looks to be the case this year as well.

There are many factors driving the slump, including a persistent drought and aging tea bushes where big estates have not replanted enough.

Meanwhile, global tea production is steadily increasing. Sri Lanka’s share in world tea production is now down to 6 percent from 10.5 percent in 2000, a cause for increasing industry concern.

Despite these challenges, tea remains Sri Lanka’s lifeblood. “Our culture depends on the tea,” Marasinghe says. Twenty-four years in the tea industry is what gave Marasinghe a leg up, allowing him to become the manager of two factories.

Besides the social divisions that are often reinforced by the industry, Sri Lanka’s society revolves around tea: buying it, selling it, marketing it. Tea comprises just over 2 percent of the island’s GDP. Though roughly the size of Indiana, Sri Lanka is the world’s third-largest producer in volume behind Kenya and China, and the second-largest producer in terms of value.

Tea also has a beneficial effect on Sri Lanka’s tourism, with factories advertising their tours to tour companies, luring visitors from around the world to the island. To remain competitive, many factories are creating promotional centers to teach tourists about the tea process.

For Sri Lanka, tea now fosters an exchange of ideas, people, and cultures. According to Marasinghe, more than 500 to 600 tourists visit the factory each day. Whether or not changing market conditions strongly affect Sri Lanka’s tea industry, one constant has always seemed unassailable: the international prestige of Ceylon tea.

The bangles around her ankle chime once again. Malki Perera stands and pours tea for her English-speaking guests. The pungent odors of tea are dissipating. The lilting tones have begun to filter out the doors.

At just 22, she already speaks four languages – languages she has learned since 2014 through her job as a tour guide. She is proud of this achievement.

“… I have learned something from here, you know. It’s not like a job,” she says, smiling. “This place is like a home. These people are like my sisters, my brothers. It’s like a family.”

Author Ariyl Onstott

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