Sri Lanka – Tea PlantationsBack to Story

Bandarawela Tea Country

History of Tea in Sri Lanka

Coffee was the crop of choice in the early days of Sri Lanka until 1869 when coffee rust destroyed the industry. It was a British tea planter James Taylor who then commercialised tea in Sri Lanka.  The country’s climate proved perfect for the production of high quality tea and remains a critical industry.  Today the plantations are centred in the hills east of Colombo.

In the early 1970s the government nationalised the tea country and took back the land previously operated by the British companies.  The plantations have often been split up and are now leased back to companies to run as a business.  But the way of life seems very similar to what may have happened in the early years with the exception of not allowing children to work.

Today Sri Lanka is very reliant on the tea industry, which accounts for 15% of the country’s GDP and until the recent civil war Sri Lanka was the world’s largest exporter of tea.

Plantation life

Bandarawela the tea area I visited produces what is known as mid grown tea, which is planted at an altitude of between 600-1200m.  The countryside is remarkably steep and rugged.  The roads do wind their way around the tea plantations and are as narrow and full of hairpins turns as any I have travelled.

The colours are amazingly vivid with greens that give my native country, New Zealand, a run for its money.  Many of the access roads are dirt and provide beautiful visual contrasts to the greens.  There are pines trees and a flowering tree to break up the landscape. The vibrancy of the green is like nothing you’ll see again.

It’s like a time warp as you drive through the plantations.  The plantations still have the stately homes once occupied by the British. Not only that but the whole process of planting through to shipping has remained unchanged for what seems like centuries – give or take the introduction of electricity into the factories.

The demographic of the people working and living in these plantations is unique to the tea industry.  British companies traditionally owned the tea estates and the plantation residences are evidence of what an amazing lifestyle they must have had. Workers were required for both harvesting and in the factories, the skills were imported from India and were Tamils largely.  To begin with they came across for the picking season and returned home.  As production grew and time passed they came to live on the plantation and today most families have lived and worked for generations on the plantations.

The plantations are self-contained communities in their own right.  Many have a chapel and/or Hindu temple, schools and medical dispensary.  If you are a tea family all your adults have a role and children too when they have finished school.  Supplies are often subsidised by the plantation and a small area is allowed to be cultivated for the families use.  The more entrepreneurial families grow extra fruit and vegetables and sell the surplus in local villages. Conditions for the workers have been criticised as being very poor with low wages and the use of children.

Picking Tea

As you drive through the plantations you can see the heads of women over the plants, which grow approximately to chest height.  Women are traditionally used, as they are known to be gentle on the leaves.  The top two shoots are picked for weighing and all others carefully pruned to keep control of the crop.  The plantation I visited had a team of men out picking but this is unusual and only reverted to when the crops are growing faster than the pickers can go.  You can hear their chatter across the rows.  Sacks are worn like a backwards cap on the head and taken to be weighed on filling.

The weighing is a real sight as tea is checked and packed into the bags before weighing.  The scales are placed on a stick between two woman of equal height and the weighing begins.  The male supervisor is there to record the picking against each picker and keep the process rolling.  Can’t imagine this process has changed a lot in 100 years.

The Tea Factory

In the tea factory it’s hot and dusty.  The raw material is sorted and mulched before being dried and packed.  So it is either dusty and humid or dusty, hot and dry.  The process looks simple but each step is critical to maintaining quality.  A misstep in the process can lead to a batch being thrown out.  It has been a vigorous season so the factory has been working 24 hours to try to keep up with the processing.

Travel photographs of the Bandarawela tea country Sri Lanka - including images of tea picking and weighing, tea factory and plantations

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