Sri Lanka's tea industry has survived world wars and global depressions - but now it's really in jeopardy

·3-min read

The scene has not changed for more than a century-and-a-half, since the British brought tea to what was then Ceylon.

Under a hot morning sun, women fan out through the clipped tea bushes, oversize baskets on their backs hanging from straps pulled tight across their foreheads.

Sri Lanka's great tea industry has survived world wars and global depressions, using methods that have barely altered. But now all that is in jeopardy.

Expert hands pick only the right leaves, leaving the youngest shoots and avoiding the darker older growth. It is painstaking manual work under a hot sun but has endured the test of time, until now.

The women who do it can fill their huge baskets in a morning throwing the plucked leaves over their shoulders as they chat to others up the line. For generations they have passed down these skills.

But their livelihoods are now threatened and their lives have become much harder.

"We don't know what will happen in the future," Marie Amarawathy told Sky News. "We have something to eat now but we don't know about tomorrow.

"It's hard to live right now."

Gannapathy Vallimail joined in: "This month we manage but don't know about the next."

The economic crisis making their lives barely supportable is undoing their industry too.

Global economic headwinds have swept through Sri Lanka as they have other countries but doing more damage and bringing more chaos. Rising fuel prices, food and fuel shortages, inflation, the legacy of the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine have all played a role.

But the crisis is homegrown, too.

Read more: Inside Sri Lanka's presidential palace after it was stormed by protesters

Three years ago, the country's now disgraced president Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered an almost overnight ban on the use of chemical fertiliser. He hoped to the turn the country's agriculture sector organic and save $400m in foreign currency.

But the move led to the near-collapse of much of agriculture instead. Rice and tea production plummeted and the country was forced to spend hundreds of millions on rice imports to feed its people.

The government declared bankruptcy and a political crisis and mass unrest followed.

The president resigned taking the heat out of the people-power uprising in Sri Lanka's capital for now, while politicians choose his successor - but inland in the hills of tea country the damage has been done.

Tea production has almost halved. Fertiliser can be used again but has gone up twenty times in price not least because of the war in Ukraine. Herbicide and pesticide are also hard to come by.

Making matters worse, demand has declined too as overseas markets tip toward recession.

There may be an end in sight to Sri Lanka's crisis as plans develop in the capital for an all-party interim government and fresh elections. But that may have come too late to save the tea industry. Tea planters fear its collapse is reaching an unstoppable momentum.

Former deputy chairman of the Tea Planters Association of Ceylon Rajith Gnanasekera told Sky News one of the world's most iconic drinks could be lost forever while workers run out of food because of the mistakes of their government.

He said: "They're starving actually at the moment poor people are starving because of their decisions by the politicians. I'm of course worried because we don't know what will happen to us also. From the top to bottom [people] are going to suffer because of the decisions of these politicians.

"The worst thing that could happen is the world is going to lose Ceylon tea."

It is Sri Lanka's most iconic product and its number one export.

If the tea industry goes to the wall, it will be another calamity in a season of catastrophes unravelling Sri Lanka's failing economy.

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