Due to the particular geography and climate of the island, Sri Lanka has an incredible agricultural heritage. Across the country, varied microclimates make it possible to cultivate a wide range of spices and teas, and production differs greatly between the up lands and the low-lying grasslands.
Recently I have been travelling around Sri Lanka hosted by two NGO’s of the Fairtrade network that work directly with farmers cultivating both teas and spices. It was an incredible experience for me to see how the two organisations work sustainably whilst using two completely different approaches.
Firstly, the People’s Organisation for Development Import & Export (PODIE) is a spice orientated organisation located in the coastal town of Negombo, 30km north of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. PODIE works mainly with small-scale organic farmers in the remote villages in Sri Lanka. They ensure that the farmers are the main stakeholders in the organisation. PODIE then deals with the processing and export of their spices and allied products.
The organically grown raw materials for these products are purchased from affiliated farmer and producer groups based in the remote villages around Sri Lanka. These groups are organised as co-operatives. PODIE then pack the final products for export in their office in Negombo.
I also visited SOFA, Members of the Small Organic Farmer Association. They are connected with small-scale farmers who grow tea, spices and vegetable crops for home consumption as well as the wider market. Most of the smallholdings are on land that was formerly a state-run tea plantation located near the town of Gampola, around 40 minutes drive from Kandy.
Bio Foods is a commercial company that processes and exports organic agricultural products such as tea and spices supplied by the small-scale farmers’ organisations. It was instrumental in setting up SOFA and establishing their organic conversion programme. Bio Foods’ philosophy is to work in partnership with its suppliers to support the economic and agricultural development of the farmers’ organisations and their communities.
In my images above you’ll see freshly picked turmeric, a spice perhaps better known for its strong yellow colour rather than taste. Its growth requires the rich soil and shaded land common to Sri Lanka; hence turmeric has had a deep influence in Sri Lankan and Indian cuisine. I also photographed a woman preparing cinnamon. Cinnamon is an expensive spice and 90% of it is cultivated in Sri Lanka where the plant originates from. In a working day a farmer can manufacture around 2kg of the final product. In these photos you can also see a new pepper plant in its host tree, which it requires in order to survive. The green beans were incredibly aromatic, even when raw.
In a village in the north of the country, where chilli is farmed, I met a Buffalo shepherd redirecting a lagoon in order to get water to his animals. A Sri Lankan tree house was pointed out to me that had been built for spying wild elephants from afar, to keep them away from chilli and rice crops.
You’ll also see that at PODIE even the packaging is made from a plant, a member of the agave family. It is dried, boiled and shaped by the expert hands of the women here. The tea leaves being picked were gathered in the morning while I was there and just a few hours later were collected by a SOFA truck at a collection point in the village.
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