Wearing a red crash helmet to beat the sun, Punya Sena crouches on the ground, planting young cinnamon saplings to replace thousands that were destroyed by the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka’s coastal belt in December 2004.
For centuries, nearly half of Sri Lanka's cinnamon trees grew along the southern coastal line, which was also a magnet to attract European colonists and Arab traders to this southern seaport town of Galle.
Tropical Sri Lanka – popularly known for its black tea and Tamil Tiger rebels – still commands around 90 percent of what traders consider genuine cinnamon.
Botanically known as Cinnamomum zeylanicum – derived from the Indian Ocean Island's former name, Ceylon – cinnamon is used to spice up dishes, add flavour to tea, soft drinks, make perfumes and even pharmaceutical products.
Though the angry sea water was around 250 meters away, nearby streams swelled following the tsunami, as water gushed inland destroying and uprooting century's old lush cinnamon plantations here.
"There were only two cinnamon trees left after December 2004 tsunami," third-generation planter K P Mahinda says, showing his empty four-acre plantation, which is about 200 meters away from the shoreline and stone's throw from the famous train tragedy where hundreds perished during the tsunami.
Mahinda, 50, borrowed 40,000 rupees from a local bank and picked up 91,000 rupees in two grant installments from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cresent Societies to re-plant the cinnamon plantation, inherited from his father-in-law.
The IFRC, together with the Export Agriculture Department is spearheading a 31 million rupee programme to restore cinnamon cultivation, offering free saplings, tips for cultivation and marketing for tsunami-hit cinnamon trade along this coastline.
"Most farmers and cinnamon peelers have never grown cinnamon trees in their lives, simply continued to harvest on trees that grew here for centuries," explains Nishantha Mapalagama, Farm Service Assistant at the Export Agriculture Dept.
Cinnamon trees, which can grow as high as 30 feet, or 9 meters, are ready for harvest after three years.
The bark is scrubbed, loosened, peeled off and rolled into quills, with the slimmest quills going for the highest prices.
The trees can yield bark for 60 years.
The tsunami affected peelers and planters alike.
Punya Sena, 51, a peeler by profession, is now helping to re-plant 14,400 trees in Mahinda's plantation. "Cinnamon peeling is the only job I know, but now there’s little work, so I’m working here."
Few hundred yards away, 60-year old Wimalawathi Mendis, a former textile worker, lost her 2 ½ acre cinnamon plot, as it was bordering a branch of a nearby river.
"About 6 ½ feet of water gushed in, because the river was swollen and destroyed all the trees planted by my grandfather," says Mendis, who's plot of land is about 200 meters away from the seashore.
The IFRC has given Mendis 3,600 plants and 9,000 rupees in two-installments to help her out, with future cash grants – linked to the progress in cultivation – until the trees reach maturity and ready for its maiden harvest.
"The money is not enough," says farmer Mahinda, explaining why he had to borrow further from the village bank.
"The strong sun dries up the soil and I have to buy coir fibre pith to keep the soil moist as well as red earth to reduce the salinity in the earth after the tsunami water came here."
Mendis, however, is luckier. The extra salt dose has helped her little family of trees grow faster than the other 250 families in the programme.
"The fertility in lands bordering the river has gone up, helping cinnamon trees to grow faster," explains Mapalagama.
The tsunami not only destroyed over 5-acres of cinnamon plantation belonging to farmer D P Siripala, 60, but he also lost his two young daughters and mother-in-law in the tragedy.
This second generation cinnamon farmer, now earns a living off his one-acre coconut estate, which is thriving with the extra dose of salt following the tsunami.
"Coconut cultivation is doing well now, I have to live off that till my cinnamon trees are ready for harvest in three years," Siripala said.
The IFRC programme, which is partly funded by the Spanish Red Cross, also includes training of cinnamon peelers, who are in short supply, explains Rukshan Ratnam, Information Manager IFRC.
Mapalagama estimates Sri Lanka needs to increase cinnamon peelers by at least 50 percent or by another 30,000.
Cinnamon peeling takes decades to master, as the quality of the end product depends on each person's skill.
Daily wages hover around 1,500 rupees or 15 dollars – nearly three times what Punya Sena is currently earning doing casual work.
Besides rising labour costs, cinnamon growers are fighting a look-a-like – cassia – which has successfully taken its place on the world's stage with prices five times cheaper than the real McCoy.
Prices of Sri Lankan cinnamon quills – a thin cigar like stick made from tightly layered scrapings of a bark – now sells at around 6.00 dollars a kilo, while cassia trades at 1.80 dollars a kilo, according to the Sri Lanka Spice Council.
Sri Lanka shipped 12.2 million kilos of cinnamon in 2005 earning 16.38 million dollars.
Mexicans, who drink cinnamon tea, are the biggest buyers, accounting for about 55 percent of Sri Lanka's cinnamon exports, according to the Spice Council.