Cinnamon trees sprout again in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka village
Eighteen months after the tsunami uprooted centuries-old cinnamon plantations in a country where the golden cash crop is a vital source of income, the trees are sprouting "like magic".
Part-time cinnamon planter Wimalawathi Mendis thought her modest plot was doomed when much of her village, Malawenna, just outside Hikkaduwa, was submerged in sea water forced in by the December 2004 Asian tsunami.
The Boxing Day sea surge left some 31,000 people dead and a million homeless across Sri Lanka, but the survivors here are finding that contrary to their initial fears the soil is richer and cinnamon is growing rapidly.
"You just stick anything in the soil and it grows like magic," says Mendis, 60. "We never thought we would be able to plant again, but the soil has become really good."
With regular monsoon rains, the salinity of the soil has decreased but salt levels are still higher than they were before the tsunami, says Nishantha Mapalagama, a government agricultural expert helping cinnamon growers.
"We have tested the soil and it's suitable for cultivation," Mapalagama says. "Sometimes the problem is that weeds are also growing faster than usual in the tsunami-affected areas around here."
Coaxing the cinnamon plots back into production is important for Sri Lanka, which controls the lucrative spice market with a whopping 80 percent share of the world market for cinnamon quills.
Sri Lanka exported about 12,000 tonnes of cinnamon last year, earning 58 million dollars, up from 47 million dollars earned in 2004, according to the spice council here.
Council President Sarada de Silva said production marginally increased in 2005 despite the tsunami which affected a small strectch of cinnamon plantations along the coastline.
The area affected was too small to make any significant impact, de Silva said adding that world market prices shot up by about 25 percent last year for "Ceylon" cinnamon.
The quills, which look like cigars, are rolled from the bark of the cinnamon tree, which takes up to two and a half years to get to point it can be harvested.
Mapalagama is supervising some 270 cinnamon farmer families in this region who with the assistance of the Red Cross are reviving their plantations after the tsunami catastrophe.
The 31-million rupee (310,000 dollar) project funded by the Spanish Red Cross and the Sri Lankan government got underway late last year and re-planting began in January.
K. P. Mahinda is a fourth-generation cinnamon farmer who until the tsunami had never planted a cinnamon tree -- his harvest came from trees that had been planted centuries ago by his ancestors.
"Planting cinnamon is something new to me," says Mahinda as his out-of-work cinnamon peelers prepared the soil for the planting of 14,400 trees that will be ready for harvesting in 2008.
"Only two cinnamon trees in my plantation were spared by the tsunami," Mendis says pointing to two lush trees along the boundary fence of his modest plantation.
The Spanish Red Cross is helping farmers here through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
"We are working with local farmer organisations and give them plants free of charge and arrange technical advice," says Rukshan Ratnam, spokesman for the IFRC.
The farmers are being helped with small cash injections until they can harvest the cinnamon, he says, adding that plans are also under way to train local youngsters in the art of cinnamon peeling.
For centuries, the spice, which is native to Sri Lanka, has been a magnet for foreign powers, with Dutch invaders starting commercial crops in the 17th century.
Before that, Sri Lanka's Sinhalese kings were known to have used cinnamon, whose Latin botanical name cinnamomum zeylanicum is derived from the island's former name, Ceylon, to pay mercenaries for protection.
About 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of land in Sri Lanka is under cinnamon cultivation. Some 30,000 people are employed in chopping off cinnamon branches and turning out quills.
Traditional cinnamon grower, D. P. Siripala, 60, and his 20-year-old daughter Uthpala Sarathchandra have replanted their devastated fields and have built a new store house in anticipation of good crops in the future.
"The soil has improved after the tsunami," said Siripala. "The coconut trees were not affected by the tsunami and they are now giving a better crop."
Sarathchandra lost two sisters, aged 10 and 27, and her grandmother in the tsunami.
Others in the village too suffered personal tragedies. But survivors, far from moving out of the area, are instead putting down new roots.
Tsunami puts Sri Lanka’s cinnamon industry on a different plane
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.