Colombo Telegraph

Tea & Russia-Sri Lanka Dispute

By Sarath Wijesinghe

Sarath Wijesinghe

Tea Is Our Pride

Tea is our pride, for which we can be proud of for the reason that it is the best tea on the Globe. It is the duty of every Sri Lankan – especially the Diplomatic Missions worldwide to defend and promote our silver inherited as much as the beauty of Sri Lanka which is no match to other. Sri Lanka Tea is unique due to unique flavour, colour and character which cannot be readily found elsewhere. The humidity, cool temperature, sunshine, and rainfall (two monsoons) in the country’s central and southern highlands are conducive to the manufacture of unique quality teas. Tea plantations are scenic and pristine. Tea is grown handpicked and processed in an artisanal process, unchanged over a century. Where else in the world one could find this combination in One Island?. Tea has been one of  our main exports and a main  source of income for decades as a leader in tea trade.

Most Consumed Drink Next To Water

Tea is the most consumed drink of the mankind next to water. It is very healthy harmless and a natural drink which is consumed as a social drink which bonds families countries including Sri Lanka (Once Ceylon) which has now losing  the position as the main exporter to the world. Tea grown area is limited due to shortage of land, and the cost of production has become unbearable mainly due to the shortage and high wages of labour and maintained. Estate owners do not invest on replanting and new plantations due to excessive expenditure and the length of period for a return, though once the tea is properly grown the benefit will extend to few decades. But in an era citizens are looking for quick and large margins on profits, traditional investors on cultivation are rare. This is a sad and a disturbing situation. It is time the local investors and tea estate owners are encouraged for re plantation and/or use tea estates for Tea Tourism for which the environment is ideal due to landscape and beauty in addition to the availability. Tourists, especially those from Middle East are full of praise and love for Tea Estates for beauty, calm environment and greenery coupled with sceneries. It is time the tourist Board and the Tea Board engage in an exploratory expedition on this area to benefit the tourist industry as well as tea industry and both industries in return will be boosted with unexpected publicity for both areas. If no remedial steps are taken by the Governance and Tea Board the tea industry and our pride is bound to collapse! Our competitors are aggressively promote tea and tea industry with new plantations with the use of new technology when Sri Lanka is lagging behind miles away.

Unhealthy Fast Food And Beverages

It is a sorry affair that people have got used to unhealthy fast food and beverages with strong chemicals and poisonous materials. However the concerns are raised and advice given to discourage unhealthy breweries and encourage healthy and natural drinks, the billions spend on advertisements and attractions have overtaken the campaigners for natural drinks which are healthy, cheap and readily available. Sadly in Sri Lanka coffee with lot of sugar is available in parties and officers increasing diabetic population when tea is freely available in every corner. A young coconut is only 30 rupees whereas artificial beverage with lot of sugar and chemicals will cost over 50 rupees, which passes billion of rupees to multinational companies. Ironically average youngster and even an adult will go for the unhealthy artificial beverage in place of a natural young coconut or a healthy cup of tea. India is far above us. They have banned artificial beverages and multinational companies from the Indian soil. It is sad but true that the standard of tea and tea industry is fast fading away and it is difficult to find good and quality tea in the nation of tea. It is a pity Sri Lankans do not take the best use of tea grown here.

Russia-Sri Lanka Dispute

Sri Lankan tea is marketed and popular in Russia. The most important foreign markets for Sri Lankan tea are the former Soviet bloc countries of the CIS, The United Arab Emirates, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Libya, and Japan. The political situation in some countries has a direct effect on Ceylon Tea and it is time for us to look for alternatives until the situation in the Middle East settles. Arab world and West considers Tea as a healthy smooth traditional social drink. The consumption patterns has changed due to fast life by adopting quicker methods such as tea bags instead of traditional pot of tea, or naturally made tea traditionally for quiet and smooth enjoyment. Still tea is synonymous with Ceylon with the brand and the trade mark for pure original and quality tea. Awareness and demand for Ceylon Tea among consumers in the Gulf Market is high. Loose tea consumption has dominated over consumption of tea bags. Consumers are gradually weaned away from loose quality tea due to aggressive media campaigns and fast life of consumers. Multinational brands increase their market share through heavy media/promotional spend and sophisticated packaging, despite using infer ere “multi origin teas” The brand becomes more significant than the origin. This trend is seen in former Ceylon strongholds such as Russia and former Soviet Republics. Russia has imported about 30 million kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka for the last 10 months of 2017 being2915million worth $23 million kilograms which is 12% of total exports from Sri Lanka, which is suddenly banned from 18th December 2017 for the presence of a beetle named “Troderma Granarium” which is a biggest blow on Sri Lankan economy in the country of a crisis situation. President Sirisena promptly sent a letter to President Putin requesting the ban and made public announcements of the request which one wonders whether it is premature without studying the ground situation and proper inquiry as communication and request between heads of two states should be carefully and diplomatically manure as the presence of one Beatle is so insignificant though the impact on our economy is a major blow. It is necessary to find out whether there are any other reasons behind including the asbestoses ban from Russia and the straining of international relations with the socialist block supporting Sri Lanka traditionally and throughout due to over affiliations with the west tracing back strained relations with USSR/Russia during Untied National party regimes from 1948.

Way Forward

The statement by the controversial former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga, on the issue on tea trade and the alleged previous warnings by him on the crisis is of great importance and significance as he himself is alleged to be involved in tea trade successfully while maintaining good relations with traders during the previous regime. Our concern is our nation and economy and it is our duty and wishes are to prey and work towards a resolution of the issue as early as possible without aggravating it any longer. Obviously in this instance it is premature for the head of the state to make public statements without proper understanding and study the ground situation in diplomatic and international spheres of the areas of international relations and highest standards of statesmanship carefully taking minor incidents to the international arena. Let this be an eye opener to revisit our strategies in international relations and business dealings on tea and agriculture as the ban effects the entire agriculture exports to Russia being one of our main exporters. Kenya is our main competitor fast emerging to take our place as the world leader when we have no policy or a strategy to improve our tea industry with long and short policies on replanting, developments of tea factories, control unscrupulous packing in Sri Lanka and overseas including Dubai and UK which are claiming to be tea hubs using our tea as a base product, prevent adulterating our tea giving access to the tea traders poisoning and destroying our image and tea industry. We wish the representation by the Ministers visiting Russia will be a success, but the fact remains that it is temporary and long term strategy and concerted efforts are required long and short term to maintain the good will based on quality and image building in the country the Tea Board has not taken any steps for promotion and publicity for the last decade. Let us wait for the statesmanship, and goodwill of the ministers visiting Russia in the midst of Christmas when all government and business outlets are closed.

*Sarath Wijesinghe- former Chairman Consumer Affairs Authority and former Ambassador to U A E and Israel

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