Two hundred years of intense cultivation has taken a toll on the island.
The soil of Sri Lanka’s tea lands is becoming impoverished due to limited soil fertility programs and smaller amounts of organic matter making it more difficult for tea slopes to retain moisture — sometimes with tragic consequences.
In October 2013, after several days of monsoon rains, a landslide at the tea village of Haldummulla destroyed 150 houses, buried 100 workers, and orphaned 75 children.
The Rainforest Alliance is working to improve the country’s topsoil by encouraging practices such as mulching, training workers to leave prunings on the ground, and through the application of agrichemicals with greater care to restore garden health.
Recently, Finlays Tea Estates applied these healthy soil practices to several former government plantations in the east of Sri Lanka. “Some of the mountainside were completely bare, there was just rock left, because of intensive use of agrichemicals and fertilizers, scorching, or removing soil cover for the sake of neatness,” said Marc Monsarrat, senior manager, tea program, Rainforest Alliance.
Monsarrat said that it is fairly common to find high soil erosion, big variations in temperature, and little rainfall. By returning the soil to health and planting indigenous trees the micro climate improves. Sri Lanka is subject to climate change or increasingly strange climatic patterns, so one of the things the Rainforest Alliance is trying to integrate a natural resource management plans around better forestry practices, planting more trees, and encouraging more agroforestry practices within the tea landscape, he said.
By applying healthy soil practices, Finlay’s was able to restore tea producing areas from a rocky desert into a productive landscape, benefitting the local community by providing jobs and a healthy environment.
The Rainforest Alliance recently launched the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to address both land degradation and deforestation in tea landscapes. “Essentially it’s to try to tackle the causes of soil erosion, either due to lack of ground cover or too many herbicides, where the soil is bare and gets washed away during high rains,” said Monsarrat.
The Rainforest Alliance began their sustainability program in Sri Lanka in 2009 and has since issued 14 certifications for 92 estates. The Alliance intends to extend their reach from 10% to more than 50% of the tea growers during the next few years, with plans to include many smallholders.