Sri Lanka: The talk is all tea

The tea industry is the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy, and many are worried about the slump in sales. It has affected the workers on the vast tea estates, who earn meager wages.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

HATTON, SRI LANKA – To drive into the cool, tea-growing hills of Sri Lanka is to escape the grueling war against Tamil separatists that has come to define this Indian Ocean island.

The 26-year conflict is mostly a background buzz for the Tamils who labor in the British-built tea estates. In fact, their main struggle, when they’re not agitating for higher wages, has been for citizenship, a right denied to millions after independence in 1948. It took decades to resolve.

I went looking for the issues that divide minority Tamils from the majority Sinhalese. I certainly found them in Hatton, a market town surrounded by lush rolling hills: discrimination, inequality, a sense of second-class treatment by Sinhalese officials.

But most Tamils just wanted to talk tea. Was the world drinking less? Would trade pick up again? A slump in sales had been a setback for unionists pushing for a wage hike. It also spelled trouble for Sri Lanka’s economy, as tea is its No. 1 export.

Ponnan Rajendran is a second-generation worker on a vast, British-built tea estate. Mr. Rajendran is paid to guard the trees from poachers.

He’s been doing this for 37 years and living in the same modest house, but he points to steady improvements in his life and in prospects for his three children, one of whom works in a factory in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “We’ve sent them out, to make sure that their lives are better than ours,” he says, looking at his wife.

Rajendran himself earns $90 a month, more than field hands, but not enough to afford luxuries. Still, he was far from the fighting, and never far from a cup of tea.

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