Sri Lankan Tea Farmers Fight Climate Change

Sri Lanka, a country devastated by the 2004 tsunami, has taken significant steps in recent years to fight climate change with sustainable agriculture. In the face of formidable threats—deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution from toxic agrochemicals—the government and private sector have turned to the Rainforest Alliance to help safeguard the future of Ceylon tea, which accounts for 19 percent of the global tea supply. Getting the nation’s 450,000 smallholder tea farmers, who grow 73 percent of the nation’s export crop, to adopt sustainable farming methods is a high priority for the government, conservationists, and industry groups alike.

Training such a vast number of farmers in sustainable farming methods and persuading them to stop using agrochemicals they’ve depended on for decades would seem a formidable mission to even the most seasoned field expert. Yet tea-industry veteran Giri Kadurugamuwa, who heads the Rainforest Alliance’s ground operations in Sri Lanka, has already trained more than 30,000 tea farmers since 2012; he is quite unfazed by the additional 60,000 smallholder farmers slated for training in the near future.

“I want to get these smallholders to be responsible farmers who do good agricultural practices,” said Giri, whose own organization, the Alliance for Sustainable Land Management, is a valued Rainforest Alliance partner. “In our trainings, we tell farmers that by managing the weeds [with herbicide-free methods], you can greatly reduce pesticide use and increase productivity. They can stop forest encroachment and even expand the forest cover. That’s my goal, and when I see their faces, I am very happy.”

Giri’s approach to training is at once scientifically informed and socially strategic. He laid the foundations for our work in Sri Lanka by first training the managers of successful tea estates in the Adam’s Peak highlands. He converted several managers into true believers who now sing the praises of integrated weed management: improved soil health, drought resistance, higher yields, and cost savings achieved by phasing out chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Those same managers now co-host Giri’s trainings for the smallholder farmers who supply tea to the estates, taking special measures (serving tea with Sri Lankan sweets, for example) to convey to the farmers that they are valued partners.

A natural-born educator, Giri becomes especially animated in the presence of farmers. He commences every training with a brief lecture emphasizing the critical role farmers play in conserving forests and biodiversity. For smallholder trainings, he then presents a plethora of positive impact data supporting our sustainability methods—emphasizing the financial benefits of long-term soil health. And then he gets the farmers out into the tea fields for a hands-on, interactive demonstration to show them how to implement the methods.

"[Farmers] can stop forest encroachment and even expand the forest cover. That’s my goal, and when I see their faces, I am very happy.”

Giri Kadurugamuwa

“My weed-management cost has been cut down drastically, and I have noticed my soil becoming black in the entire estate,” said smallholder farmer Saman Udayakumara, who has applied climate-smart agriculture methods from Giri’s training for two years. “This land is very rocky, and there were times we stopped work due to prolonged droughts. Today it’s just the opposite, we were the only estate to continue plucking this year during the drought. We can see healthy tea bushes now, a better spread of branches, and more crop as a result. I have started educating the adjacent farms in the village. My earnest request is to spread this practice among all the smallholders.”

Giri Kadurugamuwa with a tea farmer in Sri Lanka

Giri Kadurugamuwa visiting a tea farmer in Sri Lanka

The urgent threat climate change poses to Sri Lanka’s people is certainly one of Giri’s central motivations. So too, however, is healing the destruction wrought by British colonials upon this once-lushly forested island. In 1984, he enlisted a small group of farmers to dig wide, shallow wells (about 26 ft./8 m in diameter) for each other in his home province of Uva, which has suffered a prolonged and severe water crisis since the British Empire ordered its soldiers to destroy all its reservoirs—as well as chop down every fruit-bearing tree and kill all men aged 18 and over—in retaliation for the Uva–Wellassa Uprising of 1817–1818. After successfully alleviating the farmers’ water problems with this method, an additional 1,800 wells were created with the support of a government subsidy scheme and international funding.

There is a simple axiom that guides Giri through his professional life and keeps him focused in the face of massive challenges. “We must leave a better world for the future generations to come,” Giri said. “That is the responsibility of every human being.”

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