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Sri Lanka hopes its tea exports may play a role in its economic recovery

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Sri Lanka has been drawing global attention for sky-high inflation, fuel shortages and civil unrest. But historically, Sri Lanka has been famous for its tea, ever since the British first planted it there two centuries ago. Now officials in Sri Lanka hope its famous export may play a role in its economic recovery. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the tea fields of central Sri Lanka.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Kala Subramaniam shuffles through rows of tea bushes, plucking off the freshest green leaves. She's a dainty woman with giant, gnarled hands. This work is tough, especially during monsoon rains.

KALA SUBRAMANIAM: (Speaking Tamil).

FRAYER: As you're plucking the tea, you're also plucking leeches off your legs.

SUBRAMANIAM: (Speaking Tamil).

FRAYER: Sri Lanka's famous Ceylon tea is one of this island's biggest exports. But tea plantation workers are some of its poorest - passed over by recent decades of economic growth and hardest hit by the crisis now.

SUBRAMANIAM: (Speaking Tamil).

FRAYER: Subramaniam, a mother of two, says she's had her hours and wages cut in half this year, just as food prices nearly doubled.

Sri Lanka's economy has collapsed because of inflation and rising energy prices, but also mismanagement from politicians. The biggest blunder, tea workers say, was a ban last year on buying chemical fertilizers from overseas, where most of the country's fertilizer comes from. The government did it to save money, but the fertilizer ban devastated agriculture. Yields plummeted. Sri Lanka grew less food and less tea.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEA POURING)

ROSHAN RAJADURAI: We have lost 20% of the crop compared to last year.

FRAYER: Roshan Rajadurai heads Sri Lanka's tea planters' association, and he's frustrated. Rather than suffering like this, the tea industry has the capacity to revive the whole economy, he says.

RAJADURAI: We are the tea nation of the world. Sri Lankan tea fetches the highest price in all global auctions. More than 10% of our population is linked or dependent with the tea industry.

FRAYER: The Sri Lankan government has belatedly woken up to that, Rajadurai says. It's now reversed its fertilizer ban and come up with a novel idea - to pay down the country's foreign debt, at least in part, with shipments of tea rather than cash. This past winter, Sri Lanka used tea to barter with Iran for a quarter billion dollars' worth of much-needed oil. To keep doing that, though, Sri Lanka has to boost tea production.

I smell the tea in this room. What happens here?

SANGEETHA PUSHPARAJ: Here, this is the cleaning machine - the stalks, fibers, stems.

FRAYER: Sangeetha Pushparaj shows me around the tea processing plant where she works.

I mean, electricity, rolling blackouts - is it affecting you?

PUSHPARAJ: Yeah. When we get a power fail, we use the generators.

FRAYER: But that takes diesel - diesel fuel...

PUSHPARAJ: Yeah, yeah, diesel fuel.

FRAYER: ...Which you have to wait in line for.

PUSHPARAJ: Yeah.

FRAYER: Because of fuel rationing, Sri Lankans are waiting in line for hours, often days. As the government procures more fuel, it is allocating some directly to the tea estates. But hospitals and other essential services come first.

Back out at the tea fields, Subramaniam, the plantation worker, picks tea by day, and then waits in line by night for cooking gas.

SUBRAMANIAM: (Speaking Tamil).

FRAYER: She says she still drinks Ceylon tea every day, and she's proud to be part of this historic industry. The thing is, she can no longer afford milk powder, so she drinks her tea black now.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in the tea fields of Hatton, Sri Lanka.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINSHAPE'S "RUBBER GLOVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Susitha Fernando