/ 9 June 2006

Tsunami-hit Sri Lankan villagers put down new roots

Eighteen months after the tsunami uprooted centuries-old cinnamon plantations in a country where the golden-cash crop is a vital source of income, the trees are sprouting “like magic”.

Part-time cinnamon planter Wimalawathi Mendis thought her modest plot was doomed when much of her village, Malawenna, just outside Hikkaduwa, was submerged in sea water forced in by the December 2004 Asian tsunami.

The Boxing Day sea surge left about 31 000 people dead and a million homeless across Sri Lanka, but the survivors here are finding that contrary to their initial fears, the soil is richer and cinnamon is growing rapidly.

“You just stick anything in the soil and it grows like magic,” says Mendis (60). “We never thought we would be able to plant again, but the soil has become really good.”

With regular monsoon rains, the salinity of the soil has decreased but salt levels are still higher than they were before the tsunami, says Nishantha Mapalagama, a government agricultural expert helping cinnamon growers.

“We have tested the soil and it’s suitable for cultivation,” Mapalagama says. “Sometimes the problem is that weeds are also growing faster than usual in the tsunami-affected areas around here.”

Coaxing the cinnamon plots back into production is important for Sri Lanka, which controls the lucrative spice market with a whopping 80% share of the world market for cinnamon quills.

Sri Lanka exported about 12 000 tons of cinnamon last year, earning $58-million, up from $47-million earned in 2004, according to the spice council here.

Council President Sarada de Silva said production marginally increased in 2005 despite the tsunami, which affected a small stretch of cinnamon plantations along the coastline.

The area affected was too small to make any significant impact, de Silva said, adding that world market prices shot up by about 25% last year for “Ceylon” cinnamon.

The quills, which look like cigars, are rolled from the bark of the cinnamon tree, which takes up to two-and-a-half years to get to point it can be harvested.

Mapalagama is supervising about 270 cinnamon-farmer families in this region who, with the assistance of the Red Cross, are reviving their plantations after the tsunami catastrophe.

The 31-million rupee ($310 000) project funded by the Spanish Red Cross and the Sri Lankan government got underway late last year and re-planting began in January.

KP Mahinda is a fourth-generation cinnamon farmer who, until the tsunami, had never planted a cinnamon tree — his harvest came from trees that had been planted centuries ago by his ancestors.

“Planting cinnamon is something new to me,” says Mahinda as his out-of-work cinnamon peelers prepared the soil for the planting of 14 400 trees that will be ready for harvesting in 2008.

“Only two cinnamon trees in my plantation were spared by the tsunami,” Mendis says, pointing to two lush trees along the boundary fence of his modest plantation.

The Spanish Red Cross is helping farmers here through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

“We are working with local farmer organisations and give them plants free of charge and arrange technical advice,” says Rukshan Ratnam, spokesperson for the IFRC.

The farmers are being helped with small cash injections until they can harvest the cinnamon, he says, adding that plans are also underway to train local youngsters in the art of cinnamon peeling.

For centuries, the spice, which is native to Sri Lanka, has been a magnet for foreign powers, with Dutch invaders starting commercial crops in the 17th century.

Before that, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese kings were known to have used cinnamon, whose Latin botanical name cinnamomum zeylanicum is derived from the island’s former name, Ceylon, to pay mercenaries for protection.

About 30 000ha of land in Sri Lanka is under cinnamon cultivation. About 30 000 people are employed in chopping off cinnamon branches and turning out quills.

Traditional cinnamon grower DP Siripala (60) and his 20-year-old daughter, Uthpala Sarathchandra, have replanted their devastated fields and have built a new storehouse in anticipation of good crops in the future.

“The soil has improved after the tsunami,” said Siripala. “The coconut trees were not affected by the tsunami and they are now giving a better crop.”

Sarathchandra lost two sisters, aged 10 and 27, and her grandmother in the tsunami.

Others in the village, too, suffered personal tragedies. But survivors, far from moving out of the area, are instead putting down new roots. — AFP