/ 23 December 2007

Sri Lankans thank the gods for cinnamon

Dancing to traditional drums behind an elephant draped in purple, Sri Lankan cinnamon growers are offering part of their crop to pagan gods in thanks at a steady recovery from the 2004 tsunami.

When the giant tsunami waves battered the island’s coastline, razing beachside homes and businesses and killing thousands, the water pushed as much as 3km inland in some areas. The sea salt killed vegetation and ravaged the local cinnamon industry.

”The tsunami took everything away. My wife, my daughter … goats, cows and my cinnamon,” said wizened Anthony Silva, carrying two large bundles of finely rolled cinnamon bark as he made his way with hundreds of fellow growers and their relatives to a temple to make an offering to local Sinhalese god Devol.

”Things are better now, but I still think about the tsunami,” he said, raising a forearm to show a coarse tattoo of his wife and daughter’s names. He has not shaved since the tsunami swept them away and now wears a long white beard.

Saturday’s ceremony in the beach resort of Hikkaduwa marks another milestone in this community’s recovery from a disaster which battered two-thirds of the island’s shoreline, killing about 35 000 people in Sri Lanka and a total 230 000 around the rim of the Indian Ocean.

In the southern district of Galle, hundreds of acres planted with cinnamon trees were badly damaged. Most of the plants were killed.

Road to recovery

”Due to the tsunami, about 75% of the cinnamon growers’ land was damaged,” said Saman Ranasinghe, chairperson of the Galle District Cinnamon Growers’ Association. ”We had to put new soil and start growing from the very beginning.”

”The crop was greatly reduced after the tsunami. Our growers had to go and do odd jobs. But now our production is steadily returning to normal,” he added, as groups of young men and women wearing colourful costumes and headdresses passed by dancing energetically, some of the men somersaulting in the air.

Once a mainstay of the economy, spices like cinnamon have been overtaken by tea and textiles.

But Sri Lanka is still a leading global cinnamon exporter, exporting 12 500 tonnes in 2006 worth around 7,25-billion rupees ($67-million), much of it to Mexico and the United States, according to Department of Export Agriculture officials.

The Spanish Red Cross and the state agriculture department gave growers here new cinnamon plants and funds and helped regenerate the land.

But three years on from the worst natural disaster in memory, eerie reminders of the devastation lie everywhere.

Bare concrete foundations and crumbled ruins of homes still litter the side of Sri Lanka’s southern coastal road, nature reclaiming them as creepers and vegetation steadily encroach. Some residents have rebuilt right by the beach, prime targets for any repeat tsunami.

Tourists are back on the south coast, with arrivals boosted by cricket fans visiting to watch England play Sri Lanka. But the recovery is lagging in the conflict-ravaged east, and has come to a standstill in the far north as the state and Tamil Tiger rebels fight an ever-deepening quarter-century-long civil war.

”This warms our heart,” said Kingsley Prabad, who produces cinnamon oil from his half hectare smallholding, as he prayed at a shrine decked with rolled cinnamon. ”I am praying for a good harvest and a successful life.”

”I am also praying that we never see anything like the tsunami again.” – Reuters