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HILL COUNTRY AND TEA PLANTATIONS

Tea production is one of the main sources of national income as well as foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. The hill country of Sri Lanka is in the central and south central area of the island. Any traveller from the coastal areas who ventures into the hill country would face the stark contrast in the landscape as the hill country is virtually covered in thousands of acres of lush green tea. The higher the elevation the more dominant is the green backdrop of endless acres of tea confronting the visitor.

With the advent of British rule in 1815, most of the hill country was cleared of its tropical forest cover and planted with coffee. After about 50 years of successful commercial cultivation, coffee succumbed to a fungal disease which devastated the industry. By 1870 almost all the former coffee estates had been re-planted with tea.

It all began in 1824 with a tea plant brought from China and grown in the Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. In 1965 Sri Lanka was the largest exporter of tea in the world with a production of 250,000 metric tons. It is now the fourth largest exporter.

The phenomenal growth of the industry was a continuation of the trajectory building up from the days of British rule which laid the foundations for plantation management using expatriate personnel both for management and for labour, the former being British personnel and the latter consisting almost entirely of imported labour from South India.

There have been landmark changes to the overall pattern of tea production with the nationalisation of tea estates owned by British companies in 1971-72, followed by nationalisation of rupee companies engaged in tea production and by the restriction to the size of holdings of private individuals. These changes have not affected production, although the total area under cultivation has seen some decline. During the global financial crisis of 2009 there was a notable decline in production which had reached a record of 318 million kilograms in 2008.

A tea estate usually covers an area of about 300 to 400 acres, with larger groups or clusters of estates covering up to 3000 to 4000 acres in some instances. A Manager or Superintendent is in charge of production assisted by Assistant Superintendents and a labour force all resident on the estate. A factory managed by a Tea Maker is in charge of the manufacturing process which converts the plucked green leaf to a dried, withered and finely chopped tea that reaches the consumer. Between the estate and the lips of the consumer, however, is a chain of events which facilitate the management of the industry.

The manufactured tea is purchased by tea blending companies which purchase bulk tea at auctions held regularly in Colombo. Bulk teas are either packeted and exported or sold as bulk tea to overseas organisations who subject the tea to further blending or packet it to sizes and flavours dictated by consumer demand.

A feature of tea estate design is the colonial plantation architecture that evolved over a period of around 150 years of British plantation management. The bungalows of estate managers and other staff often located in picturesque settings within the estate and constitute a genre of design and architecture which responded wholesomely both to the terrain as well as to climatic conditions. Today, some of them constitute a unique segment of the tourism industry of Sri Lanka.

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