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Country profile - Sri Lanka

sri lanka

For connoisseurs of tea, those from the former Ceylon are judged some of the world's finest. And as well as quality, Sri Lanka is one of the world's largest exporters of tea, producing some 20% of global exports. The cool highlands of this beautiful tropical island lend themselves perfectly to tea plantations, but it was a historical accident that brought the crop to Sri Lanka. Before the 1860s tea was unknown on the island, and it was only when a rust fungus devastated the British-planted coffee plantations that the plantation owners turned to tea. Today more than 220,000 hectares are planted to two species - Thea sinensis which originated from China and Thea assamica from northern India - and more than one million people are employed in the tea sector, making it the country's largest employer.

Civil war

Just 50 kilometres off the southeast coast of India, Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island 350 kilometres long and 180 kilometres wide. As well as the central mountains where tea thrives, there is ample farmland on the coast and the plains. But sadly, civil war has disrupted life and agriculture here for many years, particularly during the last two decades. After independence in 1948, ethnic and religious conflict between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese escalated, resulting in full-scale civil war in the 1980s with the Tamils' demand for a separate Tamil State. Tens of thousands of people have since died, and many others have been forced from their land.

As a result of the war, foreign investment and tourism have been seriously affected. Plantation agriculture has however been relatively resilient, and tea production has increased steadily in the last 10 years. But small-scale farmers have suffered, and production of many crops has fallen. There is now an uneasy peace in the country since a ceasefire was signed at the beginning of 2002, though peace talks are currently stalled. The government is hoping that the calm will continue and, under a programme named 'Regaining Sri Lanka', the damage can begin to be repaired.

Besides tea, rubber and coconuts are also grown for export, as well as for the domestic market. Together, these three plantation crops occupy about 1 million hectares - more than half of Sri Lanka's cultivated land. Sri Lanka's fourth main crop, grown solely for domestic use, is rice. Other significant crops include onions, chilies, sugar, soybeans and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, cloves and nutmeg).

A record rice harvest

Smallholder rice production has proved vulnerable to the war, but also to the weather. A record rice harvest of 1.93 million tons in 2002-3, up 15% on the previous year, was claimed by the government to be a direct result of the ceasefire. Indeed, this has allowed access to a large area of paddy fields in the north and east that was previously out of reach because of terrorist activity, but generous rains also contributed to the bumper harvest.

Like many parts of the world, Sri Lanka has seen erratic weather in recent years: drought in 2001-2 was followed by flooding in 2003, with a return to drought in 2004. Water management has always been a challenge on the island, particularly in the 'dry zone' to the central north and east where the mountains effectively block the rain clouds from the southwest. But schemes such as the Mahaweli Ganga Project, which draws on the island's largest river for irrigation and hydroelectric power, have also increased ethnic tension. The northern dry zone region is considered by the Tamils to be their traditional homeland, while the Sinhalese - encouraged by the government and its irrigation schemes to relocate to the region - feel they too have a claim to the land. Meanwhile, farmers across the island remain vulnerable to unpredictable rains; an estimated 3 million have been severely affected by the current drought.

Tea pickers in Sri Lanka
Tea pickers in Sri Lanka

Orthodox or CTC?

Many challenges lie ahead for Sri Lanka's agriculture. For tea producers, a dilemma lies in the growing consumer trend for tea bags. Sri Lanka's fine 'orthodox' teas are not suitable for tea bags and, as the trend spreads around the world, producers need to decide whether to redirect their product towards this market by switching to lower quality 'cut, tear and curl' (CTC) teas. Despite cash subsidies to promote CTC tea production it seems, however, that many tea growers are choosing the quality option, and ensuring that Sri Lanka remains the home of some of the world's finest teas.

A more serious dilemma faces the government. After many years of violence, the ethnic conflict is far from resolved, and both sides are becoming weary. If peace holds, international aid totalling US$4.5 billion is pledged to help rebuild the country. A lasting solution has eluded each government since independence - finding this solution is Sri Lanka's greatest challenge.

Statistical information
  • Country: Sri Lanka
  • Capital: Colombo (Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte is the legislative capital)
  • Area: 65,610 sq km
  • Population: 19,905,165
  • Languages: Sinhala (official and national language) 74%, Tamil (national language) 18%, other 8%
  • Life expectancy: 75 for women, 70 for men
  • GDP: purchasing power parity - $73.7 billion (2003 est.)
  • GDP per capita: purchasing power parity - $3,700 (2003 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 19.9%, industry 26.3%, services: 53.8% (2003)
  • Major industries: rubber processing, tea, coconuts, and other agricultural commodities; clothing, cement, petroleum refining, textiles, tobacco
  • Natural resources: limestone, graphite, mineral sands, gems, phosphates, clay, hydropower
  • Agricultural products: rice, sugarcane, grains, pulses, oilseed, spices, tea, rubber, coconuts; milk, eggs, hides, beef
  • Export commodities: textiles and apparel, tea, diamonds, coconut products, petroleum products
  • Major export partners: US 33.4%, UK 11.6%, Germany 4.4%, Belgium 4.1%, India 4.1% (2003 est.)
  • Land use: arable land 13.86%, permanent crops 15.7%, other 70.44% (2001)

Date published: November 2004


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