Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sri Lanka's cinnamon farmers seek divine help to spice up trade

SEENIGAMA, Sri Lanka (AFP) — Sri Lanka at the weekend revived an ancient ritual of offering the first cinnamon harvest to the gods, three years after a devastating tsunami wiped out centuries-old plantations here.

In a pageant involving traditional dancers and elephants, farmers resplendent in white walked three kilometres (two miles) in bright sunshine, carrying 90 kilos (41 pounds) of their precious virgin harvest to a shrine.

Sri Lanka is the world's leading cinnamon supplier but waves of sea water gushed inland and destroyed lush plantations when the 2004 Boxing Day tragedy left 31,000 people dead and a million homeless across the country.

Saturday's ritual to bless the industry saw some producers carry their cinnamon in wicker baskets, while others took unprocessed bark, leaves and oil, leaving a trail of the strong aroma.

They moved with piety at the southern temple town of Seenigama, which suffered one of the highest death tolls from the tsunami as well as seeing most of its crop wiped out.

"I brought along two bottles of cinnamon oil as part of my offering," Kingsly Mendis, 39, told AFP as he walked with more than 1,500 growers and workers to the Seenigama Temple, 96 kilometres south of Colombo.

For centuries, nearly half of Sri Lanka's cinnamon trees grew along the southern coastal line, which was also a magnet for European colonists and Arab traders to the southern seaport town of Galle, a former capital of the island.

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.

With replanting already under way, farmers in Balapitiya, Hikkaduwa and Ambalangoda, all towns in the Galle district, are hoping for a better crop to lift prices, to keep the centuries-old industry afloat.

K. P. Mahinda, a 51-year-old farmer who lost all but two cinnamon trees to the tsunami in his modest plot, offered a sapling from his nursery.

Survivors of the tsunami are finding that contrary to their initial fears, the soil is richer and cinnamon is growing rapidly.

The salinity of the soil is hit by regular monsoon rains but salt levels are still higher than they were before the 2004 tragedy, according to agricultural experts.

"The soil is so rich that the small cinnamon plants are growing fast," said D. Kusumawathi, 54, a third-generation farmer, who is among hundreds of small-time growers.

Sri Lanka, which controls nearly 90 percent of the world's cinnamon market, exported around 12,000 tonnes last year, earning in excess of 60 million dollars, according to the spice council here.

Cinnamon trees, which can grow as high as 30 feet (nine metres), are ready for harvest after three years. The quills, which look like Havana cigars, are rolled from the bark of the cinnamon tree.

The slimmest quills fetch high prices, and this year the going rate was around 890 rupees (8.10 dollars) a kilo, producers said.

"Prices were extremely good this year in the overseas market," Mendis said.

About 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of land in Sri Lanka is under cinnamon cultivation. Some 30,000 people are employed in chopping off cinnamon branches and turning out quills.