• May 08, 2024 3 min read

    I just wrapped up a visit with Monkeytail Tea in Gammaduwa.  Sometimes these visits to tea producers can be life changing, and I think this time at Monkeytail will be.  Honestly, I think it will be a bit difficult to describe in "blog speak" what is so deeply touching about what they're doing, but I'll give it try.

    Monkeytail is a small operation, just 7 acres of land.  The land was originally part of the 4000 acre Gammaduwa Tea Plantation begun around (the specific timing on this a little unclear to me) 120 year ago.  This original plantation was run like most of the Ceylon tea plantations were (Ceylon is the colonial name for Sri Lanka): very much quantity over quality, everything as mechanized as possible, tea meant almost entirely for export, and using as much indentured Tamil labor as possible (or labor barely one step removed from indentured).  

    What I mean by Tamil labor, is people mostly from Tamil Nadu in southern India who were sent to Sri Lanka in the 19th century to work on tea plantations.  These people were indentured when they were sent here.  Over generations, many of the Tamil tea workers lives have not improved much for a variety of reasons, but they've been particularly impacted by the increasing issues that the Ceylon tea industry has faced (many of these tea industry issues seem to me to be of their own making). 

    One of the larger issues for the Ceylon tea industry, as I understand it, is that it's been determined that it's too expensive to grow and pick tea in many of these higher elevation, steep areas where the plantations were originally established.  A lot of these more challenging areas of the old estates are being sold off or abandoned.  So there is no work for people who came here to build the tea industry but were never taught how to make tea.  

    That's why those two Gammaduwa Village women in the photo are taking about 50 pounds of tea each to the bought leaf station to sell to tea factories who don't have their own gardens.  They make next to nothing for very, very difficult work.  There is no other opportunity for them.  

    The situation in Gammaduwa Village is that women often have no choice but to seek work as domestic servants in the Middle East, leaving their children with extended family and sending money back home so that everyone else has something to survive on.  Young men often have no other reasonable choice but to leave their families to find work as unskilled labor in Colombo, several hours away.    

    Monkeytail is a social enterprise by way of tea.  Dave and Sengli bought these 7 acres in 2016.  They provide good salaries to their staff, provide them with English lessons, train them in a number of different tea production and hospitality skills, enroll them in the government pension program, and offer them the opportunity to sell their handicrafts and handmade jams and spice mixes to guests at the Tea Bungalow. 

    There is much more social enterprise work that they do, but the larger goal of Monkeytail is to set up a separate foundation administered by the company and the local Tamil community leaders to look at community needs and work together to address them.  

    I'm afraid that's all I have time for for this installment of Postcards from Sri Lanka, but check back soon for the next installment.  We'll also post some new tea from Monkeytail Tea by this weekend.