Since privatization, the Regional Plantation Company’s (RPC) agenda has revolved around the promotion of eco-system integrity, supplemented through high-conservation measures, and complemented by multi-faceted initiatives aimed at improving stakeholder involvement, through direct methods such as awareness campaigns and forest rehabilitation.
Among Sri Lanka’s 20 privately managed RPCs there exist numerous examples of successful conservation programmes aimed at safeguarding unique environmental habitats.In a pioneering venture, Kelani Valley Plantations launched an extensive biodiversity conservation project that directly led to the establishment of a 634.4 acre forest reserve.
Situated 4,000 feet above sea-level, the 4-year programme at its Wewelthalawa Forest Reserve has brought ‘Gordoniaspeciosa’ also known locally as ‘Rathmihriya’ – back from the brink of extinction through the planting of 3,000
The Company has also made similar efforts to protect and enhance groundwater and streams through the implementation of a comprehensive Watershed Management Plan, an initiative with IUCN, which has also provided immense benefitsto over hundred flora and fauna found on the company’s
Other examples of RPCs invaluable contributions towards protection of the environment can be seen through the visionary efforts of Dilmah and Kahawatte Plantations. Working in partnership with the Zoology Department of the University of Colombo, the companies established Sri Lanka’s first ever, private sector-led Climate Change Research Station situated within the Queensberry Estate.
The estate’s name itself has since been given to the rare species of lichen – Heterodermiaqueensberryi – which was first discovered in 2014. An essential, but mostly unnoticed part of nature, lichens are vital to the health of eco systems, and also serve as an important living indicator of air pollution, ozone depletion and metal contamination, all types of climate change which the station was established to measure. The station is expected to play an important national role in recording and researching climate change in Sri Lanka and its findings will have global importance moving forward.
Innovations in sustainability
Dilmah and Kahawatte’s commitment to environmental protection has also cultivated global recognition for its comprehensive experiments with Bio-char – a soil additive produced from biomass – that is widely believed to help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, while at the same time increasing the fertility of the soil and reducing the frequency of fertilizer application that ultimately leads to a significant reduction in the usage of synthetic fertilizer.
RPCs have also led the charge on numerous other innovative measures including integrated pest management systems such as those practiced on the Waltrim Estate of Watawala Plantations PLC. In 2013, it was discovered that tea crops on its Elgin Division were free of damage caused by the dangerous Tea Totrix caterpillar.
Following a comprehensive biodiversity survey, it was discovered that an insectivorous species of bat ‘Hipposiderosgaleritus” was the unseen ally feasting on the caterpillars that had been decimating tea crops in several estates.
Since this fortuitous discovery the plantations’ managers issued strict directives to take all possible measures to protect the newly discovered colony of bats, including a ban of all chemical spraying in the area and similar directives to employees to refrain from disturbing their environment. These efforts have been further supplemented by species of wasps that also feed on the caterpillars, all of which has enabled a sharp decline in reliance on insecticides.
Awareness creation activities among workers, the estate community and visitors to the region, educating them on the importance of conservation through reminders displayed prominently on sign boards across all estates have proved to be effective. Information centers have been created in many estates while further efforts have been taken to increase forest cover through the creation of mini forest patches to harbor wildlife in divisions that had previously been sparse. This has provided a welcome refuge to several endemic species of birds, several of which have also proved useful in controlling pests like the Tea Tortrix.
Rainforest alliance certifications
Another important contribution is the Rainforest Alliance certification process. Through a stringent process of auditing complemented with extensive environmental safeguards, a total of 13 of the 20 RPCs operating in Sri Lanka have secured the Green Frog seal of compliance issued by the Rainforest Alliance to members of its Sustainable Agriculture Network across the globe, which encompasses all three pillars of sustainability—social, economic, and environmental.
Substantial resources have been channeled towards the preservation and improvement of soil quality over time, through the propagation of ground cover vegetation and planting of natural barriers to reduce soil erosion and runoff sediments to rivers, streams and lakes, while fire is never used to prepare plots for cultivation.
Similar efforts have also been channeled towards forest conservation and rehabilitation, with the majority of RPCs certified with the Forest Stewardship Council. This requires members to develop national forest stewardship standards adapted and localized to meet the unique requirements of each natural habitat, while managing supply chains in a responsible manner and in compliance with strictly monitored, global environmental, social and economic standards.
Almost two centuries of change
From the time that Sri Lanka’s first plantations were established nearly 200 years ago drastic changes have permeated every level of the industry; spanning complete transformations in employee welfare to a concerted effort to promote values of sustainability across the total plantation production process.
Particularly when contrasted with the consideration afforded to the country’s broader eco-system during the colonial era, and the subsequent period of nationalization, the stringent environmental protection standards implemented under the management of the Regional Plantation Companies following privatization in 1992, has produced numerous positive outcomes that have protected and rejuvenated Sri Lanka’s unique environmental habitat.
The evolution towards New Generation Plantations
Gradually, the RPCs aim is to continue to augment their business models with multi-faceted sustainable initiatives including a push towards the adoption of renewable energy,and optimization of resource usage through the installation of more energy efficient equipment and water conservation through the implementation of practices like rainwater harvesting.
Ultimately it is clear that the long-term success of Sri Lanka’s plantation industry will hinge on its ability to transform itself into new generation plantations that go beyond mitigating the impacts of commercial-scale cultivation, to make significant and meaningful contributions to the overall resilience of Sri Lanka’s truly unique ecosystems.