It is believed in business circles that the plantation industry is no longer a dominant force in Sri Lanka’s economy. The current topic in plantation circles is ‘Work wages – Productivity and profitability’.
Let us look at another equally important topic linked to plantation sustainability or suitability of ‘growing rubber’.
Although the writer’s association with the plantation industry is over 40 years and thus know a little bit of the rubber industry, this article is primarily to explore the suitability of planting rubber (Havea Brasilliensis) in the Matale District once again and hope that this will be an eye opener for the authorities concerned to consider the same.
Sri Lanka State Plantations Co-operation (SPC) together with Elkaduwa Plantations (Ltd) manages 21 tea plantations in the Matale District, a total of approximately 13770 hectares. Most of the tea plantations are agriculturally in very poor condition and not viable to continue under tea and an enormous amount of money is spent by the government each year to upkeep these properties.
When I was the Chairman, Regional Scientific Committee, Tea Research Institute (TRI) Kandy Region in 1996 along with P.B. Ekanayaka and S.T. Yatawatte of TRI Substation Hanthana, submitted a report regarding ‘Rehabilitation of tea plantations in the mid country’ with a view to increase the productivity having regularized the land utility system thus converting these estates once again to economically viable units.
The Matale District is in a northerly situated area of tea growing districts lying north on the main mountain core of Sri Lanka. Elevations range from about 100 to over 1500 metres. The major tea growing area lies along the central ridge from Elkaduwa to North Rattota. In this area, the elevation is generally above 700 metres. A few estates lie just west and southwest of the Matale town. The planting sub districts of Matale are Kellebokka, Matale South, Matale East and Matale North.
Climate and soil
The climate in the district as a whole varies considerably. Soils are moderately well drained and have moderate water holding capacity. In general, the condition for tea is not satisfactory.
Cultivation of rubber is generally undertaken on well-drained laterite type of soils or non-lateritic red or alluvial soils. Matale receives an annual rain fall of about 2400 millimetres evenly distributed throughout the year. The ideal climatic conditions for the optimum growth of rubber trees such as rainfall, temperature, humidity and bright sunshine, are prevalent throughout the year.
Rubber planting is an ‘environment-friendly’ land use activity and has far less impact on the environment compared to crops such as tea and coffee and could be classified as ‘replaceable forestry’ and creates a favourable change in the rainfall and climate of a district prone to earth slips. In addition, it would have many economic benefits to the district and the people.
Proposed development activities
There are many among the investing public and leading businessmen, who yearn to invest in plantation agriculture if the opportunities are available to them.
A big player in manufacture of motor vehicle tyres for domestic and export markets has shown interest in undertaking cultivation of rubber in uneconomic tea lands in the Matale District, as a ‘national project’.
The company intends to set up its own state-of-the-art manufacturing facility to produce high-quality Sole crepe, Latex Crepe and Centrifuged Latex using the latest technology to market the products direct to local and overseas end users thus, obtaining higher prices and foreign exchange for the country.
This company proposes to request the government to release approximately 1000 hectares of unproductive tea lands suitable for planting rubber as a ‘pilot project’. The objectives of this project are:
Although it is proposed to undertake a development programme to plant rubber in Matale, with a view to increase the productivity having regularized the land utility system, thus converting the tea lands to economically viable units, the Plantation Industries Ministry, Rubber Research Institute, Mahaweli Development Authority and other relevant bodies should also play a key role in this endeavour.
Enhance land productivity by replacing unproductive tea lands with highly productive rubber.
Promote planting rubber in non-traditional areas and encourage indigenous population to plant rubber in village lands and home gardens, thereby create self-employment among village youth.
Increase the replanting extent annually by converting uneconomic tea lands into rubber.
Implement research and development programmes to improve the agricultural practices and provide technical support to those who will plant rubber.
Protection and conservation of the environment and improve the water reserves in the area which will eventually benefit the people and the Mahaweli reservoirs for downstream development.
Even at this belated stage, due consideration should be given for the process of development of possible tea lands along with rubber with particular emphasis to the Matale District as it has received step motherly treatment throughout. The writer’s personal view is that the proposed development process in Matale will definitely have an impact on the residents of estates, the adjoining villages and finally the country as a whole.
According to government statistics, the rubber production, which had been booming till the year 2011 when it hit 158,000 tonnes, continued to fall each year and the production has come down drastically to 98,000 tonnes in 2014. Most probably a further reduction is to be expected in 2015. Survival of these estates will only depend on a satisfactory implementation of a proper development programme. Towards this vital task, minds of all concerned should be addressed with ‘national development’ in mind.
Let us not deviate from this opportunity. This is the time for the government to enforce and encourage the entrepreneurs and the growers to take up the challenge. Unfortunately, many of our industrialists and policymakers do not appear to give the priority it deserves and always look for the ‘easy way out’. So, let us hope and live in hope, that the fortunes will boom on both the rubber producers and consumers, otherwise it will not be long when Sri Lanka will have to depend on imported rubber to feed our rubber-based industries.
(Lalin I. De Silva is the former Editor of Ceylon Planter’s Society Bulletin)