From rubber to rambutan
A failed rubber estate at Etanawala, now produces crops of luscious red rambutan, fast outgrowing the traditional rambutan land-Malwana
By Kumudini ettiarachchi
Luscious red rambutans, dripping honey. No, not from Malwana, famous for its home gardens with rambutan trees but from Etanawala just off Dummaladeniya in Warakapola.

A lazy poya afternoon and most people are having a snooze, but a rubber factory in Etanawala on the Colombo-Kandy Road is a hive of activity. Thousands and thousands of mouth-watering rambutans are being unloaded from a pick-up amongst the machinery for making scrap rubber.

"Good', 'pocket' and 'small': Women sort out the rambutans at Etanagama. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

"You can earn more from rambutan than rubber," says Etna estate's hands-on Superintendent Chandra Ehelepola, explaining what made them switch crops in the mid-1990s. "Rubber was not doing very well and prices were tumbling. We decided to look at other crops. Taking the climate and several factors into consideration, a decision was made to replant our rubber estate with rambutan. It seems to have been a wise move."

Wearing a T-shirt that matches the crop he has nurtured carefully, he moves among the women who are seated on the factory floor before heaps of rambutan branches laden with fruit, sorting and grading them. Almost lovingly, he picks up one here and there to stress that they are quality rambutans.

This is the last of the crop, as the rambutan season comes to a close in the first week of August. This plantation consisting of 34.12 hectares (84 acres), is run by RPK Management Services (Pvt) Ltd., a joint venture between John Keells Holdings and Richard Pieris & Company. A BOI company had been floated in 1993 by the name of Exotic Horticulture (Pvt) Ltd to grow and sell rambutans to the local and overseas markets.

And not only exotic, but also unique is the Etanawala plantation, for it is the single largest rambutan estate in the country, with one more 15-hectare estate in Udapola, Polgahawela run by the same company.

"The season is from June 25 to August 5, so now you are seeing the last of the crop," says Mr. Ehelepola.

It was a difficult decision to uproot all the rubber trees and grow rambutan. The area had to be cleared, 3'x3' holes dug leaving a distance of 25' between them. Then, it was time for the Superintendent to go in search of the right plants. He selected Malwana special, a budded variety. "After planting, the fertilisation and nurturing begin. In three and a half years the first harvest of fruit can be got. Thereafter, the trees usually bear every year for about 45 years," says Mr. Ehelepola.

When the first three years pass and every farmer's heart would warm at the sight of the flowers, the right thing to do is to strip the branches of them. Why? To improve growth and branching of the trees.

What is the yield? A thousand fruits per tree, though all trees won't bear at the same time. One hectare accommodates about 175 trees but only about 125 will bear during the season. The others may get fruit out of season, so you can earn something even then, he says. His face clouds over as he recalls a "very bad season" last year because there was a fly attack. "The crops got spoiled and 75% of the fruit fell off," he says with regret.

But the fruits of his labours were evident this year. Dubbed a successful season, the proof was actually in seeing the buyers flock to Etanawala, instead of Malwana, even before the rambutan were picked. They came from Colombo, Kandy, Kalagedihena, Hanwella, Thihariya, Katugastota and Mawathagama and each day before the labourers could pick the target of 5,000 fruits they were snapped up for tiny street stalls dotting the main roads. This season the wholesale price of a fruit is Rs. 3.25.

Sunil Weerasinghe who had come in a trishaw had just paid money for 1,000 fruits and the women were counting out the rambutans. "I have five stalls by the roadside in Kalagedihena, which I run with my wife and golayas. I took 4,500 yesterday and they are all sold out." For how much? About Rs. 4 per fruit, he says reluctantly, then adds that sometimes it goes up to about Rs. 5. "I have to make a small profit and also pay my golayas," says Weerasinghe. In earlier years, before this plantation put out its crops, he used to travel to the interiors of Attanagalle, Madakotuwa and Malwana to get his requirements from home-gardeners. When rambutan is out of season, he sells fish.

His namesake, Sunil Shantha too is from the same area. He has been in the rambutan business for 18 years. He too bought the fruit from Malwana those days but now comes here for his supplies of 2,500 fruit.

"Gahe thiyedde apita kiyanne puluwan mada hondata gelwena wada kiyala," he says with pride. That's why they keep coming back to Etanagama, for the test of a good rambutan is that the flesh should come off easily and be tasty at the same time.

The women sort and grade the fruit into three heaps - "good", "pocket" (not mature or puhu) and "small". Earlier, they too were into rubber but moved with the management to rambutan. "It's convenient because we live in this area. We work about eight hours and get Rs. 98 per day," says 38-year-old G.M. Kusumawathie who has worked in this watte for 10 years. The workforce consists of about 15, comprising mainly women who weed, pluck, help transport and sort the fruit. They are paid an additional Rs. 14 per day if they clock 70% attendance.

It's not labour problems that keep Superintendent Ehelepola awake at night but worries about fruit robbers. "Some of them even come in vehicles in the dead of night and vanish with several thousand rambutan, before the watchers can alert me or the police."

R. Ratnapala (name changed) was one such who was caught red-handed robbing rambutan. But last Poya, he was at the factory, not as a culprit but a buyer. When caught stealing, the Superintendent warned him to turn a new leaf and offered him an option. He would "lend" Ratnapala about 500 fruit to sell and earn a living. He did just that near the Ambepussa resthouse. That was three years ago. Today not only has Ratnapala repaid his debt but also expanded his business to include thambili and other fruit. "Rambutan dekapau gaman gannawa," says Ratnapala carrying two sili sili bags bursting with rambutan.

As we watch the women counting out another lot for another customer, we wonder whether they are not tempted to eat a few. "We do pop one or two into our mouths," smiles Alice Nona (50) who had worked the rubber rollers before getting into the rambutan trade, offering us rambutans indicating that they are not forbidden fruit for them.

Small fortune from Trevi fountain
A homeless man has found rich pickings at one of Rome's tourist landmarks - the Trevi fountain, where visitors traditionally discard coins and make a wish.

Since 1968 Roberto Cercelletta has been plunging into the fountain in the early hours, six days a week, and raking in a small fortune. The daily Corriere della Sera reported that he made as much as 600 euros (dollars) a week. According to Rome's city authorities, the charities that are supposed to get the money are losing as much as 12,000 euros a month.

But Mr Cercelletta said such reports were exaggerated. "I sweep up only about 200-300 euros a day, not what they claim," he told the newspaper. "I share what I make with two other unemployed people." Every day thousands of tourists throw coins into the fountain and make a wish to return to the eternal city.

In 1994 Italy's highest court ruled that fishing coins out of the fountain was no more illegal than throwing them in - so the only thing Mr. Cercelletta really does wrong is jump in the water. Police say they stop him almost every day for that and issue him with the standard fine of 516 euros. But he dodges the fine because he is homeless and unemployed.

"He lives on the sidelines of the law and there's not a lot we can do about it," said one policeman quoted by Reuters news agency. Mr Cercelletta described himself as simply a poor old crazy man. "Cercelletta may seem like a devil but he's really an angel amongst devils," he told the paper.

Back to Top
 Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.