In Sri Lanka, around 880,000 hectares are under plantation crops which constitute tea, rubber, coconut, sugarcane, etc. Among the plantation crops, tea and rubber are important export crops. Around 330 ha are cultivated under these two crops (tea-200,000 ha, and rubber 130,000 ha). The total production of these two crops as indicated in the table [...]

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Ailing tea and rubber sectors


File picture of tourists experiencing tea plucking

In Sri Lanka, around 880,000 hectares are under plantation crops which constitute tea, rubber, coconut, sugarcane, etc. Among the plantation crops, tea and rubber are important export crops. Around 330 ha are cultivated under these two crops (tea-200,000 ha, and rubber 130,000 ha). The total production of these two crops as indicated in the table given below, has continued to decrease during the last four years. In fact the total rubber production has decreased from the year 2011.

Some amount of tea and rubber are imported and re-exported after value addition. Hence it is not possible to indicate the foreign exchange earned from locally produced tea and rubber, However, as indicated in the table (given in millions of kg), the value of tea and rubber exports during the last few years have decreased in spite of re-exports of imported tea and rubber and value of the  rupee falling compared to  the US Dollar. the decline in these two sub sectors can be attributed to a number of factors. Among these are land degradation, shortage of water, old age crop, etc.

Land degradation

Productivity of large extents under tea and rubber has decreased mainly due to soil erosion, soil compaction, and nutrition depletion, etc making crop production less profitable. Land degradation would cause yields to decline and have a negative impact on our efforts to increase production. According to various reports around 40 t/ha/yr of soil in tea estates are lost annually due to soil erosion. The participants of the first national symposium on Land Degradation, held a few years ago, who were representing many land-related institutions in the country, were of the view that urgent action such as implementation of proper land use planning and the Soil Conservation and Environment Act, etc need to be taken by the relevant organisations to control land degradation.

Labour shortage

It is a common knowledge that at present there is a dearth of labour in both tea and rubber sectors. According to a labour force survey in 2000, 36 per cent of the labour force was working in the agriculture sector. In 2008 this value has dropped to 33 per cent and in 2014 it has further dropped down to 29 per cent. As a result of the labour shortage tea plucking and rubber tapping are affected in addition to other cultural practices in these two crops.

Age of tea and rubber plants

A considerable part of the tea and rubber crop is mature and old. For example, 40 per cent of the tea extent is under seedling tea and about 90 per cent of the seedling teas are over 60 years old and need replanting. Around 30 per cent of the VP tea are more than 30 years old and these also need replanting. Replanting had been neglected in the 1960s and 1970s partly because of low tea prices and high export duties and the profit margins were not high enough to make it a profitable enterprise. The yield of a considerable extent of rubber holdings are low as rubber trees, like tea, are old and mature. The extent replanted is insignificant when the total extent of mature rubber land is considered.


1. There are tea and rubber lands in which the annual production is very low. A survey needs to be done to identify these unproductive tea and rubber lands, and these need to be diversified. Such lands may be put under pasture and have cattle. This will reduce our expenditure on milk imports, and also degradation of the lands will be reduced resulting in less silting of the reservoirs and reduce incidence of floods. There are many other crops such as spice crops, etc, energy yielding crops such as gliricidia and fruit crops which could be cultivated on unproductive tea and rubber lands. These crops would give better returns to the cultivators. An in-depth study needs to be carried out to determine appropriate land use in the unproductive holdings/estates giving due consideration to factors such as climate, topography, availability of labour, etc.

2. Those tea and rubber lands which are not going to be diversified need to be managed better. In this regard infilling, cultivation of better tea cultivars and rubber clones and their effective management including better fertiliser and pest management practices, increased rate of replanting, reducing soil degradation and conservation practices are essential.

Extension in the rubber sector: Around 65 per cent of the rubber holdings belong to the small holder sector. There are nearly 100,000 rubber small holders (RSH) who need to be provided with technical know-how in the activities involved from land preparation to processing, so that the rubber production is increased qualitatively and quantitatively. In this regard the extension activities are important. In 1980s there were nearly 150 rubber extension officers working for the Rubber Research Board to assist the RSH in the eight districts to grow and process rubber. However at present there are only around 20 extension staff and as a result the rubber extension programme at the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) appears to be very weak.

This institute is going to cultivate large extents of rubber in non-traditional areas such as Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Hambantota and Puttalam. These areas which the RRI is proposing to cultivate rubber are in the dry and arid zones of the country and are not suitable for rubber mainly from the point of view of the rainfall requirement of this crop. The ideal annual rainfall for rubber is in the range of 1650 mm – 2500 mm reasonably uniformly distributed throughout the year. The traditional rubber areas in Sri Lanka such as Kalutara and Kegalle districts get a well distributed annual rain fall of 2000 mm-3000 mm. The annual rainfall in the areas which RRI is proposing to cultivate rubber is around 1000- 1500 mm and most of it comes during October to February. The other months are relatively dry. Under such climatic conditions it is futile to grow rubber in the dry areas. There are many other crops which grow well under such conditions. Instead of trying to grow rubber in unsuitable areas, what the RRI needs to do is to pay more attention to promote rubber cultivation in areas which are more suitable to grow this crop. Sometime ago, a project was initiated to grow rubber in the Moneragala district and it has been found that this crop grows well and gives a better yield.

(The writer is an agriculture  specialist and can be reached at csweera@sltnet.k)


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