'Get away from the crowds', it’s the mantra of tourist brochures, travel blogs and local festivals alike. It’s also a phrase that seems fitting to describe the tranquil, verdant land of Sri Lanka. Yet, when we headed over to the plentiful country we went in search of the crowds, albeit those of a slightly different variety.
On small-scale farms across the country crowds of pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and mace mingle and scent the air with bewitching aromas. Amongst them grow the crops that feed much of the island's populace.
'There's a sense of wellness in this island's environment and the success of self-sustainability and natural preservation is plain to see', says Lyndsey, part of the Lush ethical buying team. The rich, varied soils of Sri Lanka makes a fertile home for a myriad of produce, much of which (like coconuts and vegetables) remains in the country. The passel of spices the island boasts therefore makes up a large portion of all Sri Lankan export with over two thousand growers collecting these miniature treasures and sending them to processors to be consolidated and packed ready for bulk sale.
Variety is the spice of life
Handharvesting peppercorns is a challenging endeavour; they grow on vines, weaving themselves amongst clove and nutmeg trees in the dense forest. Whist on the vine they appear green, but once picked the heat of the sun and the enzymes inside cause the outer flesh of the berries to shrink and blacken. This process is repeated to make white pepper before the black outer skin is removed by gentle abrasion.
Pepper powder has impressive antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Like many of the spices, it's also a natural insecticide due to the piperine inside. In the event of pest problems in Sri Lanka, the farmers can boil their spices down in water and spray them around to prevent damage to crops. Birds are also encouraged to the area through the strategic interspersal of food provisions, fruit trees and cash crops. Levels of almost surgical precision are witnessable in the islander’s attempts to naturally deter insects.
This eye for detail is also vital in the uprooting of the spices themselves, which can be a tricky process for the unaccustomed. Ginger nestles amongst other ground crops and is a variety quite unique to Sri Lanka, slimmer and longer than the varieties often found in oriental cooking (according to the locals, it's the best in the world). Much of the work is done by hand, from the picking of Cardamom pods to the peeling and rolling of bark to make cinnamon quills.
Fairtrade spice and all things nice
These traditional growing techniques ensure a promising future for Sri Lankan spice crops.
'In Dambulla I was able to visit a biodiversity training site the company have established where they are actively investing in nurturing permaculture growing designs and utilising natural material to maximise the fertility and productivity of the land', says Lyndsey.
The FLO-approved Fairtrade spice traders of the island unify individual farmers that would otherwise be internally competing for an uncertain annual trade. Many subsequently hold the certifying body in high esteem. The preferential prices accrue a Fairtrade premium when sold which is consolidated and reinvested through each cooperative into regional funding for farm equipment, storage shelters, composting systems, beehives and community centres, which encourage regular training sessions, meetings and reviews. As with much of the world, climbing educational standards have led to a generational shift away from the agriculture industry but officials are streamlining the sector to make it more efficient and are confident that the inherent value of the produce will speak for itself.
On the ground the spices and communities of Sri Lanka grow abundant. And as for renouncing the mantras? We’re not going to stop searching for the crowds any time soon.