AGRICULTURE:

Climate change brings an uncertain future to one of the world's finest teas

PASSARA, Sri Lanka -- In his tea garden up on the mountain, Piyasena Rajapakshe, 71, started his morning exercise by clouting tea bushes. He clouted here and there. Suddenly, one stalk fractured.

Rajapakshe picked up the broken stalk, carefully peeled off its bark and found a black beetle as tiny as a sesame seed hidden inside. He removed the beetle and continued the next search.

As an experienced tea grower, Rajapakshe knows how to find these undesired visitors, but he doesn't know why they showed up at this time of the year. The beetles, which break up tea stalks as they chew their way through the tender part, used to be there only in the dry season. Now, they also appear during the monsoon rain.

The expanding presence of the pest is just one of many surprises that Rajapakshe has waiting for him in his tea garden. Temperatures, dry spells and rainfall have all changed here and in many other Sri Lankan tea gardens. It is too early to assess the overall impact of these changes, but no one doubts their contribution to an uncertain future for Ceylon's tea crop.

"Ceylon tea" -- using the country's colonial-era name -- is regarded as a sign of quality throughout the world. After the first tea plant was brought from China to Sri Lanka by the British in 1824, tea grown here soon gained global popularity. It hit a record price at London's tea auction during the late 1890s. Nowadays, tea export is Sri Lanka's second-largest foreign currency earner after labor export, bringing in about $1.5 billion in 2012.

However, "the character of tea will surely change with the influence of a changing climate, as tea is so responsive to natural influence," explained Dilhan Fernando. He is marketing director of Australian tea maker Dilmah. Fernando said that adverse impacts have not yet appeared in Dilmah's tea plantations in Sri Lanka, but the company will open a research center this month to track potential threats.

Praying to the 'weather god'

Average temperatures in Sri Lanka have already risen nearly 1 degree Celsius during the last century and are expected to keep rising. Higher temperature is a curse for tea growers who work from the coastline to 4,000 feet above the sea, as those places will soon become too hot to grow the finest tea. While temperature rise helps the upper country reach the perfect temperature for tea cultivation, the highlands will also gradually lose their advantage if warming continues.

Tea bushes, like other kinds of plants, are responding to the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by growing more vigorously, but this increase is eclipsed by the damage that has arrived with climate change. Heat brings pests to places where they were previously controlled by the cool mountain weather, and diseases spread more widely amid heavy rains.

Erratic weather patterns also pose a threat. Among the premier tea regions in Sri Lanka, Uva province in the central part of the country stands at the front line of climate-related problems.

A conversation between a local tea estate manager and his fellows tells it all. "Do you know why we had holidays last week?" the manager asked a group of students visiting his company. "Because you wanted to have time off?" One student guessed. "No," the manager replied, "it's because weather here is no longer the same. Our future is in the hands of weather god, and we have to go to pray."

Tea growers in Uva province had a lot to pray for last year. Thilak Ranjith, for one, did not see one drop of rain in his rain-fed tea gardens for four months from June to September.

"This period is traditionally considered as the dry season, but in 2013, we hit an extreme," said Ranjith. The 53-year-old said that people in his village didn't even have enough drinking water, let alone water to irrigate their tea gardens.

The prized 'Uva flavor' fades

As tea plants require a right mix of sun and water to put forth sprouts, the drought was a severe blow to tea production. In Ranjith's tea garden alone, yields dropped by 40 percent last year compared with previous levels.

Meanwhile, in Passara, a town one hour's drive from Ranjith's land, tea growers suffered from another problem. Uva province is famous for a seasonal tea that forms a unique character in the dry season. But a few months ago, when unexpected rains arrived during the seasonal tea production, that uniqueness was gone.

"It's like perfume; once you add water into perfume, its odor becomes weaker," explained Rachita Perera, manager of Passara-based El-teb Estate, one of the seasonal tea producers.

Known as "Uva flavor," that seasonal tea is among the most expensive teas in Sri Lanka. But in 2013, its price slumped by 30 percent due to the waning taste.

Worse yet, "if we keep getting rains in the dry season, we might lose the brand," Perera said. "There are buyers in the world waiting for this specific tea, but if we fail to produce it for a few years, they might forget about 'Uva flavor.'"

Help (at a price) is on the way

But tea lovers may not get the same tea they are used to from other parts of the world, either. Rising temperatures and reduced rainfall have hampered plantations in India's Assam state, one of the world's leading tea regions. Kenya, another key producer, was hit by severe droughts in 2009, and more extreme weather events are expected to occur as a result of climate change.

In Sri Lanka, "we don't know if our tea will become better or worse in the future, but we know it will be different," said Sarath Abeysinghe, director of the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka. "So it is important to be aware of the change and get prepared for adverse impacts," Abeysinghe said.

Pest specialists at his institute are teaching tea growers how to control increasing insect attacks while avoiding the overuse of pesticides. Geneticists are breeding new varieties that are more resistant to diseases or that can withstand dryer soils. Agronomists are trying to revive an abandoned tradition of growing trees with tea bushes, aiming to help this shade-grown plant survive in the warmer climate.

Despite some proven success, researchers say their job is still far from being done. On top of that, Sri Lanka's tea production is dominated by individual farmers who have 1 or 2 acres of land and cannot make a living from growing tea. So why should they bother to invest in climate change adaptation?

Researchers hope the benefits of the adaptation measures will speak for themselves. While looking for beetles in his tea garden on a recent day, tea grower Rajapakshe said he barely found those devastating creatures in his pest-resistant tea plants, although the pests have destroyed the rest of his tea bushes on a large scale.

So he plans to switch to the newer, hardier strain. While making that switch will risk his savings and add a greater workload due to the extra effort needed to take care of the young tea bushes, Rajapaksh said he believes his hard work will be paid back at the end of the day.

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