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Harvesting ‘true cinnamon’: The story of the Ceylon spice

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A worker stuffs cinnamon barks with small cuttings of the bark called quillings to make one 42-inch cinnamon quill [Al Jazeera]

Considered the world’s best cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon has been grown and produced in Sri Lanka for generations. But experienced peelers are now rare, says a report by Al Jazeera.

It said: It is 9am in the Carlton estate in Thihagoda, a small town about 160km (100 miles) south of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, and the July sun hides behind inky clouds. The air is thick and hot. Two men walk to the main estate building carrying piles of cinnamon branches. Inside, a group of women sit on the cement floor, chatting as they peel cinnamon.

Since 2000, workers here have planted, harvested and peeled cinnamon, sending batches of the fragrant sticks to a factory in Kamburupitiya, a 15-minute drive away, where they are cut, packed and loaded onto shipping containers for export.

Cinnamon harvesting usually takes place from June to December when the monsoon skies burst into downpours. But here at Rathna Producers Cinnamon Exports, it is produced throughout the year on the 42-acre (17 hectares) estate. “When we are done harvesting one acre, the next acre is ready,” says Chamara Lakshith, 28, the estate’s visiting officer, whose job involves coordinating between the estate and the main office in Kamburupitiya. “But sometimes for a few weeks, the bark is so hard that you can’t peel cinnamon. We know it by looking at the trees; young leaves turn striking red.”

The family business that began in 1985 is run by Ravindu Runage, whose late father started in the cinnamon trade with 7,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($35) to buy cinnamon from small farmers and sell it to bigger traders.

Now, Runage says the company is one of the largest cinnamon producers in Sri Lanka, exporting cinnamon and other spices like nutmeg and black pepper to 56 countries. Apart from growing organic cinnamon, the company also sources it from 8,000 individual and small-scale farmers and exports more than 30 containers of cinnamon a month.

“We grew up with cinnamon,” says 36-year-old Runage, at his office in Kamburupitiya, surrounded by several industry awards his family has won over the years. “We lived in a two-bedroom house. We slept in one room. In the other room, my thaththa [father] stored cinnamon.”

Once they were in the business, the Runage family learned that Mexico is one of the biggest cinnamon consumers. “So thaththa learned English and visited Mexico in 1998 to find a buyer,” says Runage. “But they spoke Spanish. So thaththa sent his business cards to companies he found in a telephone book.”

“Five months later, we sold our first container of cinnamon to Mexico.”

There are two types of cinnamon in the Western market: Ceylon cinnamon (named after the title British colonisers gave to Sri Lanka) and cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka; it has a lush, inviting scent and a sweet taste, and its quills are soft and light brown in colour. Cassia comes from other Asian countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam; its bark is sturdy with a rough texture, it is dark brown in colour and is stronger and hotter in taste. Cassia is considered lower quality, while Ceylon often triumphs as the pure, “true cinnamon”.

The process of producing this cinnamon includes several laborious, time-consuming steps. This is also why Ceylon cinnamon is expensive in the market while cassia is cheap, Runage says.

At the estate, seeds are planted in grow bags. After one year, saplings are cultivated. Harvesting begins four years later.

For harvesting, farmers cut down the branches of cinnamon trees at an angle, which allows cinnamon bushes to regrow, Lakshith says. Young and tender twigs are thrown away. Once branches are soaked in water and are moist enough, peelers remove the outermost layer of the cinnamon bark. To produce thin cinnamon quills, they spend hours stripping off the inner bark of the cinnamon branch in sheets.

Once produced, Ceylon cinnamon quills are graded based on their width; the thinner the quills, the higher they are in value. Alba is the highest form of cinnamon, with a diameter of 6mm. H1 is a lower grade of cinnamon, with a diameter of 22mm. In the export market, Alba costs twice as much as H1.

With a hearty smile, Suduhakuru Piyathilake holds a large batch of cinnamon quills. Piyathilake and his wife have been living in an old, dilapidated house next to the estate’s main building for 10 years now.

At 5am every day, Piyathilake heads off to the plantation. After collecting branches from about 15 trees, he plods back to the water tank in the main building, drops them off for soaking and returns to the plantation. He must make several trips back and forth before he begins peeling.

“When it’s moist, it’s easy to peel,” says the 55-year-old. “That’s why we cut them early in the morning and soak them.”

When the clock hits 10am, Piyathilake comes back with the last batch. After five hours, he has collected the branches of 200 trees. Sweat trickles down his forehead. A resident kitten swats at his feet, but Piyathilake ignores it and rushes in for a shower.

After a two-hour break, he sharpens his knife by scraping the outer bark of the branch and then he gets to work. “This is what my father and his father did,” he says. “Now my sons are cinnamon peelers.”

Piyathilake has been peeling cinnamon for the last 43 years. He learned the craft from his father in their village in Elpitiya, 70km north of the Runage family estate, where his children live with his mother. At home, cinnamon trees adorn their back yard, Piyathilake says. “But it’s a small garden so we can’t harvest cinnamon every day of the year. We don’t make much money there. So I work here with my wife. We only see our children once in every four months.”

Piyathilake is so adept at work that he can masterfully strip off extremely thin barks of the cinnamon branch by merely measuring them next to his index finger. After peeling the outer bark, he makes two cuts on two opposite sides before peeling off the inner bark. A half a length cut of your smallest bone is for Alba, Piyathilake says. For “rough” or H1 cinnamon quills, Piyathilake uses the length of two bones of his index finger.



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Endure daily power-cuts or face countrywide indefinite blackouts, warns Minister Gammanpila

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‘Electricity supply cannot be maintained at the expense of transport sector’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila yesterday (18) said that the foreign currency crisis was so acute the country had no option but to implement daily 90-minute power cut until the hydro power generation increased with the onset of rains.

Minister Gammanpila, who is also the leader of Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) has advised the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to impose daily 90-minute power-cuts or face the consequences.

Gammanpila said that the entire country would face indefinite blackouts if the CEB tried to avoid 90-minute power cuts. The warning was issued at a media briefing called by Minister Gammanpila at the Power Ministry where he stressed that power cuts were inevitable in view of the foreign exchange crisis.

The cash-strapped government was able to pay for stock of diesel on Tuesday (18). In spite of vessels carrying diesel entering Sri Lankan waters nine days ago the government had to struggle to pay them, the lawmaker said.

At the onset of the briefing, Minister Gammanpila flayed the CEB for blaming the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for the rapidly developing crisis.

MP Gammanpila said: “About 60 percent of the electricity requirement was met by hydro-power till end of Dec 2021. By then, hydro-power generation was down to 38 percent. Struggling to cope up with the situation, the CEB on January 11 asked us to provide additional fuel with effect from January 13. The CPC was not prepared to meet their requirement for obvious reasons. We were told they needed additional supplies at the end of January.”

Minister Gammanpila asked as to how the CPC could supply 1,500 metric tonnes beginning January 13 as it didn’t have the required stocks. The Energy Minister emphasised that the cash-strapped government couldn’t maintain extra stocks.

Lawmaker Gammanpila emphasised that his ministry had no option but to refuse to provide diesel to the CEB at the expense of the transport sector. The lawmaker pointed out that the country couldn’t afford to allow the disruption of transport by releasing sparse stocks available to them.

The Energy Minister asserted that disruption in public and private transport would be far worse than being subjected to daily 90-minute power cut.

Advising the CEB to be mindful of the current situation, Minister Gammanpila said that of the 37,000 tonnes of diesel the government paid for on Tuesday, 10,000 tons would be made available to the CEB. Declaring that would be sufficient for just eight days, Minister Gammanpila said that the CPC would also provide 2,200 tons of furnace oil and 700 tons of diesel to a privately-owned power station that supplied electricity to the government.

Minister Gammanpila said that it would be better to experience daily 90-minute power cuts than facing the prospect of three-hour disruption after having uninterrupted supply for a short period.

The outspoken lawmaker said that there was no point in denying the fact that the country was in severe difficulty due to the foreign currency crisis.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka received USD 750-800 mn a month, the Energy Minister asked how banks coped up with the situation as the government sought 2/3 of that amount for oil imports.

Minister Gammanpila told The Island that the public should be taken into confidence. The current crisis would cause further problems, the lawmaker said, urging the decision makers to be responsible to those who elected them.

The MP warned the failure on the part of the powers that be to realise the actual ground situation and take tangible measures to cut down the fuel bill would plunge the country into an unprecedented crisis.

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Speaker: MPs borrowed only 330 books from Parliamentary library in 2021

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122 of them are novels!

By Saman Indrajith

The MPs’s poor reading habit had led to deterioration of their conduct in the House and made their speeches full of unparliamentary language, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told Parliament yesterday.

The Speaker said that it was very embarrassing to note that all 225 MPs had borrowed only 330 books from the House library during the whole of last year.

Making a special statement at the commencement of the sittings, the Speaker said that the Members of the House should take note of their conduct during the debates. “Once you have crossed the bar of the House you are considered honourable members of the House of Parliament. The honourable title demands that you speak and behave accordingly in a respectable manner which in turn reflects back on the House. When I first spoke in Parliament I did so after weeks of preparation. Today, very few members prepare before their speeches. According to the information furnished to me by the library only 330 books have been borrowed by the MPs during the year 2021, and 122 of them were fictions. Ninety-four of the books borrowed were on political science and 27 on sociology, only 11 books on economics. Five books on science, four books on law and three books on technology, one book on education, and one book on Sinhala literature among those books borrowed by the MPs.

“For a House of 225 members this is embarrassing. This lack of knowledge and preparation on subjects have led us to insufficient awareness, false allegations, in speeches. Most of the speeches are to score political points. This has led to shameful, unparliamentary conduct. As the Speaker it is my duty to conduct the House affairs productively and ensure the rights of all its members.

“The members must understand that it is their sacred duty to uphold the dignity of this institution. If people lose faith in this House that means they lose faith in democracy. Repercussions of such a situation would be a grave danger for all political parties and citizens of this country. People expect the members of the government and Opposition to act responsibly.”

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Sri Lanka disputes Canadian Travel Advisory

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… immediate steps taken to apprise Ottawa

Sri Lanka has challenged a Canadian bid to undermine ongoing efforts to attract tourists. In the wake of the latest Canadian Travel Advisory on Sri Lanka issued on January 13, 2022, the Foreign Ministry has stated that the communique contained erroneous and outdated information that did not reflect the actual situation in Sri Lanka. As such, the Ministry has taken steps to apprise the Canadian authorities of ground realities.

The following is the text of the statement: “There are flawed references to the economic and security situation in the country as well as inaccurate information with regard to the safety and security of female travelers and harassment of foreigners.

Sri Lanka has successfully overcome the immediate challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now in a state of normalcy with all public service, corporate and business, and education activities functioning normally without interruption, in accordance with COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. The nationwide inoculation programme has been commended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and almost 90% of the eligible population has received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. A campaign has been launched to provide the booster dose to the population above 20 years of age.

Despite the pandemic, Sri Lanka has received several international accolades in the tourism industry including CNN’s “Where to Travel in 2022”; the Global Wellness Institute; Conde Nast Traveler 2021 Reader’s Choice Awards as well as other endorsements received previously in 2019 by Lonely Planet and the National Geographic Travel. GoSL looks forward to more tourists visiting Sri Lanka from Canada and elsewhere with the gradual normalization of travel globally.

It is important to note that even though Sri Lanka’s economy has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is making every endeavor to reinvigorate its economy this year, through the implementation of prudent policies. Food security and law & order are the topmost priorities of the Government, and the availability of all essentials is considered as a vital part of the Government’s functions. As such high priority is given to ensuring that all essential items continue to be available to the public at all time and there are sufficient stocks of food items.

With regard to the security situation, the GoSL maintains minimum presence of military in the North and the East to ensure security and stability in keeping with national security imperatives and this is similar to such presence elsewhere in the country. There is no arbitrary arrest and detention of persons by the police or security forces. Since the end of the terrorist conflict in 2009, security forces have conducted a comprehensive demining operation in the North and East, with technical support of several foreign Governments and international agencies. As at December 2014, 94% of the de-mining had been completed, while presently, the figure has risen to 98.7%. The Advisory states, that ‘there is a threat of terrorism’ and that ‘further attacks cannot be ruled out’. It is notable that since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 the GoSL has taken all necessary measures to ensure public safety and national security throughout the country, to prevent any resurgence of terrorism. It is noteworthy that during this period, there has not been even a single terrorist related incident in Sri Lanka, due to the enhanced vigilance and proactive measures taken by the relevant security authorities.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural country with a rich, cosmopolitan heritage where different communities have peacefully co-existed over centuries. There is no civil unrest in the country. Sri Lanka has a long democratic tradition with strong institutions, and a vibrant civil society. Freedom of association and assembly are safeguarded with peaceful demonstrations occurring in Sri Lanka as in any other country where liberal democratic norms and traditions prevail. The police have allowed and continue to allow such peaceful demonstrations to take place unimpeded. These demonstrations do not in any way hinder the comfort, movement, safety or activities of tourists.

Specific attention is being paid to the safety and security of women tourists with measures taken to strengthen the presence of police, including tourism police, island-wide in all regions. Under this programme, police presence is being increased in all popular tourist destinations of the country with greater presence of women police officers in police stations. Emergency numbers of tourist police regional units, local police, and other emergency units such as hospitals, are available online to be accessed by travelers to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is an island nation with friendly people with a high level of education, knowledge of English and literacy, and incidents of harassment or violence against tourists or foreigners are extremely rare.”

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