Tea leaf quality hit by oportunistic politics


By Steve A. Morrell

Opportunistic politics are eroding good governance and the quality of the produce of the tea industry, to a degree.

Until recently, the BL 60 plan, that is Best Leaf 60 scheme, held sway locally. What this scheme meant essentially was that ‘good leaf’, or more technically, 60 percent ‘fines’ in the tea leaf, was the applied standard for leaf supplied to tea leaf factories.

This basic standard obliged leaf suppliers to maintain the enforced leaf quality to ensure Ceylon Tea maintained its standing in world markets. Also of relevance was that this leaf standard was based on a Cabinet decision and was an enacted law.

Recent reliable information received at our desk was that suppliers were told by some political quarters to ignore this leaf standard and supply whatever they wished. Such instructions allegedly originated from some interested Southern politicians to ensure their vote base.

The implications of the above are that the Tea Commissioner’s instructions on tea leaf standards are being violated by some producers. The bench mark prices for quality green leaf is being paid for poor quality tea as well.

Some tea leaf suppliers among the 400,000 small holders owning small plots of about two hectares of land, continue to flout BL 60 norms. These smallholders are in the deep South and South Central Hills. Consequent to lax tea leaf standards surfacing, frustration has set in among tea factory owners who adhered to the Tea Commissioner’s instructions. Pressure is being exerted on them by the political quarters referred to, to accept tea leaf that is provided, irrespective of whether tea leaf standards are being maintained by the suppliers or not.

Relaxed standards in green leaf supplies seriously affect the final product and in consequence affect low grown prices.

CEO, Asia Siyaka Tea Brokers’ Anil Cooke further confirmed the slide in oil prices placed severe stress on Middle East buying of local tea. A fall in tea prices in Colombo confirmed what Cooke said. In the short term, the outlook for tea was gloomy. Further decline in tea prices could be expected.

Was there a silver lining to these dark clouds? Anil Cooke was singularly optimistic. He said, ‘We have faced these calamitous situations before. The tea industry did not collapse. We can come out of this as we did before.’

The John Keels Tea report too had negative observations. Expected Western quality, if at all, would be short lived. Bad weather dislocated the entire climate equilibrium for tea and good prices were nowhere to be found. All told, start of the year, as regards tea, is discouraging and we are seeing a time of uncertainty.

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