December 2014 | Shalini Menon

Green tea, and greener practices

Watawala Plantations was recently awarded the Rainforest Alliance certification, but sustainable operations have been the foundation for business at the plantations long before it was certified

Shameera Rathnayake speaks about the largest inland fisheries project in Sri Lanka
Undulating green slopes, soothing breezes, the murmur of bird song, the aroma of plucked tea leaves, the taste of brewed tea — Watawala Plantations is balm for the senses. The plantation, one of the largest in Sri Lanka, is a joint venture between Tata Global Beverages and Sunrise Holdings, a well-known business group in Sri Lanka. The plantations harbour rubber, palm and tea, with tea occupying a major portion, over 6,000 hectares.

The Watawala landscape is painted in various hues of lush green. However, the ‘green’ does not end as a colour shading the landscape at the plantations, but filters down to the way business is conducted at Watawala. Sustainability is at the core of operations at the plantations, whether it concerns the environment, human resources or the community.

A globally recognised symbol that signifies that Watawala Plantations has well and truly embraced the sustainable path is the RA mark on its packets of tea — a mark that says that the plantations have been awarded the Rainforest Alliance certification denoting commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable business practices. Vish Govindasamy, managing director, Watawala Plantations, explains, “Six of our gardens are now Rainforest Alliance certified and we expect the remaining estates to be certified as well.”

The plantations follow sustainable agricultural practices such as deep draining to improve the water holding capacity of drains, regular pruning, and soil loosening for water percolation and nutrition absorption. Vetiver is planted at regular intervals on the slopes to hold soil together and prevent erosion. Planting Calliandra, an evergreen woody shrub, over 500 hectares of land, has helped take the pressure off trees by providing firewood for the tea drier. Sheds with transparent roofs allow for energy savings as the ample sunlight dries the wood to crisp. Tea waste is fashioned into briquettes for use in driers and enables additional savings in energy.

The plantations function smoothly due to dedicated staff. Watawala sets a high premium on its human capital. Adequate compensation, regular training, health care services and child support services are some of the measures that ensure that the workers are a contented lot. Annually, 5 percent of the profits is shared with the employees, who own 10 percent of the shareholding of Watawala Plantations. Long-time employee Mr Rasalingam says, “I have been working here since 1977. My children and I get a good income and live comfortably. My children have received scholarships from the company. The company sent me to India for training, and I came back and trained my colleagues.”

A fisheries project initiated at Shannon estate, which incidentally has become the largest inland fisheries project in Sri Lanka, provides employees an additional source of income. Four hundred kilos of fish is harvested from each pond — the project is spread over 108 ponds currently. The employees shared a collective income of Rs90,000 in the last season. The project also plays the important role of improving the nutrition of plantation workers as the harvested fish become a source of protein in their diet.

The community around Watawala has benefitted by having the plantations in their midst. The vocational training centre set up for the differently-abled near Kenilworth Estate in 1998 provides skilling in tailoring, bag-making, envelope-making, etc, empowering trainees with a sense of self-worth and independence. Among a host of accolades that the centre has received, the one that stands out is the recognition by the World CSR Congress as the best project in Asia.

Each day, Watawala Plantations is trying to better its efforts in making the process of tea production ‘greener’ and as minimally intrusive on the environment as possible. The Rainforest Alliance certification is just a beginning to other certifications and awards in the journey to complete sustainability.

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Seeded and nurtured in the Tata tradition, the plantation operations of Tata Global Beverages have plenty in common. Yet there is much that sets them apart as distinct entities: their geographical location, the culture that defines them and the produce itself. Tata Review takes a slow sip of delights on offer at these four tea and coffee estates — in Assam, in Coorg in Karnataka and in Munnar in Kerala (all in India), and in Sri Lanka