Labor shortage hits Sri Lanka’s cinnamon industry

June, 21, 2017

Dearth of peelers leaves world's leading exporter with harvest shortfalls

Nikkei Asian Review - Along Sri Lanka's west coast, towns like Negombo have abundant green cinnamon farms that keep peelers of the bushes' fragrant inner bark busy. Pesthathanthri Sumathipala, a seasoned peeler, is up at dawn to lead a small crew of peelers through a 20-hectare farm. Skilled eyes are needed to choose which branches to slice for the day's harvest.

Later, he sits in a half-lit, crumbling building filled with the aroma of the spice. The sharp fragrance spreads as the 57-year-old scrapes the outer bark, massages the golden brown inner bark and then, with a sharp knife, gently teases out long strips of cinnamon to dry. "There is a lot of cinnamon to harvest, not just here but in other towns," said Sumathipala, who has been at his craft for more than 40 years, having learnt the trade from his father.

Cinnamon trails across Sri Lanka, the world's leading exporter of pure cinnamon, attest to this ample supply. But this abundance exposes a troubling picture for the South Asian island: an inability to harvest it all. Currently, Sri Lanka has an estimated 30,000 peelers to harvest 33,000 hectares of the spice -- but 50,000 would be needed to reap the entire crop during its two monsoon seasons, the ideal damp conditions for peeling.

"Due to the shortage of peelers, only 35% of the crop is harvested twice a year, while 65% of the crop is harvested once a year," said Sarada M. De Silva, chairman of the Cinnamon Training Academy, in the southern coastal town of Kosgoda. "There is a great dearth of peelers, so we cannot meet the global demand."

Research by the Institute of Policy Studies, a Colombo-based think tank, has teased out two problems that keep new crops of peelers at bay: a social stigma that continues to stain the labor force in status-conscious Sri Lankan society, and the growing diversity of the labor market, which is tempting away young workers from the traditional cinnamon-peeling families that hail from the country's southern coastal belt. "Peelers need social recognition if they are to stay on, because the whole industry depends on them," said Dilani Hirimuthugodage, co-author of an IPS study on the cinnamon trade.

Sumathipala's rough, cinnamon coated fingers explain why the peelers are indispensable. Years of practice lie behind his ability to produce the cinnamon quill, cigar-shaped and stuffed with smaller strands of the spice. The quill marks out "Ceylon cinnamon," as the island's produce is branded in world markets, in a reference to its earlier name. Industry insiders describe the peelers as an essential element in Ceylon cinnamon's pre-eminence over a cheaper global rival called "cassia cinnamon," which is grown in India, Southeast Asia and China.

"Our peelers give us an edge over other countries in the cinnamon trade," Azid bin Rafy Ismail, a cinnamon grower in Negombo, said during a walk through his farm. "You can plant and grow cinnamon anywhere that has our climate, but that matters little, since they do not have our peelers, who have learnt their art through generations, to produce the quills."

Sri Lanka's peeler shortfall coincides with a propitious time for the local cinnamon trade. The global price for the commodity has steadily increased since 2004, rising from $4 to $12 a kilo. Sri Lanka exported 13,000 tons of cinnamon valued at $159.07 million in 2016, according to the National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka, a trade body. Cinnamon export earnings amounted to $132.28 million in 2014.

Whiff of profit

The favorable global price for cinnamon, which accounts for more than half the island's spice export earnings, is driven by demand from Mexico, Peru, Colombia and the United States, the top importers of Ceylon cinnamon. The Mexican market demands five-inch cinnamon quills, said Nalin Anura De Silva, director of G.D. De Silva Sons, a cinnamon exporter in the southern coastal town of Ahungalla. "We trade mainly with South America. They like our pure cinnamon," he said.

- MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

Photo - Cinnamon peeler Pesthathanthri Sumathipala scraping the outer bark of a cinnamon branch. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)