Sri Lanka bars Tea Board speaking to media

[TamilNet, Thursday, 09 July 2009, 16:00 GMT]
Sri Lanka’s Tea Board seems among the least likely of institutions to fall under a government campaign to control the free flow of information. But authorities have now barred its officials from speaking to the media, Reuters reported Thursday. Sri Lanka’s revenue from tea exports has fallen this year, despite world tea prices rocketing. Quoting official figures, AFP reported recently that Sri Lanka’s harvest had fallen more than 50 percent in the first three months of the year on the island’s drought-hit highlands. Tea is the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner after garments.

Tea cup
"The minister has sent a directive to not to talk or comment to media," Lalith Hettiarachchi, the chairman at Sri Lanka Tea Board told Reuters, when he was contacted to comment on the fall in the tea export revenue in the first five months of 2009.

"We are not allowed to provide even facts and figures," said H.D. Hemaratne, the director general at the Board.

It was not immediately clear what had triggered the government move, but a minister told Reuters the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse was keen that all branches spoke in one voice.

"When they go on to say something without our knowledge we can't answer when we are questioned in parliament or cabinet on what they say. So that makes our governance weak," Minister of Plantation D.M. Jayaratne said.

World tea prices have rocketed but along misty tea-growing mountain slopes in Sri Lanka's central hills, farmers are facing disaster, AFP reported in late June.

World tea prices have risen by about 35 percent in the past year and supermarket prices are set to rise another 10 percent in June, but small farmers in Sri Lanka who account for more than two thirds of the country's production have not benefited, the agency reported.

Sri Lanka earned a record 1.23 billion dollars from tea exports in 2008 thanks to the global commodity boom in the first half last year, but the forecast this year is gloomy.

Nonetheless, last week the state-owned Daily News claimed, in an article titled “Sri Lankan tea gains lost momentum” that the island’s industry had “recovered fast” because “a sudden decline in supply in the global tea market as a result of both dry weather conditions in many tea producing countries a situation also adversely impacted by lower fertilizer application.”

On 21 June, the state-owned Sunday Observer, in an article titled “Outlook for tea industry bright”, quoted Tea Board chairman Hettiarachchi as saying the country can expect over 300 billion kg production and over $ 1 billion revenue this year.

The paper admitted, however, that the Tea Board, “on the directions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to enter the Auction floor to purchase tea in order to build the confidence of the buyers.”

Russia and former Soviet republics are the biggest buyers of Sri Lankan teas.

Sri Lanka's chief rivals in the tea export market are Kenya and India.

India, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Kenya together produce 75 percent of the total global output.

 

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