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feature - Issue #14

From the Earthworm to the Economy

words and photography by Ella Brolly

Nihal Ellegala created the spice agroforestry project Eko Land Produce on his ancestral land in Sri Lanka to connect and protect local farmers, families and their forests.

Nihal Ellegala walks me through the forest. The air is loaded, heavy with the scent of coffee flowers carrying notes of Jasmine on the breeze. Like the sun, the people here warm my heart, defrosting the corners after a bitter British winter. After a short time staying among the rural towns near the village of Wepathana, my walking speed, alongside my mind, slow to meet the pace of this small yet rich slice of the Sri Lankan midlands. In a world desperate to speed up, there is a beauty in the harmony of slowing down. This is true resistance.

Nihal is 72 and well-travelled. He’s worked around the globe in the business of selling spices and food. In 1993 he inherited 13 acres of ancestral lands, handed down through generations since 1896. He soon returned home to Sri Lanka, where now, with his son Reymon, they have created Eko Land Produce, a spice agroforestry project and network connecting local growers. This sustains not just farmers and families but also the use of these timeless and disappearing agroforestry practices. As we walk, we see sheets by the roadside, laden with pepper, cloves and mustard seed, drying in the heat of the late afternoon sun.

In the province of Kandy, people have been cultivating spices in these forests for centuries, this is considered the oldest forest gardening system in Asia. It is a totally integrative way of growing, a tiered system working within the natural architecture of the forest. The distinction between jungle and working land is almost impossible to unpick. Pepper wraps around towering gliricidia, lined by cardamom, shaded by clove trees, entangled with branches of cinnamon, under the canopy of a huge jack tree dripping with fruits. The forest is the farm, and the farmer may not be rich but they will never grow hungry.

My curiosity as a grower has brought me here, the desire to witness an age-old practice passed down through generations, truly attuned to natural systems, rather than bending them to its will. Here everyone is a farmer, and no one is. It is a householder path. Wepathana holds around 250 families. Land is passed down from generation to generation in smallholdings, as is the knowledge. For some it is money on the side, for others a home kitchen and for others a means of livelihood.

This is so different from what I know, my structured beds and planting plans seem a world away. This region follows the hot/dry season structure typical to tropical zones, baking hot months followed by seemingly never-ending torrential downpours. Never a frost. Without the iron-clad seasons close winter brings, natural cycles take on a form much like jazz, each species flowering and fruiting to its own rhythm, independent but interwoven with the rest.

Sena Ellegada is often singing as he cares for these mature vines in the pepper forest.

Pepper vines grow up Gliricidia stakes which act as living supports, growing as the vines grow to eventually form tall trees.

‘In the province of Kandy, people have been cultivating spices in these forests for centuries, this is considered the oldest forest gardening system in Asia. It is a totally integrative way of growing, a tiered system working within the natural architecture of the forest.’

When I turn my eyes to the earth I am surprised by what I see. With a forest canopy dripping with fruits and vines, I’d imagined a rich chocolate-coloured soil, equally as vibrant and alive. I pictured anthropoids and earthworms, fungi and nematodes, a delicate web of life in a rich black crumb. However, the dark humus, friable, with a fine yet solid crumb structure as my grower’s eyes are trained to hunt for, is not what you’ll find here when you dig beneath the earth. I find heavy red sand compressed and hard, the tropical downpours of the rainy season having leached away at the structure and nutrients.

But not all the soil here is this way. It is patchy and scattered, as if many geological landscapes have come to meet in this one place. The integrated growing systems of Kandyan forest gardening have an important part to play. The tiered layers of trees and shrubs help to restore the soil’s structure, retain vital nutrients and cultivation incorporates vital organic matter.

Lured by the scent of vanilla, I find my way to the processing house where a group of local women dry the pods in the sun alongside sliced turmeric and ginger for powdering. I am pleased to meet Madhufhkia Senevirathna, a 22-year-old girl who has been working here for two years. She aspires to study agriculture and her energy for the topic is rejuvenating. She kindly invites me to spend a morning among a small team harvesting vanilla.

I have arrived during peak season. Thushara, Madhufhika, Kamani and I weave through the young vines, only three years old, looking for those harbouring pods. The soil here is rich, protected by the surrounding trees from the heavy rains and nourished by the hands that have worked it.

Kamani Rathnayake knows the prized skill of vanilla hand pollination. Each and every vanilla flower is carefully sliced open, a small flap lifted and sealed with a pinch.

Vanilla pods begin green and scentless when picked fresh, before embarking on their five-month fermentation and drying process.

‘The distinction between jungle and working land is almost impossible to unpick. Pepper wraps around towering gliricidia, lined by cardamom, shaded by clove trees, entangled with branches of cinnamon, under the canopy of a huge jack tree dripping with fruits. The forest is the farm, and the farmer may not be rich but they will never grow hungry.’

After saffron, vanilla is the world’s most expensive spice, for good reason. It is not in fact a bean but the fruit of an orchid. It starts green and scentless and goes through a five-month fermentation and drying process to gain its rich aroma and familiar shade. Every flower is individually hand pollinated in its short 12-hour bloom - its relative insect is not native to Sri Lankan shores. This technique, invented 182 years ago by Edmond Albuis (an enslaved 12-year-old boy from the Réunion islands) enabled the emergence of global vanilla production and is now a source of local capital. Those who have the skill, often hold the knowledge close to their chests. Kamani Rathnayake skilfully pollinates each flower by hand with a toothpick and a pinch. During peak season these plants must be guarded by night. It is not unknown to have your harvest cleared by the morning - particularly in recent years.

‘My curiosity as a grower has brought me here, the desire to witness an age-old practice passed down through generations, truly attuned to natural systems, rather than bending them to its will.’

The pandemic hit hard here. Without governmental support, rural communities, such as these, became desperate with no means of income or ways to support their families. “It felt helpless,” Reymon tells me, “but it gave the space and drive to finally make this happen”. In December 2020, Reymon assisted his father Nihal in creating Eko Land Produce, providing both jobs and access to a reliable market at fair prices for this unique produce.

The next spice I meet here is cinnamon. Its unmistakable scent cuts through the air with arrow-like clarity. Ceylon cinnamon is highly sought after for its delicate flavour and high levels of antioxidants, its processing is a skilled but dying art. The technique requires a careful knack to remove the bark in one clean slice. A group of women sit, holding the raw sticks. First, scraping off the exterior, they then skilfully cut the quills from the bark. Offcuts and imperfect quills are crushed for powder. This is truly an example of slow food. Many of the women are clearly new to the process, shepherded by those more confident.

There is a shortage of experienced peelers in Sri Lanka, a practice getting lost as younger generations choose the city over rural life. This problem extends far beyond cinnamon however. “This is a pivotal time for Kandyan forest gardening,” Reymon explains, “the young people are simply not there, when the older generation steps away, who will take their place?”

I watch each piece carefully cut by hand and remember what drew me here. This practice, passed from hand to hand, through generations after generations is a memory of how agriculture used to be - not just here in Sri Lanka but in the world. Before speed took hold, before people were replaced by the combine harvester, before chemicals and machinery, the land was worked like this by hand. The Green Revolution took the technology of chemical warfare and turned it to the land. They were selling a dream meant to save the world and eliminate poverty. It did liberate people from the field and it did grow more food but it ravaged the soil and put the money in the pockets of big business, not farmers.

These tight-knit rolling hills were never going to be accessible by machinery however. “Many areas around Kandy have no road access at all,” Reymon tells me, “although this undoubtedly has had its challenges, it is definitely one of the things that protected this area, and these traditions, from being lost to industrial agriculture.”

The outer layer of the cinnamon branch is removed during processing, the inner carefully sliced for Ceylon quills.

Madhushika Senevirathna, a 22-year-old Eko Land Produce management trainee, inspects freshly peeled cinnamon quills.

Is it too late to turn back the clocks? This is a question very relevant here in recent times - especially when the Sri Lankan government withdrew chemical fertilisers and attempted to turn the country organic overnight. However, a vital component for this to succeed was missing: the passage of time and the input of rich organic life. A soil is an ecosystem and a dead one takes time to rebuild.

Nihal leads me through row upon row of towering pepper vines, past waving children and forest gravestones tangled by vines. On our route back, we pass a pair of flip-flops at the bottom of a tree. This is not an uncommon sight. Above you can assume there is someone in the canopy harvesting cloves.

Nihal leaves and I approach a woman sat close by. I speak no Sinhalese and she speaks no English, so I sit helping her and her son break the delicate clove buds from their stems. She shares her lunch and we make dramatic gestures in an attempt at communication. I learn later how Wasala Ihillagolla, her husband, now 30 ft up a clove tree, previously had a truck driving business in Sri Lanka’s capital Columbo. This folded during the crisis and he has come back to harvest spices as his family had done before him.

Since the economic crash which began in March 2022, prices have soared in Sri Lanka and many have lost their jobs, often turning to the land to provide. Some sell their trees for fast cash, others return to their roots. Some, like Wasala, find ways to live in harmony with the land as a resource. Here there is hope, this project is small but it is growing. Eko Land Produce continues to upskill local people in traditional spice practices, replant and rebuild forest soils by regenerative means and take on further unmanaged local land, handed to them by the local authorities.

Just like our soils we are interdependent, we stand on each other’s shoulders and the shoulders of those who came before us. We all live within the web, the web that starts beneath our feet and through incalculable interspecies relations we come all the way from the earthworm to the economy. Nowhere is this more visible than in Kandyan forest gardening.

In a world speeding up, these lessons from a slower more harmonious form of agriculture have much to teach us. “I have travelled the world,” Nihal tells me “lived in many so-called ‘developed’ countries and had what some might call ‘successful’ jobs. However, I have returned for a simple life and feel richer. There is still much the west can learn from the east.”

Clove trees are harvested as soon as the buds reach maturity but before flowers have a chance to bloom.

Udula Ihillagolla watches his father harvesting cloves while removing buds from lower branches with his mother.

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Feature - Issue #14

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