Spice Girls: The Sri Lankan forest farmers growing our organic ginger
Next time you buy ginger in the supermarket imagine, for a moment, the other kind of supermarket where ginger is found. The natural kind in the rainforests of Sri Lanka. Swap the fluorescent lighting for sunlight filtering through the rainforest canopy.
Walking through the Tilak and Karuna’s jungle garden is the complete opposite of a visit to a bright supermarket. The only familiar things are the names of ingredients: coffee and tea bushes, turmeric, cardamon trees, coconut palms, palm oil palms, black pepper, green pepper, cocoa, cloves, nutmeg, mace, curry leaf, durian, papaya and pineapple.
With over 25 varieties of spice, fruit, nuts, berries, leaves, roots and bark. It could rival an Islington farmers’ market in London any day. All are essential to Sri Lankan cuisine and health, and all grow a short walk from the Wijesinghe family bungalow in Kandy’s rainforest.
Long before the organics movement and whole food grocery stores, Sri Lanka was farming organically.
Tilak, Karuna and Thilanka harvest their produce and take it to market, along with other members of the Forest Garden Growers Association. And the secret to the health and flavour of their produce, which is off the charts, is … nothing.
They add nothing more into their forest garden other than the sun, rain and the natural lifecycle of flora and fauna. Provided by nature, these simple ingredients all contribute to the rich tropical soil in which they grow their crops. They have a philosophy that the rainforest is a garden, and like any other, if it’s well tended, it will grow an abundance of food without the need for anything but the elements and the natural fertiliser of the jungle.
Food grown in jungle gardens tastes so much better and a testament to this is the ginger, whether cooked, brewed as tea or made into a fizzy drink, its rich in fiery flavour.
The Wijesinghes, like many other farmers, can only make enough money to survive if they’re able to sell small quantities of a large variety of produce. They grow over 30 different tropical foods, spices and medicines. Finding markets for all these products isn’t easy and, because of the abundance of produce in the area, it’s not always possible to make enough money on the local market.
To consistently sell their harvest, for a fair price, requires collaboration and organisation. That’s where the Sri Lankan Rainforest Garden Growers Association and The Fairtrade Foundation come in.
Comprised of 130 small farms, the association brings farmers together to bargain for better prices and find dependable markets for their produce. Along with the security of knowing that what they supply will be bought at a pre-negotiated, minimum price, Fairtrade enables them to pool resources to improve their farms and communities.
Since Karma Cola began trading with Sri Lankan ginger and vanilla farmers they’ve been able to put the Fairtrade premium – that they earn on top of the price of produce – to good use buying better equipment and helping out with funeral grants.
While funeral grants might not sound essential to living, they are for Tilak and his family. As Buddhists, funerals are vitally important for both the living and the departed and can last up to 49 days which takes them away from tending their crops. Like cola farmers in Boma, we don’t tell Sri Lankan farmers what to spend funds on as they know what they need better than us.
The Forest Gardeners Association’s philosophy of tending biodiverse gardens, means enough food can be grown for everyone in the food chain. We could learn a lot from them. And, it’s much more pleasant than pushing a trolley around the bright lights of an incandescent supermarket.