Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Sri Lanka seeks to trademark cinnamon spice success

By Amal Jayasinghe  /  AFP, HIKKADUWA, Sri Lanka

Cinnamon planter Sarath Kumara inspects a cinnamon tree estimated to be more than 100 years old at his village in Sri Lanka’s Hikkaduwa region on Aug. 29.

Photo: AFP

Ten years after the Asian tsunami devastated Sarath Kumara’s cinnamon plantation in Sri Lanka, forcing him to start over with nothing, the farmer faces a new threat from further afield.

Sri Lanka is the world’s leading cinnamon supplier thanks to its centuries-old industry, whose lush, green plantations are strung along the island’s southern coast where European colonists and Arab traders once flocked.

However, the industry says its product — known the world over as “Ceylon cinnamon” — is being undermined by a cheaper rival called “cassia cinnamon” grown mostly in China, Southeast Asia and neighboring India.

“It took about four years before I could get any crops from new trees and it is only now they are giving a full yield,” Kumara, 54, said at his ancestral farm in Hikkaduwa, 100km south of Colombo. “I have not seen cassia, but we know that some people [abroad] adulterate our cinnamon with cassia or sell cassia as Ceylon cinnamon.”

Kumara lost a brother and a sister-in-law, while half of his 9,000 trees were uprooted, when walls of water destroyed plantations in the 2004 tsunami and left 31,000 people dead and a million homeless across the country.

The industry eventually recovered to become stronger than ever thanks to international donors and a herculean effort by its farmers who replanted half a million cinnamon trees in Hikkaduwa and adjoining Balapitiya area.

With cinnamon prices now soaring, the Sri Lankan industry fears wholesalers will increasingly turn to the cheaper product, which is darker in color and according to purists leaves a bitter aftertaste — but still label it “Ceylon cinnamon” or simply cinnamon.

The Spice Council of Sri Lanka wants to protect the brand “Ceylon cinnamon,” and has approached the WTO and the EU about gaining copyright or a patent.

“In many Western countries, cassia is passed off as Ceylon cinnamon [in supermarkets and other shops],” council head Sarada de Silva said. “The true cinnamon is Ceylon cinnamon.”

The council wants the WTO to declare “Celyon cinnamon” a specific product based on a “geographical indication” along the same lines as Champagne, which comes from the region with the same name in northern France.

Under Portuguese, Dutch and finally British colonial rule from the 1500s, the Indian Ocean island was called Celyon and switched to Sri Lanka upon becoming a republic in 1972.

The aromatic spice — used in savory dishes and desserts — grew naturally in Sri Lanka for centuries before Dutch invaders started commercial crops in the 17th century. Sri Lanka’s industry, which supplies 80 percent of the world market, is enjoying record export earnings for the island. High-grade cinnamon oil, extracted from the bark, has been fetching up to 65,000 rupees (US$510) a kilogram.

Cinnamon earned Sri Lanka a record US$135 million from 13,866 tonnes exported last year compared with US$47 million from 12,000 tonnes in 2005, with Mexico, Colombia, Peru and the US the major buyers.

“Prices have never been so good,” De Silva said. “The challenge is to get our geographical indication recognized [by the WTO and others]. That is the best way to deal with cassia.”

The tsunami tragedy pushed devastated cinnamon farmers to invest in better technology upon rebuilding their farms and oil mills and are now reaping the rewards.

“After replanting, it took me four years to make money again,” said farmer Upul Asanka, who lost his farm in the tsunami.

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