Resting ten centimetres under some of the most fertile soil in the world is a nugget of culinary and apothecary gold. It’s the Asian ginger we use to make a ginger ale we call Gingerella.
This ginger is one of a supermarket aisle of ingredients growing in the rainforests of the Sri Lankan highlands and tended by Tilak, Karuna and Thilanka Wijesinghe. Although, walking through their jungle garden is the complete opposite of a visit to a supermarket. Swap the fluorescent lighting for sunlight filtered through the rainforest canopy, the smell of worn lino for pungent jungle, spices and tropical fruit, and the canned muzak for insects and birdsong.
The only familiar things are the names of ingredients - there’s 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. I counted over 25 varieties of spice, fruit, nuts, berries, leaves, roots and bark.
All are essential to Sri Lankan cuisine and health, and all grow a short walk from the Wijesinghe family bungalow in Kandy’s rainforest. Tilak and his spice girls - Karuna and Thilanka, harvest this produce and take it to market, along with other members of the Forest Garden Growers Association of Sri Lanka. 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 life-cycle of flora and fauna. Provided by nature, these simple ingredients all contribute to the rich tropical soil in which they grow their produce. 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. The quality and taste of their produce proves this philosophy correct.
Long before the organics movement and whole food grocery stores, Sri Lanka was farming organically. Small holdings, like the Wijesinghes, are everywhere. We source the vanilla and ginger used in our drinks from these family farms and during my tour of our producers the more I saw the more impressed I was by their skill at coaxing delicious produce from the jungle.
I’m in Sri Lanka to see the plants Karma Cola uses to make our drinks and meet the people who grow them. With just 72 hours to get from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo to the central highlands in Kandy, meet the gardeners, taste their produce and see how it’s harvested, washed, cut and dried for market as well as dive into as much of the local culture as possible. I’m on a kind of a speed date with a country.
The first thing I notice is that, up close, Sri Lanka has a flag like an All Black Haka. A lion holding a sword. There are a lot of brightly coloured flags all over Sri Lanka, but none say “we’re-going-to annihilate-you” quite as succinctly as the national flag. It made me wonder if this was some kind of warning.
I shouldn’t worry. It would be unlikely to see a lion or a person waving a sword in anger today, as it’s Poya - an auspicious day for the Buddhists who make up 70 percent of Sri Lankans. Poya means full moon, and every full moon that doesn’t fall on a weekend is a public holiday. Today is a Friday, which could explain why everyone looks so happy.
Driving inland from Columbo, through the hills to Kandy, the traffic eventually merges into a sea of people dressed in white and slowly making their way towards a temple, by the lake at the centre of the town.
The Temple of the Tooth, Sri Dalada Maligawa, is the home of the most important tooth in Sri Lanka, the relic of the Buddha’s left canine. Saved from the ashes of his sandalwood pyre, it was protected through the generations by kings. It was also the cause of wars, as enemies of those kings thought people who worshipped this tooth were crazy.
Eventually the tooth made its way to Sri Lanka, where Buddha declared his religion would be safe for 5000 years. Two and a half thousand years later, it’s evident Buddha could see into the future.
Thousands of people, mostly Buddhists, are chanting, quietly swaying and wafting incense, having made the pilgrimage to be blessed by this special tooth. In the light of the full moon, Buddha and his remaining tooth still work their magic.
Next morning the sun rises over Kandy and Buddha is still there. Hovering above the city on the fringe of the rainforest is a huge, white, cross-legged Bahiravakanda Buddha watching over the city and the road that winds deeper into the central highlands.
Travel for another hour or so along this road, in the direction of Matale, and the route gradually narrows, and the verge becomes jungle as we approach the Wijesinghe’s farm.
This is where Karuna Wijesinghe moved to live with her husband, Tilak, fifteen years ago. They’ve raised their family here, on four acres of rainforest garden.
Like any farm, there’s always something to do. Tilak and Karuna rise at 4.30 am. Tilak starts work in the home garden, just outside their bungalow, while Karuna begins the day preparing food for the family and getting Thilanka and her nine-year-old brother ready for school. They catch a bus on the road we’ve just driven in on. The ride to school takes about an hour.
The food Karuna cooks is mainly vegetarian, with the produce grown only steps away. Occasionally they eat fish from the market or chicken. There are a few chickens scratching around the house. The ones that aren’t laying are destined for the pot.
Their lives haven’t always been quite this straightforward. Relying on the sale of produce from their forest garden to eke out a living is as changeable as the weather.
The price of spice
The Wijesinghes, like many other farmers, can only make enough money to survive if they’re able to sell relatively 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 to cover the cost of production for the local market.
To consistently sell their harvest, for a fair price, requires a high degree of collaboration and organisation. That’s where the Sri Lankan Rainforest Garden Growers Association and
the Fairtrade Foundation come in.
Comprised of some 130 small farms, the association enables farmers, like the Wijesinghes, to join together with the support of the Fairtrade Foundation and bargain for better prices, by finding 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.
I’m curious as to why funeral grants would be high up the list. Tilak explains that for Buddhists, funerals are vitally important for both the living and the departed. They are the transition from this life to the next; where the karmic forces of a lifetime are tallied up. Naturally, it’s important to help family members through their reincarnation.
Funerals can last up to 49 days, with prayers, offerings and assemblies of monks accompanied by chanting, reciting and finally cremation. Then, three months after the funeral, alms-giving (sanghika dana) is practiced, in case the recently deceased has ended up as a preta or hungry ghost forever famished or worse, depraved.
All of this takes people away from tending their crops but cultivation demands daily toil. So help, in the form of these funeral grants, is a necessity. It’s like an insurance policy to compensate for the time you are unable to work due to
Productive gardens, like those in the Kandy forest, are probably the world’s oldest form of land use and the most resilient agro-ecosystem. They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. During the gradual process of families improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved, whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior species were selected and incorporated into he gardens.
This tradition of forest gardening and continuous horticultural improvement using natural resources is alive in Tilak and Karuna’s garden. Testament to this is their ginger.
You can smell it as you dig through the rich wet soil, and when you wash off the dirt, and break the root, you can feel its astringency under your fingernails. It smells like it could cure you; and it can.
Ginger is a natural antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, it boosts the immune system, quelling nausea, fighting colds and gas. Thanks to Tilak and Karuna’s magical jungle-garden, cooked, brewed as tea or made into a fizzy drink, their ginger tastes amazing.
No birds without bees
In The Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern organic movement, Rachel Carson reasons that the intensified, industrialised agriculture of the last half of the 20th century has been silencing the very things that help plants thrive; the birds and the bees.
In her fable that introduces this idea, the hedgerows around fields cultivated with chemicals and machines are silent. There’s no birdsong, because there are no insects for birds to eat. There are no insects because there are no weeds for them to hide and forage in. There are no weeds, because they are considered enemies of productivity and are sprayed with herbicide. In the same way the insects, that eat more than their fair share of crops, are considered pests and attacked with pesticide.
“It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits earth - aeons of time in which that developing, evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings. “Given time, not in years but in millennia, life adjusts and a balance is reached. Time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.”
But there may be an answer
In Sri Lanka, I’ve travelled through time. The people here are as diverse as the plants and the landscape and these rainforests could be the closest thing we have to our idea of an original Garden of Eden. Forest gardeners don’t put anything more into their productive gardens than what naturally occurs here, yet they have an abundant harvest.
The juicy knuckles of ginger root dug from the bottom of the rainforest in Matale thrive in the cacophony of life. The noise is defiant punk rock – birds screeching, insects chattering, frogs chirping and all sorts of other animals going about their business.
The flora and fauna, the sun, the rain and the nutrients coursing from photosynthesis in the forest’s canopy, down to the rich soil that forms its foundations, forever replenish the cycle of life.
Sadly, the biodiversity of rainforests like these is threatened by our insatiable appetite for cheaper food, grown on a massive scale. Jungles are cleared to make way for cattle farms, palm
oil plantations and mono-cultures of high energy-yielding biomass like sugar cane to convert into biofuel.
How can we tear down this millennia-old system that continues to prove itself, to grow only one crop, without ultimately compromising both the crop and the people we’re growing it for?
Wouldn’t it be better to follow Tilak, Karuna and Thilanka and the Forest Gardeners Associations example by tending biodiverse gardens that grow enough for everyone in the food chain. Food grown this way tastes so much better. And, it’s much more pleasant than pushing a trolley around the bright lights of an incandescent supermarket.
Thilanka and Karuna Wijesinghe at home in their bungalow on the edge of the Matale rainforest.
Like good planets, good umbrellas are hard to find. On the streets of Kandy this man is taking good care of his.
A small stick from the frond of a nearby coconut palm is used to pollinate the flowers on vanilla vines.
Tilak Wijesinghe has been tending his families rainforest garden for 15 years.
Ginger in it’s native jungle habitat above the ground, below the ground, dug up and washed.
“The rainforest is a garden and like any garden, if it is well tended, will grow an abundance of food without the need for anything but rain, sunshine and the natural fertiliser of the jungle.”
Full moon over the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The best night of the month to show some devotion.
The Buddhists aren’t the only ones praying this Friday night. In the nearby Hindu temple there’s something for all the family.
Thilanka, daughter of forest garden farmers Tilak and Karuna Wijesinghe, in the jungle outside the family bungalow.
Tea ladies resting after carrying freshly picked bundles of tea leaves to market.
Another family who grow vanilla, ginger and other crops in the forest gardens surrounding their home.
At the factory where The Forest Garden Growers Association process produce, they sort the wood from cinnamon bark. Its a fragrant place to work.