Sri Lanka will be opening up an embassy in Turkey soon and the fist Ambassador to Turkey will be Bharati Wijeratne, the daughter of a key tea industry figure of the past, Lofty Wijeratne. Lofty was described by Herman Gunaratne as having been totally committed to the promotion and export of pure Ceylon tea and not a mongrelized blended version of it. Bharathi herself is Sri Lanka’s first woman tea taster. Lofty was the Consul general for Turkey in Sri lanka for 23 years and Bharathi inherited the Consul Generalship from him and held it for a further twelve years which means that the Turkish Consul Generalship has been with the Wijeratne family for 35 years.
In an usual turn now Bharathi who represented Turkey in Sri Lanka is now going to represent Sri Lanka in Turkey. Whether she will be able to persuade the Turkish government to reduce the tea tariff is doubtful because the self interest of the Turkish tea growers is bound up with the whole question. Lofty was recommended for the Turkish Consul Generalship when he was a director of the tea exporting company Carson Cumberbatch & Co. by the SLFP government of Sirima Bandaranaike. Even at that time, perhaps the Turkish tea market was making people here salivate. The way the Turkish people drink tea has to be seen to be believed.
Bharathi is undoubtedly the best choice available for the position of the new Ambassador to Turkey. She already has extensive contacts with Turkey forged over a period of 35 years and she was the handpicked choice of the Turkish government to succeed Lofty when he retired from the Consul Generalship due to ill-health. When she was recommended for the Consul Generalship, she was already married to Mano Wijeratne who was an opposition parliamentarian. Yet in a rare exhibition of broadmindedness the then government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga approved the appointment. The Turkish government helped in a big way after the tsunami of December 2004, by constructing 500 houses in Weligama along with shops, playgrounds and shopping centres, medical centres and community halls for tsunami victims. It was opened by the Turkish Prime Minister himself. This provided a foretaste of what Turkish-Sri Lanka relations can be if handled properly.
As such, Bharathi is certainly a better choice than a career diplomat who would have to grope his way around in Ankara. This hopefully is a fact that the career service too should recognize. However, one thing that the Turkish example shows is that even if a certain market is consuming a particular kind of black tea, and Ceylon tea is alien to that market still, if someone in that market tastes Sri Lankan tea, he will immediately notice the difference. The moral of the story is that good tea is recognized even by those who may not have ever tasted Ceylon tea before.
Therein perhaps lies the salvation of the Sri Lankan tea industry. The owners of foreign brands may over a period of time reduce the proportion of Ceylon tea in their blends and increase profits by substituting cheaper tea from other locations; and the consumer may over a period of time get used to drinking the inferior brew; but once that consumer is exposed to genuine Ceylon tea again, he notices the difference. If the consumer did not notice the difference, Turkey would not need to have punitive tariffs on imported tea. The pre-eminent place that Ceylon tea has, as the benchmark against which all teas are measured, is probably the biggest asset we have and it would be foolish to fritter this away for the short term profit of a few.
The reduction in world poverty, the expansion of the middle class especially in Asia, and the rise of ethically conscious markets in the west all provide a market for higher quality tea. For a country like Sri Lanka where a strike on the estates could result in a higher cost of production overnight, to try and compete on price and price alone on the international market would be suicidal.