By Amyn Chatoor
The earliest evidence of spices by man could be traced back to 50,000 B.C. The spice trade developed throughout the Middle East around 2000 B.C., with cinnamon and pepper being the main spices used at that time, in the formative period of the industry.
The Egyptians used herbs for embalming and their needs for exotic herbs at that time perhaps stimulated the world trade of spices. In fact the word spices originated from the same root as species – meaning kinds of goods.
By 1000 B.C. spices were among the most luxurious products available in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was Vasco Da Gama and Christopher Columbus who described to investors after their return from their voyages to India the many new and unknown spices available there.
In the early days of trading Sri Lanka was known as a spice island. Spices today play a very significant and vital role in the Sri Lankan agricultural economy in respect of export oriental trade. The important spice crops in Sri Lanka comprise cinnamon, pepper, cloves, nutmegs and mace.
Spices are cultivated in the hill country and intermediate zones of the country. Sri Lanka is one of the exporters in Asia when it comes to spices. As a matter of fact Sri Lankan spices fetch a premium in international trade compared to other countries because of the Preferential Tariff Agreement signed by the Governments of Sri Lanka and India, where the duty component in Sri Lankan spices is negligible compared to spices from other origins, where it is comparatively high.
This remarkable achievement by the Government of the day has brought tremendous income not only to our motherland by way of export revenue, but also substantially increased Sri Lanka’s export of spices (in volume) in the international arena, making the country a leader among the giants in the industry in international trade.
Some of the other destinations besides India are USA, UK, Europe, Germany and Mexico. I wonder how many are aware of the fact that the biggest exporter of cinnamon in the world today is Sri Lanka. This is something our motherland should be proud of.
Normally when one refers to cinnamon it is common to interchange cinnamon with cassia and vice versa, but this is a very big error and it should never be made. Cinnamon is a far superior product in quality and it fetches a premium in world trade, compared to cassia which is freely available the world over and is a cheaper product in the export trade.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Sri Lanka’s export of spices developed rapidly from the primitive form to modern technology and we as a nation gained international respect from the ‘world giants’. Sri Lanka started attending international conferences and seminars in spices, especially pepper, and spices became an international commodity in the late 1960s, second only to tea and rubber.
The exports of spices were in the hands of a few established and reputed exporters who believed in doing business with morality, decency and high ethical standards and more importantly their reputation, both locally and internationally, were sacrosanct to them.
There were the values that were etched in their minds and left an indelible mark in an era that dominated the export of spices. They would never ever dare to do anything wrong or unethical at the expense of their establishment and the name of our motherland – that is not to say there was no competition among the exporters of the day; there was plenty of it but it was healthy competition, with no underhand dealings and barbaric acts, with profit not being the sole criteria in business.
In brief, values and business ethics transcended the barricades of trading. This was the cornerstone and principal of business during the golden period of the spice industry, which even today is an accepted fact by the pioneers of the industry.
It is very unfortunate and heartrending that business today in the spice industry has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, with mushroom exporters – a bunch of unscrupulous elements who would go to any extent, even to the point of tarnishing the image of the industry totally, to make a fast buck – springing up every year, having absolute nonsensical ideas, living in a fool’s paradise that the industry can make exporters become millionaires overnight.
They just enter the business without studying the ramifications and the methodology of doing business and as a result they export some rubbish to fulfil their export contract and tarnish the reputation of the industry, which has been built through sheer hard work and sweat by the senior generation of the industry, who pioneered the export of spices. The reputation of our motherland also gets tarnished in the process.
It is only at the end of the year that one realises their faults when they see the bottom line in the red, with tremendous losses and debtors. They are left with no alternative but to run away, leaving everyone high and dry.
In the process of these gruesome acts they not only ruin their name but also cause irrevocable damage to traditional exporters who find trading increasingly difficult and strenuous as the buyers demand conditions and the genuine exporters have to pay the heavy price for the wrongdoing of the so-called mushroom exporters to fulfil our export orders as it goes as Sri Lankan export of spices and not the exporters name.
This is in brief the brutally candid, gruesome, sad and nerve wrenching true story of the spice industry today, as told by the author who has been eyewitness to the events of the industry since 1981. It is my earnest hope and prayer that sanity will prevail some day and these so-called mushroom exporters would soon realise that there is enough profit for everyone provided they do business in the correct and ethical way without doing it their way – with intense jealousy and vendetta and the sole objective being cutting each other’s throats.
This is no way business should be done. If only our forefathers knew the way business is being done today, they would be turning in their graves over and over.
May God bless the spice industry and its exporters with many more years of happiness, peace, longevity and healthy competition.