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sri lanka is to export some 12,000 tea plants to Iran under a bilateral agreement, an issue that has raised the ire of environmentalists who say the move will jeopardise the country's tea trade. Sri Lanka is the world's biggest tea auction and trading centre and tea is the country's biggest export commodity. Iran, its major tea buyer, also grows tea for domestic use.
Environmentalists were quoted in the newspaper Island as saying, "Those tea varieties were produced after long-term research. They are very important varieties of our tea industry". They fear the exported plants will enable Iran to increase its domestic tea production and then it will not need Sri Lankan exports.
However, officials from the government's Tea Research Institute (tri) deny recent newspaper reports that an Iranian delegation had arrived in Colombo to take charge of the plants. "There is no delegation and we have not been informed when a delegation would arrive," a senior tri official said. tri officials also claim that there is no cause for alarm since the plants to be shipped are not of any exclusive variety and are also not winter-resistant; Iran has cold winters, unlike Sri Lanka. Tea traders discount reports that the export will have a long-term impact on the industry.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga had visited Iran in late 2004 and signed many bilateral agreements. She also persuaded Iran to lift its ban on Sri Lankan tea imports; it had halted the import as it had sufficient local production. Iran obliged but part of the deal was the export of tea plants from Sri Lanka. Resumption of Iran's imports had lifted the Colombo market to record price levels earlier this year.