Awards 1998 The Rio Tinto Award for Long-term Commitment

The Rio Tinto Award for Long-term Commitment

The Winner: James Finlay, Bangladesh

The development of tea estates in Bangladesh started in 1860 and Finlays first became involved a decade later. It has 6,500 hectares under tea, and about 2,000 unsuitable for it. Ten years ago, it started to plant this area with rubber. The planting will be completed within two years.

Finlays, which produces ten million kilogrammes of tea a year, employs over 15,000 people, many of whom have inherited jobs from parents and grandparents. They receive free housing and medical help: the company has one 50-bed hospital, five smaller ones and 16 dispensaries, all with suitably qualified staff. Tubewells supply clean water for homes.

During the summer the temperatures in Bangladesh are uncomfortably hot and the surface temperature of leaves can rise to a level where photosynthesis stops. It has therefore always been the practice to plant shade trees within the fields of tea. Once planted these were usually left to their own devices: they decayed naturally; and only then were replaced.

During the 1980's a determined effort was made on the Finlay estate to improve the stands of shade trees within the tea fields and to plant other trees for timber, fruit and ornamental purposes, on any other spare land. Many of the roads are now attractive, well shaded avenues.

Finlays was aware that the soils were very low in organic matter and decided to grow as much green material within the tea fields as possible. It discovered that the existing shade trees, produce seedling trees each spring, and decided to maintain them at a much greater density than was recommended in the books on best practice, the idea being to lop these trees very frequently and leave the loppings on the ground to lend fertility to the soil. As the trees grew bigger, they would be thinned out and the workers would be able to use the immature wood for fuel.

The multitude of fresh young trees made Finlays ask if there was commercial value in those that were old and over mature. Its homework showed that much timber was imported and, with rising demand within the country, home grown timber of good quality was assured of a decent market. But how was felling and particularly extraction to be carried out? Tea is traditionally planted in rows about four feet apart. Its branches join together to form a continuous mass through which the pluckers move with some difficulty. Finlays felled the first trees using a pile of old tractor rear tyres as a cushion and engaged an elephant contractor to extract the timber. The elephants found it slow and cumbersome to get along the rows of tea and impossible to cross many drainage ditches. Something else was needed.

Finlays chairman, Richard Muir, who had been masterminding the progress in timber, has his own forestry activities in Scotland, and decided that what was needed was some skylining or overhead winching equipment. Refurbished second hand equipment was purchased from the Forestry Commission and John Corrieri, a freelance Scottish forestry contractor, went out to teach the Bangladeshis how to use it. It has been a tremendous success.

Once able to extract the old trees, Finlays decided that the sawmill, which was extremely basic, needed to be improved and expanded. A Stenna automated sawbench with a 5 inch bandsaw, was purchased second hand from Scotland.

For the government's programme for getting electricity into rural areas, large quantities of cross arms (from which the electric wires are hung) and anchor logs (which are used to stay the uprights) were being imported. Finlays knew that these had been kiln dried and pressure treated and realised that the quality of its products had to compete with the imports. Kurshid Chowdhury, the tea estates engineer, put together the pressure treatment vessel and pumps from bits and pieces acquired from scrapped ships. The kilns were built with local materials.

Thus equipped, Finlays has won major contracts with the Rural Electrification Board and has sold to other customers also. Everyone that has been involved in this project is delighted at winning the Rio Tinto award.

James Finlay, 10-14 West Nile Street, Glasgow G1 2PP
Tel: 0141 204 1321 Fax: 0141 248 4751