By Danielle Lafond, Quality Control Technician
On the steep hillsides of Mineral Springs, a member the Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative prepares a meal over a fire. Vegetables and greens bubble away in a cast iron pot and tendrils of steam are sent skyward to mingle with the mist that hangs heavy in the air over Darjeeling. It looks delicious and smells tempting but my colleagues and I will never taste it. This meal is for the cows.
These cows are more than cows. By producing dung (for fertilizer), fermented urine (a natural pesticide), and milk (for, well, milk) the cows become partners in the endeavors of the people of Mineral Springs to live a biologically diverse, sustainable, and rewarding life. These cows deserve a nice hot meal.
As we walked through the family farms in Mineral Springs, we witnessed countless reiterations of the many types of partnerships necessary in making this cooperative so successful. Binita Rai, a mother of two, is a teacher at the school in the cooperative as well as a farmer herself. She also serves as a member of the Welfare Committee which plays a part in deciding where fair trade premiums will be allocated.
Mineral Springs has no processing factory. Tea that is plucked there is processed at another nearby garden whose manager regularly visits the community to engage the members in discussions on issues such as quality and logistics. The Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative also partners with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to educate its members on biodiversity, composting and other sustainable agricultural practices.
Closer to home, partnerships have the potential to create real movement around small farmer teas. Natural foods co-ops who are committed to educating consumers about small farmer issues concerning coffee and other crops have an opportunity to further connect consumers and producers within the realm of tea by partnering with Equal Exchange and promoting a small farmer model. By offering teas from the shining example of food sovereignty that is Sanjukta Vikas as well as from other, newer worker-owned tea gardens that are struggling to establish themselves, food co-ops give consumers the opportunity to partner with producers in the struggle for food security and ownership models.
These partnerships may seem like rhetorical, abstract lines that dimly connect one end of the world to the other, and I only have the following personal account to offer as argument: I have seen a tea farmer hold a box of finished product and watched the realization creep over his face that THIS is what you’re buying, what he’s selling, and what the face of his life is to you. He knows that you are connected directly to him. For me, it was a perfect example of the connections made from a hundred partnerships across a thousand miles all culminating in the hands of a farmer who laughed at the fact that we had put the tea in a bag (it’s all strainers and loose leaf in Darjeeling). That is very real – more real than I, in my four years of being a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, ever thought it was possible for anything to be.