“The predominant ownership and management model for tea gardens in Darjeeling is rooted in colonial history. In view of the changing cultural, political, and economic climate, a new framework that revolves around worker involvement, participation, & ownership was conceived. This revolutionary concept is not only critical to the success of [Potong], but is important for the development of the larger Darjeeling tea community.” Prem Tamang, Tea Promoters of India
Fairly Traded Coffee, 1986
When Equal Exchange pioneered Fair Trade coffee in 1986, the founders were told they were crazy: how could they create a viable business model while simultaneously helping small farmers gain access to the market; pay them an above-market price; educate consumers about the source of their coffee; and connect producers and consumers in relationships based on respect and integrity?
Two decades later, there is no question that the founders’ idealistic vision has radically transformed the coffee industry. While Fair Trade may not yet be a household term, the concept has entered the mainstream coffee market. Over 400 new Fair Trade coffee roasters have sprung up across the country and a number of larger companies are dedicating a portion of their coffee purchases to Fair Trade; all of which comes from small farmer co-ops. Consumers are increasingly choosing to buy coffee sourced from fair trade co-ops and the producer members of those co-ops are, in general, doing far better than their non-Fair Trade counterparts.
Fairly Traded Tea, 2009
Skip ahead 23 years and let’s take a look at the tea industry. By far, the vast majority of tea found on grocery shelves comes from large-scale plantations. Even 98% of tea that is labeled “Fair Trade” is sourced from plantations, one of the last vestiges of the colonial system. The certifiers claim that there is not enough small farmer tea to create a viable supply chain; that plantation tea is the only way to offer consumers a Fair Trade tea. However, while it is true that in some cases, workers have more participation in certain decisions than do those working on non-fair trade plantations, by only working with large estate tea, the Fair Trade model focuses far too much on supply and not nearly enough on Big Change.
Transformation of the tea industry is both possible and long overdue. Due to the feudal nature of plantations, workers are often trapped in a system of dependency. In many cases, workers receive their housing, schooling and medical care from the estate. This means that if a worker loses his/her job, or if the plantation is abandoned, thousands of workers and their families are left without any form of income or services. In fact, in many regions, economic, political and cultural realities are causing this system, frozen in a bygone era, to crumble on its own. Tea workers, however, can’t afford to wait for slow change and committed fair traders and activists need to take action now to create a new model based on human rights and economic justice.
A Different Kind of Tea Model
We think the time for change is now. Our tea partners – in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa – share this conviction. On a recent trip to Darjeeling, India, we visited our partners, Tea Promoters of India (TPI) and saw an array of exciting projects that are part of their vision of a transformed tea industry where the farmers are empowered, making decisions, taking risks, building their own businesses and improving their lives and communities.
Small Farmer Co-operatives
Sanjukta Vikas, a dairy co-operative comprised of 450 small farmers, also exports high quality, organic Fair Trade tea with the technical assistance and training of a local non-governmental organization, and the processing and marketing assistance of TPI. Walking through the community felt like that mythical Shangri-la of the movies. The village was clean and well-maintained, water flowed in abundance; the brightly-painted homes were surrounded by sweet smelling flower gardens, terraced hills, and shaded farms planted with oranges, bananas, onions, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Colorful Buddhist flags were strung across the trees in front of a handful of houses; the co-operative itself is also home to Christians and Hindus.
We visited farms and spoke with many farmers. The commitment they have made to bio-dynamics, organic farming, and permaculture was clear. We were shown how materials are recycled and reused; nothing is wasted. Another constant was the sense of pride and self-assurance the farmers displayed which contrasted sharply to other places we’ve visited. Owning their land and having options affords farmers a stronger sense of investment and control over their business.
The Potong Tea Garden, established over 100 years ago by the British, is the story of a plantation repeatedly abandoned, taken over, mismanaged, and abandoned again, until 2005 when the 350 farmers decided to take control, and with the support of TPI, run the estate themselves. 2500 people depend on the plantation for their livelihoods, shelter, medical needs and educational services.
We met with members of the Potong Welfare Committee and were told about just some of the economic hardships they suffered during these periods of abandonment: schools were closed, malnutrition was rampant, illnesses abounded, and dozens of people died. The committee’s president, Sher Bahadur, said: “It was so very, very bad. There was no food in the house. The plantation system was structured in such a way that we were never taught any other means of livelihood. We were 100% dependent on the tea plantation. So when the plantation was abandoned, what could we do?”
After the government had taken over the plantation and grossly mismanaged it, Potong was auctioned to a Kolkata company in 2005. But the company was unfamiliar with the tea industry and suffered huge losses. So the owners sought out TPI and asked if they would be interested in running the estate. Representatives of TPI approached the workers. They explained the situation and proposed a solution to keep the estate in operation: the workers take over management – and 51% ownership. TPI would purchase 25% of the remaining shares and provide the technical assistance and market support. Like Sanjukta Vikas, the farmers could process their tea at TPI’s facilities.
After 45 days of deliberation, the workers agreed and a Management Team was created comprised of farmers, TPI, and representatives of the Kolkatta business which still owns a minority share. A member of the Welfare Committee told us, “Before, they were the management and we were the workers. Whatever they asked us to do, we had to do. Before, the management was the supreme authority and we were scared of them. Now we discuss things amongst ourselves.”
President Bahadur agreed, “Now we have a new structure and we can work with dignity and for our own development. We are working for ourselves and no one else. This is our model and if we are successful, then we will have a future.”
Nothing Short of Transformation
It wasn’t easy for Equal Exchange’s founders to challenge an entire coffee industry, especially one so rooted in economic, political, and historic power. But through the co-operative’s success, the organization has demonstrated that consumers are a “sleeping giant”: once “awakened” and shown a path grounded in fairness, respect, and mutual dignity, people will act on their values, aim high, and purchase ethically. Many will go beyond consumption and also advocate for necessary systemic changes.
We believe there is a path toward a small farmer tea model like the ones we saw at Sanjukta Vikas and the Potong Tea Garden: one which paves the way for small farmers to have greater access to the market, affording them more economic power, stronger control, better lives, and healthier communities. There are already producer groups and alternative trade organizations working toward this vision. We are convinced that U.S. consumers, armed with information and knowledge, and given a real choice, will walk alongside us as we turn our vision into reality. There is no reason to accept anything less.