Tea Promoters India: organic future for Darjeeling
by Karin Heinze (comments: 1)
Picture: tea plucker in the tea garden Selimbong. Photo © Karin Heinze
Darjeeling, a region in the Himalayas, is synonymous with good tea. During the colonial era the British introduced tea growing and Darjeeling became famous for its tea. Today, tea still determines the work and lives of the people in the towns and villages in the mountains of West-Bengal on the border with Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. But now, contemporary approaches to tea cropping are called for. Organic, fairtrade and sustainability are for the company Tea Promoters India (TPI) just some of the strategies for taking Darjeeling forward to an organic future.
Picture: Gautam Mohan (in the middle) is the junior boss of the enterprise Tea Promoters India. Photo © Karin Heinze
Gautam Mohan recounts how he acquired his love of nature and his understanding of the interconnections in ecosystems from his grandfather. In his mid-thirties, he is the junior head of the organic tea company Tea Promoters India, domiciled in Calcutta, and he is responsible for eight tea gardens in the mountains of Darjeeling and Assam. He often comes up from the big city and, working together with the local team, he takes a keen interest in the growing, harvesting and processing of the tea. He loves being in the house where his grandfather lived and where he spent a lot of time as a child. He's happy when he discovers new useful insects and birds or even catches sight of a leopard from the Jeep. For him, that's evidence that the ecosystem is intact again. “Organic agriculture is the path to the future,” he says with conviction. “It means we've all got clean water again and tea that is not polluted by pesticides.”
Picture: the bee hive is in the middle of the flower garden of the guest house of the Demeter tea garden Selimbong. Photo © Karin Heinze
Offering people future prospects
Organic and bio-dynamic cropping – skills that he refined during a training placement on the bio-dynamic Dottenfelderhof (Hessen) – are for him a means of attaining quality and also a way of ensuring sustainable care of the environment. But he explains that this alone is not the key to re-balancing the ecosystem and making the tea culture viable in this region. What they need are people. "People moving from the countryside to the towns is a global problem. What people want today is different, and we have to take that into account – we've got to offer them good prospects here in this location."
Picture: there is an own garden for the bio-dynamic preparations. Photo © Karin Heinze
Work in the tea gardens is a classic women's domain. It's not easy work – with a basket on their backs, the pickers have to struggle along paths on the steep slopes, and they are exposed to the hot sun, rain or cold winds the whole day long. Fair wages are just one way of recognising the value of this work but, says Gautam Mohan, it's not the main issue." It's a question of working with each other as equals, carefully transferring responsibility and providing a route for people to gain greater independence." Education, social security and property are themes that Gautam keeps returning to. An example of successful independent collaboration is the small-farmer cooperative in the Mineral Springs tea garden.
Picture: many women are working as tea pluckers or preparing plant pots the nursery like shown here. Photo © Karin Heinze
Independent small farmers - Mineral Springs Cooperative
Prem Tamal works for Tea Promoters India as a consultant. For nearly 20 years he has been gaining experience of small farmers and he represents the international Fairtrade Organisation FLO, where he was on the board for a number of years, and NOAP (Fairtrade Asia/Pacific). The former British tea garden Mineral Springs was abandoned when the British withdrew. The cultivated land returned to its natural state and vegetation took possession of the slopes, from where you can see the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas.
Picture: consultant Prem Tamal and Binita, the owner of a small farm and tea garden and Franziska Geyer from Ökotopia Berlin met at Mineral Springs. Photo © Karin Heinze
The former plantation workers and small farmers in the region occupied the land and began to operate the tea garden again. The tea bushes have now been tended and harvested for some years, and the families also grow spices such as cardamom and ginger as well as fruit like oranges and mandarins. In the 1990s this tea growing region near the city of Darjeeling was re-discovered by a tea broker from the west. Together with the farmers and Prem Tamal, he built up the cooperative Sanjukta Vikash that today is made up of around 400 small-farmer families. The cooperative has been certified organic since 1998 and fairtrade since 2004 (FLO).
Picture: tea plucker is since many decades the classical profession for women in the region of Darjeeling. Photo © Karin Heinze
Well organised marketing
The cooperative has a democratic structure. The board consisting of young people runs an office in the nearby village and it also acts as the collection point for the the farmers' crops. Binita Rai and Navin Tamang from Sanjukta Vikash and Mineral Springs play a leading role. Binita is a member of the board and is the women's representative in the cooperative. Navin came across the cooperative when he was working for an NGO and he helped with setting it up. He stayed, bought land and a small farm in the valley and set up there his eco-resort Tathagata Farm, that many people use as the starting point for trekking tours to the Darjeeling mountains, Sikkim or Bhutan.
Picture: modern live and a certain welfare arrived also in the tee mountains in the Himalayas. Photo © Karin Heinze
The freshly picked tea leaves are processed in the facilities of TPI in Seeyok or Selimbong. The bio-fair products are exported to Germany, France and other western markets. By selling tea and spices the small farmers of Mineral Springs have achieved a reasonable standard of living and have gained independence – with the result that young people can see that they have prospects here. Binita would not leave this place under any circumstances. As she says: "I am not in the least attracted by living in towns."
Picture: Binita is happy with her small farm. Photo © Karin Heinze