A Sojourn into the World of Organic Fair Trade Tea

Equal Exchange
June 5, 2012

Written by Linda Elliot, First Presbyterian in Charleston, West Virginia

Sitting on the terrace of the Singell Estate Headquarters, a former English colonial plantation home, I listen to the history of Potong Tea Garden, completely organic, unfold. Prem Tamang, Executive Manager of Tea Promoters of India (TPI), has a captived audience of our eight-member Equal Exchange delegation. Beautiful flowers and blooming trees adorn the setting.

It’s a complete revelation to me that the English brought Chinese tea to this remote area, Kurseong, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, some 250 years ago. Potong Tea Garden, about 100 years old, was mismanaged and abandoned, repeatedly, creating extreme hardships for its workers and their families. There was suffering from malnutrition and illnesses, and even their schools were closed. The workers never gained independence and had no other source of livelihood.

In 2005, Potong Tea Garden was auctioned off to a Kolkata-based company and it, too, failed. Not ready to give up, some of the Potong workers decided to take control and manage the estate. They approached TPI for support and assistance and an agreement was worked out. With increased workers, they now own 51% of the company’s shares. TPI provides technical
assistance and market support and owns 25% of shares, with Kolkata owning remaining shares. Better management is in evidence with better schools, homes, medicine and communities.

Equal Exchange, championing Fair Trade organic tea, is a life line for a better lifestyle for the tea growers, thus an integral factor in Potong’s transformation. Most of its Indian tea is harvested at Potong, gaining the tea growers greater access to the market. We learn that reinvestment is an important factor in tea production. Equal Exchange recently invested at Potong, after a successful tea promotion, during the last three months in 2011.

Field experience is the next step of our journey and the road into Potong Tea Garden is a pattern of continuous, switchbacks. There are numerous four-wheel drive vehicles with very few places to meet and pass. The uphill traffic has the right-of-way. No guardrails! The ‘going’ is slow and treacherous. 

I was filled with awe at my first sighting of tea shrubs in the distance. With the exception of Deepak Khandelwal, a tea consultant at Equal Exchange, none of us had ever been in a tea garden. The bushes were pruned to about three to four feet and standing in clusters for easy plucking. Brightly clothed ladies, with woven baskets on their backs filled with vibrant, green tea leaves created an image that was indelible. The president of the co-op,Sashile Subba, showed us how to look for the stem with two leaves and a bud; but three leaves was okay for picking. My eyes did not quickly fix on the correct stem to pick. I was reminded of searching for four leaf clovers in my youth. Farther along, another group of ladies with bundles of dried grasses, bigger than their small frames, were toting their loads up switchbacks to mulch tea saplings. Tea cultivation is very labor intensive work.

Our group moved to a new planting area where there was a sign reading, “EQUAL EXCHANGE WITH POTONG WORKERS COMMITTEE, NEW TEA PLANTING PROJECT-YEAR 2011-2012-“ (Part of Equal Exchange’s investment).  We were surprised when a group of tea workers applauded us. We each got to plant a tea sapling. Our names were registered, individually, as each sapling was lowered into a hole, filled with dirt and tapped, gingerly, into place. Each sapling cost a dollar and its longevity is 150 years. With contour irrigation in place, a parcel of land was cleared, planted with grasses to build up the soil to protect it during the monsoon season. In 2013, this area will be planted to yield tea, grasses, sunflowers, ginger, corn and various other crops to better sustain the land and the farmers' needs. This project, with its variety of crops, is bringing about change that will grow the tea garden and empower the workers. 

With tea plucking behind us, we next visited Singell Tea Processing Center. After weighing, tea leaves are put in bags and taken to an upstairs withering room for drying on long, rectangular tables with mesh bottoms for anywhere from 18 to 20 hours. The tea leaves are then put in a chute that drops them to a huge roller machine on the first floor. After crushing, leaves go to the green leaf sifter and are transferred to the fermenting room where there is more drying and cooling. Then the leaves are put into a dryer and finally piled onto a tile compartment on the floor. From there the tea sorted and checked for bugs. Whatever doesn’t pass the grading size is crushed into dust. The last stage of the tea process is tasting and evaluation.

In the state of West Bengal, in Darjeeling, we visited the Mineral Springs Tea Plantation. The co-op started out poor in 1997. Squatters previously lived on the grounds and it was in a state of ruins. There were no roads, and electricity was wired in only seven years ago. The co-op now has a farm administrator and an Internal Control System (ICS) that is democratically elected from 14 hamlets. The ICS instructs the workers and does follow-up; there are specific duties within the co-op with a paid overseer of daily functions. Working together for the good of all, the co-op is a now progressive, diversified, and governed by high standards. Its high altitude tea is greatly valued and is the source of Equal Exchange’s Darjeeling tea bags. The co-op is an exciting new model for other plantations.

It was beautiful hiking in Mineral Spring’s jungle-like setting with numerous vestiges of colonial walls left intact. At times, it was so steep we had to scoot down onto another level. Along the paths and grand, stone stairways, we passed by orchids, palm, mango, orange and banana trees. There were beds of ginger and turmeric, maize, and vegetables, as well as beehives, cows, pigs and chickens. Mineral Springs is the envy of bordering plantations. 

The Equal Exchange tea delegation to India has given me a whole new perspective that I would not have gained otherwise. There is a satisfaction in gaining a more in-depth knowledge about tea. Never again will I savor a cup of tea without fond memories and admiration for the friendly, proud, hard-working tea growers in Potong and Mineral Springs Gardens.

Linda Elliot, from First Presbyterian in Charleston, West Virginia, won Equal Exchange’s Tea Contest for the most tea sold. She traveled with a delegation to Darjeeling in West Bengal, India, and visited the Potong Tea Garden, one of Equal Exchange’s Fair Trade tea producers. Linda is an Early Childhood educator who retired from teaching in the public schools in 2000, after 37 years of teaching.