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Slowly but surely the the tea industry is transforming from plantations to small-scale farms.

“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? How could they pay them above-market prices? How could they educate consumers about their coffee sources? And how could they connect producers and consumers in relationships based on respect and integrity?

Three decades later, there is no question that the founders’ idealistic vision has radically transformed the industry—Fair Trade has become mainstream. Over 400 new Fair Trade coffee roasters have sprung up across the country and a number of larger companies dedicate a portion of their purchases to Fair Trade: all from small farmer co-ops. Consumers increasingly choose to buy Fair Trade coffee and the members of those co-ops are doing far better than their non-fair trade counterparts.

Fairly Traded Tea, 2009

Skip ahead 23 years and look at the tea . By far, the vast majority of tea found on grocery shelves comes from large-scale plantations. Even 98 percent of tea 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 fair trade tea. Ironically, however, by only working with large estate tea, the fair trade model itself makes it virtually impossible to develop and support a small farmer tea supply chain.

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 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 activists need to take action to create a new model based on human rights and economic justice.

A Different Tea Industry 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). We saw an array of exciting projects that are part of their vision of a transformed tea industry. In their transformed industry vision, 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. They use the technical assistance and training of a local organization, and the processing and marketing assistance of TPI. Walking through the community felt like the mythical Shangri-la. Home to Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus. The village was clean and well-maintained; water flowed in abundance and 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. In front of some of the houses, colorful Buddhist flags were strung across the trees.

We visited farms and spoke with 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. The sense of pride and self-assurance the farmers displayed 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.

Worker-owned Plantations

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. This continues until 2005 when the 350 farmers decided to take control, and with the support of TPI, ran the estate themselves. 2,500 people depend on the plantation for their livelihoods, shelter, medical needs, and educational services.

We met with the Potong Welfare Committee and were told about 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 percent 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. Unfamiliar with the tea industry, the company suffered huge losses, and eventually sought out TPI and asked if they would run the estate. TPI approached the workers, explained the situation, and proposed a solution to keep them in operation: the workers would take over management and receive 51 percent ownership. TPI would purchase 25 percent of the remaining shares and provide the technical assistance and market support. 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 who 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 and political power. But through our success, we are demonstrating that consumers are a “sleeping giant”. Once “awakened” and shown a path grounded in fairness, respect, and mutual dignity, we believe that people will act on their values, aim high, and purchase ethically. Many will go beyond consumption and also advocate for necessary systemic changes.

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. Small producer groups and Alternative Trade Organizations work toward this vision. We are convinced that 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.

Phyllis Robinson is the Education and Campaigns Manager at Equal Exchange, a worker-owned, Alternative Trade co-operative selling coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, dried fruit and nuts from small farmer co-operatives throughout the world. She began working at Equal Exchange in 2002 as Producer Relations Coordinator and since that time has coordinated many initiatives to support small farmer co-operatives and to educate and engage U.S. consumers about Equal Exchange’s Authentic Fair Trade model.

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