Transforming the Tea Industry

Transforming the Tea Industry:
From Plantations to a Small Farmer Model
By Phyllis Robinson, Equal Exchange Education & Campaigns Manager
A Different Kind of Tea Model
We think the time for change in the tea industry is now, and our tea partners - in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa - share this conviction. The time of large-scale, colonial-era plantations is over. On a November 2009 trip to Darjeeling, India, a small group from Equal Exchange 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 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.
We visited farms and spoke with many farmers. The commitment they have made to bio-dynamics, organic farming, and permaculture was clear. Materials are recycled and reused. The farmers displayed a sense of pride and self-assurance. Owning their land affords 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, until 2005 when the 350 farmers decided to take control, and with the support of TPI, run the estate themselves. 2,500 people now depend on the plantation for their livelihoods, shelter, medical needs and educational services.
Members of the Potong Welfare Committee (which serves as a social council for the members) told us about 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?”
The government took over the plantation, and in 2005, Potong was auctioned to a Kolkatta unfamiliar with the tea industry. After suffering huge losses, the owners sought out TPI to see if they would consider running the estate. TPI approached the workers, 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. “Now we have a new structure and we can work with dignity and for our own development,” he said. “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
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 is no reason to accept anything less.