Last updated: January 2014
The Fairtrade Foundation profiles an Indian tea producer supplying Fairtrade-certified tea.
More than 30 years ago, Rajah Banerjee finished his studies in London and returned to the family tea estate in Darjeeling. Located at 1,200 metres (5,000 feet) on the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal, Makaibari Tea Estate was one of dozens producing Darjeeling tea, the prized ‘champagne of teas’.
Darjeeling Picker, photo credit: Flickr.
As Rajah Banerjee reacquainted himself with the area, he had the sudden realisation that the dense tea monoculture was neither environmentally, economically or socially sustainable. Today, his prediction has been borne out.
Tea production in Darjeeling has declined in the last decade as plantations have closed or been abandoned because of low auction prices. In the battle to cut costs, the fertility of the naturally thin soil has been reduced by overuse of chemicals or the soil has been washed away by landslides. Gaping scars have appeared on the upper slopes, gradually denuded of the native forests that absorbed the worst effects of the monsoon rains, the trees cut for firewood or logged, often illegally, for short-term profit.
A new vision for Makaibari
But Makaibari tells a different story – living proof that sustainable agriculture can succeed commercially and benefit the environment and local communities. Gone are the regimented lines of tea bushes, instead the tea grows amid fruit and bamboo, herbs and clover, the soil is dark and soft, fed with the organic compost prepared on the estate.
“Our decision for organic growth was made out of desperation”, says Mr Banerjee. “All over this region, nature was destroyed, trees were cut down, we had a huge problem with erosion and many animals died due to the insecticides. We were forced to change something.”
Rajah Banerjee’s pioneering life’s work has been to convert the estate to permaculture. Tea bushes have been integrated into the six tiers of plants that form a biodynamic ecosystem that enriches the health of the soil, checks erosion and encourages a wealth of birds, butterflies and insects.
Tea Gardens at Darjeeling, photo creditL Rupa Razi
The different levels of tree cover help shade delicate tea leaves from the scorching sun as well as retaining moisture; some of the grasses and herbs also have medicinal or insect-repellent properties; leguminous plants increase the soil’s nitrogen content; and organic matter from dead leaves and forest litter improves its fertility. Tea is only grown on a quarter of Makaibari’s 1,000 hectares. More than half remains subtropical forest, home to two Bengal tigers, leopards, barking deer and hornbills.
Fairtrade supports progressive philsophy
This integrated philosophy encompasses all aspects of estate life. Most of the office staff are members of families who work on the estate and seven of the 25 field supervisors are female – unheard of in this part of the world. Tea sold to the Fairtrade market includes a premium for social development projects that is administered by the Joint Body. This committee comprises management and elected worker representatives of which seven of the twelve are women. The estate has initiated many social projects and the Fairtrade premium is used to support these or start new ones. Electricity has been brought to the estate’s seven villages, their 430 households and 1,560 residents. Six women workers have been trained in basic midwifery and health education. Interest-free educational and medical loans are available.
The Joint Body operates a low-interest revolving loan fund for workers to install flushing toilets, extend their distinctive four-room houses or set up small businesses. Some workers have taken out loans to purchase chickens, goats or cattle for eggs, meat and milk - organic cow’s milk fetches high prices in nearby Kurseong town. But the cattle also provide other benefits. Many workers have installed LPG cookers that are fuelled by methane produced in biogas plants from cow dung. Excess manure is added to the compost heap which all families maintain and which the estate purchases as organic fertiliser for the tea bushes.
“Fairtrade affects many people here”, says Rajah Banerjee. “Makaibari and Fairtrade share a common vision.”
The future is positive
The tea workers are full of ambitious ideas to improve their community – a computer centre for their children, more scholarships, eco-tourism, an expensive pump that will ensure year-round piped water. If Makaibari can increase the 15% of production it sells to the Fairtrade market, these dreams could become reality.