Contributing Writer:
Phyllis Robinson,

Education and Campaigns Manager

From Plantations to a Small-Farmer Model

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, pay them an above-market price, educate consumers about the source of their coffee, and connect producers and consumers in relationships based on respect and integrity?

Close to three decades later, there is no question that the founders’ idealistic vision has radically transformed the coffee industry. While “fair trade” may not yet be a household term, the concept has entered the mainstream coffee market. Over 400 new fair trade coffee roasters have sprung up across the country, and a number of larger companies are dedicating a portion of their coffee purchases to fair trade. Consumers are increasingly choosing to buy coffee sourced from fair trade cooperatives, and the producer members of those cooperatives are, in general, doing far better than their non-fair trade counterparts.

Fairly Traded Tea, 2013
Skip ahead twenty-seven years now, and let’s take a look at the tea industry. By far, the vast majority of tea found on grocery store shelves comes from large-scale plantations. Even 95% of tea that is labeled “fair trade” is sourced from plantations, one of the last vestiges of the colonial system. The basic structure of the plantations has not changed since colonial times, consisting of absentee owners and very low wages for workers.

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 a fair trade tea. However, while it is true that in some cases workers have more participation in certain decisions than do those working on non-fair trade plantations, by only working with large-estate tea, the current fair trade model focuses far too much on supply and not nearly enough on structural, systemic change.

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 the plantation is abandoned, thousands of workers and their families are left without any form of income or services. In fact, 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 fair traders and activists need to take action now to create a new model based on human rights and economic justice.

A Different Kind of Tea 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) and saw an array of exciting projects that are part of their vision for a transformed tea industry, one where the farmers are empowered to make decisions, take risks, build their own businesses and improve their lives and communities.

TPI, one of the tea industry’s most progressive and visionary companies, is known for its pioneering initiatives in successfully rehabilitating ailing and abandoned tea gardens. The company specializes in promoting and supporting small tea growers in the region who are typically economically disadvantaged. Below are just two of the innovative models that TPI has helped to create and support.


Small-Farmer Cooperatives
Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative, also referred to as Mineral Springs, was one of the first small-farming initiatives in the plantation-controlled region of Darjeeling. The land that cooperative members now occupy was a tea plantation in the early part of the century that was abandoned in the 1950s. The farmers depended mostly upon subsistence farming of corn, millet, potatoes and vegetables, eventually forming themselves into a dairy cooperative that sold into the local market. Today, with technical assistance and training from a local NGO, and the processing and marketing assistance of TPI, the 450 cooperative members have reintroduced tea on their farms and now successfully export high quality, organic fair trade tea into the international market.

Walking through the community felt like that mythical Shangri-la from the movies. The village was clean and well-maintained, and 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. Colorful Buddhist flags were strung across the trees in front of a handful of houses, while the cooperative itself is also home to Christians and Hindus.

We visited farms and spoke with many farmers. The commitment they had made to bio-dynamics, organic farming and permaculture was clear. We were shown how materials are recycled and reused; how nothing is wasted. Another constant was the sense of pride and self-assurance that the farmers displayed, which contrasted sharply with other places we’ve visited. Owning their land and having options affords farmers a stronger sense of investment and control over their businesses.

Worker-Owned Plantations
The Potong Tea Garden represents a unique effort to address a difficult challenge: how to build a new tea system out of a decaying and crumbling plantation model that remains largely unchanged from the days of the British Empire. Established over 100 years ago by the British, Potong Tea Garden was repeatedly abandoned, taken over, mismanaged and abandoned again. Throughout that time, 2,500 people depended on the plantation for their livelihoods, shelter, medical needs and educational services. As Sher Bahadur, Potong’s board president, told us in November of 2009, the plantation system was structured in such a way that workers were never taught any other means of livelihood.

“We were 100% dependent on the tea plantation,” he said. “So when the plantation was abandoned, what could we do?”

In 2005, after a series of government and private-industry takeovers ran the garden further into the ground, the current owner realized that colonial management systems were no longer viable and asked TPI to consider co-running the estate. Representatives of TPI, committed to making small-farmer ownership possible, proposed a solution to keep the estate in operation: the workers would purchase 51% of the ownership shares (to be paid over time) and would assume day-to-day management of the garden. TPI would purchase 25% of the shares and provide the workers with technical assistance and market support. Like Sanjukta Vikas, the farmers could process their tea at TPI’s facilities.

After forty-five days of deliberation, the workers agreed and a Management Team was created, comprised of farmers, TPI and representatives of the Kolkatta business which still owned a minority share. TPI then helped the workers to form a legally registered body under the name Potong Tea Workers Welfare Committee (PTWWC). With this action, the former plantation workers took the first step toward becoming a full-fledged tea cooperative.

The workers are learning to own, manage and operate their tea garden. With training and technical assistance from TPI, they are learning new skills, taking risks and rebuilding operations. As one worker-owner told us,

“Before, the management was the supreme authority and we were scared of them. Now, we discuss things amongst ourselves. We have a new structure, and we can work with dignity for our own development and for no one else. This is our model; if we are successful, then we will have a future.”

Nothing Short of Transformation
It wasn’t easy for the early fair trade founders to challenge an entire industry, especially one so rooted in economic, political and historic power. But through the success that the fair trade movement has had in coffee, we have demonstrated that consumers are a “sleeping giant” – once awakened and shown a path grounded in fairness, respect and mutual dignity, people will act on their values, aim high and purchase ethically. Many will even go beyond consumption and also advocate for necessary systemic changes.

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 gain greater access to the market, thus affording them more economic power, stronger control, better lives and healthier communities. There are already producer groups and alternative trade organizations working toward this vision. We are convinced that U.S. 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.



3 thoughts on “Transforming the Tea Industry

  1. The model of Potong Tea Workers Welfare Committee is unique and it is a historical challenge indeed, which required much sacrifices from the owners to
    achieve its ambition as I have experienced during my working with them as community animator/project coordinator last 08 years. I am always in their
    support and wishing the success of the model establishment.

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