Market Musings Blog

Transforming Tea: Supporting a Small Farmer Tea Model

Old tea bushes in Darjeeling, India. Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, the Potong Tea Garden, once a colonial plantation, now collectively run by its workers, is making history. If this revolutionary new model is successful, not only will it generate significant improvements for the garden’s 350 workers and their families, but the seeds planted in Darjeeling, India, could help spark a badly needed transformation of the tea industry. Equal Exchange is proud to partner with the Potong worker-owners and food co-ops across the United States, to support this exciting social, economic, and environmentally sustainable small farmer tea model. We believe partnerships such as these hold the key to the future of a fair and equitable tea system.

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. Approximately 50 million workers throughout the developing world make their livelihoods from this industry.  Sadly, even consumers trying to make ethical purchases, might still unknowingly prop up this archaic plantation system.  Even 98 percent of tea that is labeled “Fair Trade” is sourced from large-scale plantations still working with bonded labor and other vestiges of colonial legacy.

Due to the feudal nature of tea plantations, workers are often trapped in a system of   dependency. In many cases, workers receive their housing, schooling and medical care from the estate. 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, housing, or services. Tea workers need committed fair traders and consumers to take action now to create a new model based on human rights and economic justice.

Established over 100 years ago by the British, Potong Tea Garden was repeatedly abandoned, taken over, mismanaged, and abandoned again.  Throughout that time, 2500 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 2009, the plantation system was structured in such a way that workers were never taught any other means of livelihood.“We were 100 percent 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 take-overs which ran the garden further into the ground, the owners of Potong approached Tea Promoters of India (TPI), one of the tea industry’s most progressive and visionary companies, asking them to consider running the estate. Committed to making small farmer ownership possible, representatives of TPI proposed a solution to keep the estate in operation.  The workers agreed to take over management and 51 percent ownership of the estate. TPI agreed purchased 25 percent of shares and provided the workers with technical assistance and market support.

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 and for our own development and for no one else. This is our model; if we are successful, then we will have a future.

Binita Rai, Sanjukta Vikas Co-op member, in Darjeeling, India showing off her tea plants in her diverse garden. Her other crops include ginger, oranges, and turmeric.

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. Decades of neglect, however, have also taken their toll on farm productivity. We were told that some of the tea bushes are the original bushes that were planted when Lincoln was president, in 1860. Production is half what it could be as many of the tea bushes have died, leaving acres of fallow land.

Potong’s leaders are working hard alongside TPI to bring about badly economic and social change. They understand that environmental restoration and farm maintenance are equally important to the equation. The need for new tea bushes, organic fertilizer, and improved irrigation systems is critical to their success. For this reason, TPI asked Equal Exchange to partner with them and invest in the planting of new tea bushes. We, in turn, are inviting our food co-op partners and their shoppers to participate with us in this exciting new experiment in worker control and small farmer empowerment.

During the month of October, for each Equal Exchange product sold through food co-ops, we will donate 25 cents (up to $15,000) to the Potong community for the planting of 30,000 new tea bushes.

When the original bushes were planted during Lincoln’s presidency, the tea garden experienced its first phase of labor and land use. This next round of tea planting, and worker ownership and control, provides an opportunity to begin anew, to reconsider and rebuild a better and more sustainable tea model. We can learn from the past, be creative and envision a new future where workers and the environment both gain. Literally and figuratively, we are planting new seeds for a far more equitable, sustainable, and dignified future.

The Potong worker-owners, TPI, Equal Exchange, and your food co-operative, invite you to join us in building this exciting new model of small farmer empowerment! It’s on sale through October 18th!

Members of Potong Tea Community

 Article contributed by Phyllis Robinson of Equal Exchange.

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