Life isn't easy for tea pickers in northeast India's Darjeeling District. Workers scale the unbelievably steep slopes of famed tea estates for eight hours a day, hauling massive baskets brimming with plucked tea leaves. But, at the end of each day, they have barely enough money to live on — and, with the seasonal nature of the work, a steady income is almost impossible.
This system has held sway in Darjeeling for at least 150 years. But today, with help from a partnership between Mercy Corps and Tazo Tea Company, former tea pickers are creating a system of their own — one which involves their own tea fields and wages that can support their families.
Their idea is called Organic Ekta. The word "ekta" means "unity" in the Nepali language — and that unity is transforming the way of life for small tea farmers in Darjeeling's lofty hills.
Small fields, big dreams
After a couple of hours driving from Darjeeling town on steep mountain roads with multiple switchbacks and some white-knuckle drop-offs, we arrived in the village of Ranibun — a hamlet situated thousands of feet above sea level with astounding views of the Himalayan foothills. We were greeted by a couple dozen tea farmers and a Mercy Corps project manager, 27-year-old Srijana Darnal. Ranibun is one of eight communities connected by the promise of self-sufficiency — and a better standard of living — that Organic Ekta offers.
The farmers are proud of their work and eager to demonstrate what they're doing. Most of them have labored in the surrounding tea estates for years, turning over what they've harvested for the same tiny wages day after day. Now they're picking their own tea from their own small fields.
When Organic Ekta began, Darjeeling's tea estates were resistant to the notion of buying tea from small farmers operating outside of their confines. For more than 150 years tea estates have had strict control of the industry: they have grown, plucked, processed, labeled and sold their own teas. They even lobbied the local tea association to pass a law to stop these small farmers from selling their crops.
Mercy Corps stepped in to advocate for farming families.
"Our deputy director, Sanjay Gurung, took their case to the heads of the tea industry in Darjeeling — not an easy thing to do," Darnal says. "Before you pass a law, it's important for those affected to be informed of what's going on. That didn't happen.
"The large tea estates think that small farmers don't exist. But together, they have the power to do a lot."
That power, channeled through Mercy Corps and its local partner, Darjeeling Earth Group, won the day and gave farmers the right to sell directly to tea estates. They now make 28 rupees per kilogram of harvested tea, up from the 10-18 rupees they once made selling their teas to middlemen.
And their sights are set higher still.
Good for nature and the community
True to its name, one of the biggest goals of Organic Ekta is to have all members' fields certified organic. This commitment isn't only good for the local environment — one of the most biodiverse areas in Asia — but also helps command higher prices for harvested tea.
All of Organic Ekta's 216 farmers are in the organic certification process. Most of them have never used any kind of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they still must get certified, which can be arduous.
"The farmers must first register with the land reform department, at which time they submit maps and soil samples," Darnal explains. "After this, they prepare a report or the tea board. In all, the process takes at least a year and costs 6,000 rupees (about £92)."
Tazo Tea is funding the entire process — providing office space, conducting soil testing, surveying and setting up plant nurseries — for Organic Ekta's farmers. There are currently more than 120,000 high-quality organic tea seedlings in four local nurseries, waiting to be planted in newly certified fields.
When the farmers achieve organic certification and are able to sell at even higher prices, they will pool a large portion of profits and invest it back into their communities.
"This will foster self-sufficiency," Darnal says. "They will take responsibility for things like road repairs, school upkeep and other infrastructure. The farmers will transform their villages at the same time they're transforming their own lives."
Even after all of the certification is complete, Mercy Corps and Darjeeling Earth Group plan to stay involved in an advisory role, supporting linkages between Organic Ekta's farmers and the tea board.
Refusing to be pushed around
One of Ranibun's most active tea farmers is 45-year-old Sushila Chhettri, a firebrand with a jade-green bindi on her forehead and a wild red streak in her hair. She insists that her tea field will be the one we visit this afternoon. No one argues, so Sushila smiles and leads us down a steep, shoulder-wide dirt path.
Sushila has picked tea for the last 25 years in local estates and often felt marginalised by management. She can remember a few occasions when she and other tea workers were forced to a different part of the estate when foreigners visited; she thinks this was because management wanted to hide the grim realities of daily work on the estates. As a result, she's not used to being photographed.
But when my colleague Thatcher Cook takes out his camera to capture Sushila picking leaves in her own field, she is in her element.
"I want to take you two to the tea estate and show you off to my friends," Sushila exclaims. "And then I want to go up to my old managers and tell them, ‘These are my guys — you can't push me away any more'."
Organic Ekta is giving more than 200 small farmers like Sushila the confidence to challenge a long-entrenched system, and to claim part of the profits from the worldwide appeal of Darjeeling tea for themselves. They're not ruling anything out; they're even thinking about building and opening their own factory for export-quality Darjeeling tea that they can sell directly to tea connoisseurs around the world.
Organic Ekta's undeniable spirit and unity are shaking up the status quo — and promising a better life for those who've had to live far too long for just over a dollar a day.