In rural India, tea is gaining sustainable development ground

Tea pickers in Assam, India. Photo by: Saurabh Chatterjee / CC BY-NC-ND

GUWAHATI, India — Ketan Patel, managing director of the first carbon neutral certified tea estate in the world, has spent nearly a decade pioneering a way forward using ethical and organic practices.

Patel’s 650-hectare tea garden at Jalinga Estate in India’s tea capital of Assam now exports 100 percent of its organic products and has won numerous sustainability awards along the way. The estate, purchased by his family in the early ‘60s, now protects several hundred hectares of forest that isn’t farmed and is in the process of switching to solar power and phasing out the use of coal in its tea processing — but Patel doesn’t plan to stop there.

“What started out as a passion has now led to the fact that going climate friendly is actually reducing our costs,” Patel told Devex on the sidelines of the Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics Forum in Guwahati, India.

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India is the second-largest tea producer in the world after China, and Assam’s growers supply top brands including the United Kingdom’s Twinings and Tetley. But the country’s large tea estates have long been associated with the negative impacts of deforestation, wildlife conflict, and exploitative work conditions.

The crop’s concentration in northeastern India has required the conversion of natural elephant habitat into vast hectares of manicured tea leaves, and tea drying is an energy-intensive process that traditionally relies on coal-powered furnaces. As the industry evolves, several growers and researchers are experimenting to ensure it delivers for people, wildlife, and the environment.

Third-generation tea pro Patel is establishing a tea research foundation at Jalinga, where he hopes to conduct more extensive studies about the benefits of growing and processing tea in climate friendly ways.

In the meantime, close relationships with buyers and an increasing number of partnerships with international tea brands has paved the way for projects to improve education and health care access for the more than 1,500 employees who work on the estate — many of whom also live there. Basic facilities are a notorious weak point for many of the largest tea growers in Assam, but Jalinga has built a hospital on the grounds, and recent funding from Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea, for example, will go toward improving water and sanitation facilities, Patel said.  

Increased tea production and consumption — driven by “robust” demand in developing and emerging countries — has created new rural income opportunities and improved food security in tea producing countries globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Patel already works with 32 smallholders, providing organic technology and helping them achieve certified organic and fair trade status.

The estate’s growing expertise in organic exports also means that Jalinga employees, many of whom have small farms themselves, are now earning additional income by growing organic rice, spices, and herbs, which the estate helps certify and sell.  

In India, alongside larger estates, the proliferation of smallholder tea farmers has had positive benefits for rural populations in particular, according to a recent study conducted by Jatin Bavishi, a resource executive at India’s APPL Foundation. The research he undertook in northeastern India’s tea-laden Udalguri district showed that per-acre earnings from tea husbandry are greater than other crops in the region.

Apart from direct employment in the fields, tea has also led to the growth of associated industries such as manufacturing and transportation. It’s a trend that tea experts such as Conrad Dennis, general manager of organic tea farm Amalgamated Plantations, expect to continue.

“The transformation and the change in tea is actually upon us,” Dennis said. “We need to realize and see the shift from the traditional planter in his ivory tower to the small tea grower who is spreading across Assam so successfully.”

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But as tea gardens flourish, the potential for wildlife conflict grows, according to Lisa Mills, a wildlife biology expert and program manager for Broader Impacts Group at the University of Montana. Sprawling tea gardens block elephants’ historic migratory routes, which the gentle giants rely on to reach food sources and water on various small forest reserves. As they do so, they are at increasing risk of becoming trapped in the ditches commonly dug on tea plantations, poisoned by chemical fertilizer, or electrocuted by newly constructed fences.

A new Certified Elephant Tea program spearheaded by Mills seeks to tackle the problem by encouraging tea growers to come up with a plan for the inevitable human and elephant interactions so that it doesn’t result in conflict or death.

“The story of protecting elephants is selling tea in the U.S.”

— Lisa Mills, wildlife biology expert, University of Montana

Tea grower Tenzing Bodosa, the first farmer to be certified elephant friendly in Assam, has led the way in encouraging the tea growing community to embrace wild elephants rather than attempt to dissuade them from entering their grounds. Elephants don’t eat tea leaves, and rely on the same routes they know by memory to reach their destination. Tea growers — especially those located along elephant corridors — can plant and remove electric fences in such a way to plan for these routes, said Bodosa, a passionate animal lover who grows varieties of bamboo and grass on the edges of his property specifically for elephants to feed on.

“When I see them, of course they are damaging some plants in my garden, but I feel very happy to see them,” he said of the elephants that visit his farm near the Bhutan border.

And on Nuxalbari Tea Estate in Darjeeling district, another tea grower Mills works with has engaged her management staff to help ensure that no one disturbs elephants as they regularly travel across the farm to the reserve forests that sandwich the plantation.

Mills, who is based in Missoula, Montana, has set up a corporation called Elephant Origins, where profits from tea sold in shops in the United States will be reinvested in India’s elephant-friendly tea-growing communities.

She is already testing the market with small tea growers and buyers, and the results have been promising, she told Devex: “The story of protecting elephants is selling tea in the U.S.,” Mills said. “And the prices that are being paid are higher than for similar quality products coming out of China or Taiwan.”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.