Darjeeling tea is considered to be among the finest in the world and is often referred to as the “Champagne of Teas.” Much like the French wine, Darjeeling tea cannot be grown anywhere else because the soil and climate conditions there give it a unique flavor.

Farmers in the Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative use the profits made by selling tea to reinvest in the community. (Photo credit: Ida C. Benedetto)Farmers in the Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative use the profits made by selling tea to reinvest in the community. (Photo credit: Ida C. Benedetto)

But despite the tea’s reputation for fine flavor, the Darjeeling tea industry has a history that’s far less pristine.

In 2010, negotiations between the state government, plantation owners, and plantation trade unions set the wage for tea laborers at Rs. 63 a day, or less than $1.50 USD. Even those plantations labeled as Fair Trade by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) and receive a premium price for their product rarely pass on these profits to laborers.

The majority of tea laborers are women, who pick all the leaves by hand, leaving them little opportunity to pursue other work. Families often remain on a plantation for generations, unable to earn enough money to leave; and children often start work at a young age, forgoing school to help the family make ends meet.

In addition, conventional tea plantations often use heavy amounts of pesticides, putting workers at risk. The recent documentary “The Bitter Taste of Tea,” found that many workers aren’t given working safety equipment and that they often experience serious health problems related to chemical exposure.

Plantations also clear hillsides of trees to maximize the acreage of tea bushes, causing erosion and a more rapid degradation of the rich soil that gives the tea its unique flavor. Deforestation for tea is destroying the habitat of iconic Indian species, like the jaguar, and compromising important ecosystem services.

But on a Darjeeling estate abandoned over 50 years ago, a group of local farmers have taken over the land, forming a growing cooperative with the help of local NGO Darjeeling Ladenla Road Prerna (DLR Prerna).

British owners abandoned their tea estate at Mineral Springs near Darjeeling shortly after India gained independence in 1947. The few hundred families living there took control of the land, living a mostly subsistence lifestyle until about ten years ago when residents formed a dairy cooperative that delivered goods milk and yogurt to Darjeeling. With the help of DLR Prerna and other local development NGO’s, the small dairy cooperative became the Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative (SVC), which means “united development,” and began to rehabilitate the largely abandoned tea bushes in 2003.

Now SVC grows organic teas on the former plantation that are marketed by Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange under a Fair Trade label. And unlike other plantations that have similar Fair Trade labels but do not pass on the higher profits made by selling the tea at such a premium, members of the cooperative share the profit fairly, deciding in cooperative meetings where to reinvest. The community has used profits to build schools, invest in women’s health initiatives, and build an infrastructure for the cooperative that has allowed them to steadily expand their business while maintaining their organic and Fair Trade certifications.

With increased profits, SVC has also been able to expand beyond tea and dairy. With the help of DLR Prerna, many SVC farmers have developed permaculture operations, integrating their tea bushes into agroforestry systems in which they grow cardamom, fresh vegetables, and raise cows and chickens. Trees prevent soil erosion and maintain habitat for animals that reduce pest pressure, and cows and chickens provide manure that can be used to fertilize crops. By diversifying their production, farmers are also creating more markets for their good, giving them added financial security.