This article was provided by our friends at Equal Exchange, which is both a worker co-op and a pioneer of Fair Trade standards and practices. With October being Co-op Month and Fair Trade Month, what better time to learn more about the history of one of the world’s most popular beverages, and how Equal Exchange is working to improve the lives of those who grow it? To stay connected with Equal Exchange and learn more about their tea partners, consider joining their community at equalexchange.coop/getinvolved.
The Roots of the Tea Trade
Did you know that tea is the second most popular drink in the world—second only to water?
Here’s another question: do you know that, even today, it is likely that the tea products lining your grocery store’s shelves—even those sold as Fair Trade—were sourced from plantations established under colonialism?
Tea cultivation and consumption originated in China. Global trade for much of the 1700s and 1800s was defined by foreign companies trying to gain a foothold in the profitable tea market.
The top four tea-producing countries today are China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka respectively— and it is no coincidence that after China, the top tea-producing nations are all former British colonies.
After the British East India Company lost a long-standing trade monopoly with China, British colonists introduced tea production elsewhere, beginning in India in the mid-1800s.
As with so many plantation systems throughout history, cheap labor was essential to the scheme. British planters recruited labor from the most vulnerable populations through indentured contracts. Families were central to the recruitment strategy as they were less likely to leave the plantation; after all, it was where they both worked and lived.
Tea Farming Today
Despite more modern reforms, the colonial plantation system created a vast monoculture tea infrastructure so deeply rooted that it remains largely unchanged.
Shortly after Indian independence from Britain, the Indian government enacted reforms meant to provide protections to plantation workers. While the reforms were a very important advancement for tea workers, the fundamental imbalance in power remains.
Tea workers remain deeply dependent on the plantations for all of their basic human needs. When tea prices fall below the cost of production, it is far too common an occurrence that plantations will be abandoned by the owners, leaving the workers and their families in dire circumstances.
Cara Ross, a Sales Director at Equal Exchange, recalls hearing from tea farmers who experienced this at the Potong Tea Garden in Darjeeling, a tea-growing region in India. “Overnight, workers lost not only income, but housing, food, healthcare and education,” Ross says. “The Potong Tea Garden’s history stands out to me as a clear example of the injustices of the colonial plantation model, which at its core is built upon the indentured servitude and dependency of workers.”
Building an Alternative: Power to the Farmers
Equal Exchange is working to forge a different path for small farmers everywhere. As an alternative trade organization (ATO), we partner with small farmer organizations around the world to change existing power structures and build economic solidarity between farmers and consumers.
Most of Equal Exchange’s tea partners are small farmers: they own just a few hectares of land and cultivate a mix of tea and other commercial crops like spices for export, as well as crops for their own kitchen. Through their democratic organizations, farmers can pool their resources and their harvests to trade at a viable scale.
The farmers at the Potong Tea Garden are building yet another alternative to the colonial plantation model: After the previous owners of the plantation abandoned the business when prices dropped too low, the workers from the garden organized together. Potong’s 343 members now collectively run the tea garden. Potong’s members are revitalizing the land, introducing native plants and regenerating the soil and local ecosystem while running the garden democratically.
To create a future where the tea industry is led by farmers, we need to do two things—and we need your help to do them. First, we need to continue to build a marketplace for small tea farmers. Secondly, we need to build awareness about the problems in the industry.
As an alternative trader, Equal Exchange is deeply committed to both of these efforts: we’re continuing to expand their tea program, and creating spaces for consumers to learn about where tea comes from and the people who grow it.
You can help by shopping for small-farmer grown Equal Exchange tea at your local co-op. And if you’ve learned anything from this article, share it with your friends, family, and neighbors—and encourage them to ask for Equal Exchange tea where they shop!