Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Up Close and Personal with Darjeeling Tea Farmers and Equal Exchange

Jack Ong, West Los Angeles United Methodist Church, visits Potong Tea Workers, one of Equal Exchange's fair trade tea producers. World Fair Trade Day is May 12.
Photo: Emma Van Pelt
Jack Ong, member of West Los Angeles United Methodist Church, won Equal Exchange’s  contest for most creative tea promotion. Equal Exchange is UMCOR’s partner in the UMCOR Coffee Project .  Ong’s reward was a trip to Darjeeling, West Bengal, India, where he visited the Potong Tea Garden, one of Equal Exchange’s fair trade tea producers.  Ong shares his experience below:

 April 3, 2012

            The president of the Potong Tea Workers Welfare Committee answers one of our questions through a translator: “How do I feel about being elected president of the Potong Tea Workers Welfare Committee? I feel honored. I also feel very responsible. I want to motivate all the members, all of us working together to make a productive and profitable success of Potong Tea Garden.”

 Potong Tea Workers president Sashila Subba.  Photo: Jack Ong

            Then, all business and occasionally smiling, speaking in a soft, even voice, she shares with the eight of us from America about the tough work and living conditions in the high-altitude, remote Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling.

        “When we first joined to form this worker-owned tea collective, we knew from experience that it would be hard work. Sometimes we didn’t have food to eat. Our young people left to go work in the cities. Many died. Some brought new diseases back to us. We have never acquired the right medications to combat these diseases. And who could have predicted the drought that is so seriously upon us now? Very serious.”

            We hear a sudden commotion that interrupts the cool calmness of the late afternoon, which punctuates her remarks. We smell smoke from the hills just as we learn that another fire has erupted. The men of the Potong hamlet rush to action, preparing to fight the flames.

            Now the president’s sorrow is palpable, the pain obvious on her serene, elegant face. She quickly uses both hands to wipe her eyes, then politely places them back on her lap as she continues to talk about the present drought, workers’ goals for irrigation, more efficient harvesting of tea leaves and production, better education for their children, and the cooperative’s gratitude for the support and encouragement of Equal Exchange.

            “We understand that we must first develop, to the best of our ability, our main product – Darjeeling tea,” she says. “We cannot focus on further progress or development of our tea farm until then. We still need more development funds. And Fair Trade means trade, so we are continuing to try to improve on our part as we develop this valuable relationship with Equal Exchange.”

            She glances at the other woman and eight men of her committee; they give the president their approval of what she has told their American guests with silent nods.   The dynamic Deepak Khandelwal, Equal Exchange tea product manager, then passes around sample boxes of Darjeeling teabags using leaves from small tea farms in India.

            The president and her fellow leaders murmur their admiration for the way Equal Exchange is marketing their product. As the meeting concludes, she presents handmade silk scarves to us, and then we convene outside for photos amidst a growing congregation of smiling village boys and girls—many eager to practice their English. Then, after dinner, we are all served steaming cups of “the champagne of all teas,” of course!  We drink Darjeeling black tea, from a “first flush” crop that has been expertly cultivated: fragrant, intoxicating, and wonderfully refreshing! We’re sipping it “on location,” right where the tea was planted, nourished, harvested, withered, processed, inspected, taste tested, and exported.

            Earlier in the day, our group had hiked five miles up (and I do mean UP) to arrive at the Potong tea terraces, where we observed the women hard at work plucking leaves.  Then, in a very special ceremony, we planted new tea shrubs ourselves. It took us four hours to climb, half that time to descend. Now, exhausted but exhilarated and utterly fascinated in Potong, I tell myself that I will never take a cup of tea for granted again, whether loose leaf or teabag. I have a completely new admiration and respect for all the human effort that is required prior to my sitting back and enjoying a sip. Also, I have an enhanced admiration and respect for Equal Exchange and the organization’s commitment to small farms and farmers throughout our world!

Jack Ong is a Los Angeles based actor/writer/activist who represented the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church on a fact-finding mission to the Darjeeling tea country in India, traveling with Equal Exchange March 18-23, 2012. Ong is a licensed minister of The Missionary Church, Inc., and Executive Director of The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation.


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