Blogger Hannah Theisen takes a journey to the largest Fair Trade tea estate in India, where Numi black teas are sourced, to learn about how one big risk, combined with fair trade practices, saved this region.
When you arrive in the Assam region of Northern India, one of the first things you’ll notice is the strong military presence, a testament to the remnants of conflict between the Indian government and rebel groups that has plagued the area for decades. Imagining an area known for it’s tea “gardens” as a bit more of a sleepy rural oasis (what word could be more peaceful than “garden”?) I was surprised by the many camouflage-painted trucks full of soldiers that my jeep passed on my way visit Tonganagaon, the tea estate that produces black tea for Numi blends like Aged Earl Grey and Golden Chai, as well as the site for Numi Foundation’s newest Together for H2OPE campaign.
Before the Tonganagaon Tea Estate became one of the 18 estates owned by Chamong, Numi Organic Tea’s Fair Trade production partner in India, it had fallen into disrepair and mis-management. The offices and bungalows were used for military operations, and the 500 hectares of the estate went through a period of rebel control before being put up for sale.
“No one wanted to take this estate,” Tonganagaon’s manager, Rajiv, told me as we sipped cups of strong black tea, “No one wanted to take the risk.” In addition to the danger associated with running a business in an area with the threat of terrorism and violence, the land of the Tonganagaon estate is difficult to cultivate, being lower and wetter than what is ideal for the growth of tea plants.
Still, the estate needed a second chance. Thousands of people live in the 12 villages on the estate, people who depend on tea harvesting jobs to get by. Chamong decided, against the advice of many advisors, to take that risk. The early years of attempting to get the estate functioning again were difficult. Rebels threatened to kidnap the children of staff if they weren’t paid “protection money.” Water levels threatened the health of the tea crop. Facilities had to be renovated and re-built.
Trust had to be rebuilt, too, with the villagers and tea-harvesters now employed by Chamong. Rajiv noted that the people on the estate “just needed to know that we’re not going anywhere. That we’re committed.” They needed to be assured that they and their families would be treated well and not abandoned.
Over the course of my visit to Tonganagaon Tea Estate, it became apparent to me that running the estate is about more than just producing tea. Staff members spend time listening to the concerns of workers and working on initiatives to improve the infrastructure of their villages and the quality of their lives. The tea estate provides a hospital and full-time doctor, schools and places of worship.
It’s a monumental task, and one that would be impossible to tackle without partners willing to pay a fair price for the tea the estate produces. Companies like Numi, who pay fair trade prices for each kilo of Tonganagaon tea, have provided much of the funds used to improve standards of living in Tonganagaon’s villages with items like cooking stoves and other household goods (Numi alone has contributed more than $100,000 in fair trade premiums to-date in Assam). Numi and Chamong’s partnership on the Together for H2OPE campaign is a beautiful example of the change that happens when both producer and consumer care about the people behind a product.
Before I visited Tonganagaon Tea Estate, I wasn’t sure exactly what story I wanted to tell about Numi Tea, and I resolved to just “listen, learn, and report back to my fellow Numi tea lovers.” Little did I know that the story that would inspire me the most was learning about how tea “saved” a village, and how companies like Chamong and Numi are making unconventional business decisions that put people’s lives before easy profits.