Tea tag takeaway

The Geographical Indication tag for Darjeeling tea may have opened a window of opportunities for big estates, but there are huge challenges for small growers

By Annesha Chowdhury, Soubadra Devy M
Published: Sunday 31 July 2016

Illustration: Sorit

Worldwide, the brew is appreciated for its terroir or the “taste of place”. So in 2011, when Darjeeling tea was officially registered under the Protected Geographical Indication—PGI is a type of intellectual property right under the European Union (EU) that helps market a product based on its place of origin, climate and manufacturing process—it came on par with brands like Roquefort, Café de Columbia and Champagne.

The name Darjeeling came to be synonymous with the tea from the hilly district of Darjeeling in West Bengal that boasts of some of the finest teas in the world. The recognition also protected the region’s tea industry against “copycats and imposters”, for example, those selling teas grown in Nepal and Terai regions under the brand name of Darjeeling. But this is just one part of the story.

Our interactions with growers and the Tea Board of India show that the strict quality standard for the use of the brand name Darjeeling had defeated the main purpose of PGI. A research paper published in the Journal of Rural Studies in 2009 refers to PGI as a way out of the industrial model that challenged established capitalist exploitative norm, while addressing concerns such as environmental degradation, poverty and sustainability. This means a PGI should protect the product, in this case tea grown at an elevation between 600-2,100 m in Darjeeling hills, and all its producers. But in reality, only 87 estates that grow and process Darjeeling tea and are registered under the Tea Board of India were allowed to use the brand name.

This had become a sore point among a large number of small tea growers who grow tea in the same geographical area, but would not be able to use the brand name Darjeeling from 2016. Many of them sell the “green leaf” to larger estates who own processing factories. Their produce accounted for a significant portion of the profits earned by these larger estates. But with the implementation of PGI, the quality of Darjeeling tea has become so monitored that they could not sell their produce to processing factories.

Of late, the Tea Board of India has recognised the growing discontent among small tea growers and the possible economic setback that the Darjeeling tea industry might face. It has undertaken an initiative that would benefit small tea growers. It is conducting surveys to recognise them and assess their tea production, and is providing them with smart cards that hold details of the grower, such as name and landholding.

The grower can use the smart card to avail subsidies, partial funding and logistics for shifting to organic tea cultivation through standard production methods. This is being viewed as a historical achievement for small tea growers while being espoused as sustainable. Though groups such as the Darjeeling Orthodox Small Tea Growers Welfare Society, who still grow the Chinese tea, Organic Ekta and Mineral Springs, are happy to be included by the Tea Board of India, they may not have fully grasped the finer details of this arrangement. As the long-term benefit of being part of the PGI remains ambiguous, they are yet to find out if this recognition will act as a safety-net in times of economic or environmental shocks in the future.

Markets and sustainability

The volatility of markets has always resulted in rude shocks in the past. Price and currency crashes have often had far-reaching impacts from which growers have taken time to recover. For instance, since Darjeeling tea is exported to a number of countries in the EU, Britain’s exit from the EU could impact tea exports.

With much of the world celebrating this “revolutionary move” as a symbol of “rebellion against existing neoliberal economic policies and elitist structures”, it still remains to be seen how the dynamics within the EU will affect the Darjeeling tea industry. How will the industry survive? Will the impact be differential, for different types of people dependent on this region?

With the shift in demand for ethical products and legal obligations surrounding environmental impacts and the quality of a product, many tropical cash crop growers of tea, coffee and cacao have started adopting sustainable agricultural practices. For instance, they are adhering to certification schemes to ensure that neither livelihood nor profit is impacted in addition to being a PGI.

There are several international standards that offer economic incentives to growers while ensuring social and environmental justice by encouraging them to shift from conventional agriculture and follow farming technologies such as permaculture (agriculture that is sustainable and self-sufficient). Organic, Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade are some of the well-known certifications that encourage growers to follow a set of best practices and promote the product in a way that its value is not just associated with its terroir, but also the ethics of justice and sustainability. This provides the growers an opportunity to earn premium profits while also acting as a safety-net.

The Darjeeling tea estates have evolved from a conventionally grown monoculture system to more diversely managed systems that have invested in various certification schemes to penetrate niche markets. These include adoption of different labels and certifications, each of which are considered popular symbols of environmental sustainability and social justice. Recent interactions with tea growers showed a trend towards a complete shift towards sustainable methods in the region.

Given the disproportionate nature of environmental burdens and benefits, it seems to show a positive picture where most estates embracing one set of practices may have the desirable outcomes for everyone. While the PGI and eco-labels may help market products exclusively, it still remains to be seen what it may actually mean for aspects such as environmental justice, conservation and other crucial aspects of human wellbeing within the region. When measures are adopted to make agricultural landscapes biodiversity friendly and environmentally healthy, the crop yields decline significantly. The economic costs of transitioning from conventional agriculture to organic easily outweigh the monetary benefits during the early years. This reduces the incentive to embrace sustainable practices on the part of farmers. A study says solutions in developed countries, such as the US and the UK, include coupling of legal obligations with agricultural subsidies for sustainable agriculture to become a reality. However, this may not be the case in developing nations, where agriculture is labour-intensive. So the solution lies in the implementation of non-state governance approaches and certifications.

The authors work with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru

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