Sunday, 4 October 2009

Waist high in tea

Fairtrade Foundation's Emma Huntly's blogging throughout her visit to India

We were woken early today by the wedding preparations in full swing at the hotel we are staying in. I think that explained the very loud Michael Jackson music being played as we chomped through our delicious masala dhosas for breakfast. This was really rather off putting, so we hurriedly finished up and left for a village in the hills to meet some small holder tea farmers.

I've always liked a nice cup of tea, but today I got up close and personal with some tea bushes. Waist deep in-fact. These tea pickers are in a precarious situation as they sell their tea to a local factory and have to negotiate the price they sell at. They have formed a worker co-operative to give themselves more power and to give them protection from the local landlords and money lenders. About 5 years ago the market prices for tea were very low, so low in fact that the tea pickers couldn't make enough money to survive. They were forced to mortgage their land to the local land lord. During that time they were selling the tea they picked from the land they mortgaged to the local tea factory and were only getting 30 or 40 Rupees a day which is about 50p. Since forming a co-operative they have managed to slowly buy back the land of the member and gain more control of their lives.

These farmers are not Fairtrade certified and they would greatly benefit from the security of the minimum price and the additional premium to spend on social projects and health. The women pickers in the community now earn around 100-200 rupees a day which is a vast improvement but they are still very poor. I wondered what the future held for them when the market price of tea drops as it is likely to when Kenya gets rain and production increases from that region.

I got a lesson today on picking tea. It’s more complicated than you think. First of all I got shown how to tie a scarf on my head to protect my head and neck from the very bright sun (no umbrellas needed today). Then I got shown how to pick the leaves and importantly which ones to pick. The women tea pickers only take the new growth; this is usually one leaf and a bud. This makes good high quality tea. I'm not sure how much help I was in this peak season of tea picking where it’s all hands on deck. Turns out I'm very slow, but at least I entertained them, as the women cackled with laughter at my clumsy technique.

After a long hard day picking tea in the fields I'm sure it’s time for chi.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Tea picking come rain or shine.

Fairtrade Foundation's Emma Huntly's blogging throughout her visit to India

We were on the road early today, driving back to visit Thaishola tea estate in the heart of the Niligiri Hills in India. The drive is a windy steep climb up to the tea gardens that are at around 2000m elevation. On the drive we noticed lots of small holder tea pickers that were selling there tea to factories like Glen Dale and Snowden. Another throwback from the Scottish founders of the tea industry in this region. And I can tell you I felt like I was in Scotland, wearing two jumpers, one coat and a scarcf and still shivering in the blowing gale and non stop downpoar. I can tell you this is a far cry from the trophical India you see advertised on the posters in the tube stations of the London Underground.

But who am I to complain, the tea pickers were out early with brightly coloured tarporlens covering their heads. Just carrying on. Most of the workers on this estate have already worked picking tea for many years so the October rains are just another day in the office. The non stop rain today seemed a million miles away from the drought stricken tea gardens of Kenya, another country that supplies lots of daily cuppas. The fall in production in Kenya has lead to a spike in the market prices of CTC tea but this market price rise, is a recent reverse of a long downward trend in the market price of tea.

We visited Rajama again today and met her children and mother. If you want one reason to leave your conventional tea bags on the supermarket shelf and swap to Fairtrade tea, here it is. Rajama's son is still at primary school but he's an ambitious boy. He wants to be a government officer when he goes up but this a profession that requires a college course and that is very difficult to afford on a tea pickers wage of R116 a day. This is about two pounds. Rajama hopes that her son will be able to get a place at collegue on the new schloarship scheme that has been introduced, funded by the Fairtrade premium. Without this she would have to take out a loan, and struggle to meet the needs of her family. The local interests rates are very high, 12% averages so this schloarship would have a big difference.

We got a picture today of the high winds that frequently bring down electricity cables in the rainy season. This means that workers cottages are in darkeness and children study with candlelight. We also got to see the site of the proposed mini hydroelectric plant today that the Joint Body have planned to build with Fairtrade premium money. This source would be a back up and mean that the children have no excuse not to do their homework!

In just one year of selling their tea under Fairtrade terms, the workers like Rajama have more hope for the future and can see a better life for there children. All that from just buying Fairtrade tea. And you know what, it tastes great. I enjoyed several warming cups today to recover from the stormy conditions.
Seems like a simple choice I think?

I'm off in search of an umbrella shop....

Friday, 2 October 2009

From growing tea to building a school

Fairtrade Foundation's Emma Huntly's blogging throughout her visit to India

It was after 24 hours of travelling that we arrived in the tea town of Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, India. So you can imagine, I was gasping for a cuppa. And I was in luck. I've come to the heart of South Indian tea production. Coonoor is at the base of the Nilgiri Hills, or the Blue Mountains as they are called locally because of the blueish coloured mist that covers them. Tea from the region's many tea estates, finds its way into the tea bags of our favourite brands and many of the supermarket own label brands.

Tea was first planted in this region by the Brits, so it was fitting today that when we travelled up the steep winding roads up to Thaishola tea estate that it rained all the way. But tea bushes need lots of rain, so the combination of a cold climate and high altitude means the estate we visited produces some of the highest quality tea in South India.

Thaishola tea estate is new to the Fairtrade family. It was certified in 2008 and already sells around 60% under Fairtrade terms. This is very high compared to other estates in the region. It means that the joint body (the group of 12 elected worker representatives) has been able to agree the spending for lots of great projects with the Fairtrade premium money, (this is the extra money the company pays when it buys the tea and it goes into a separate bank account for the workers to decide how to spend).

The first thing that Rajama, Kala and Sivaja told us about is how they are planning to buy cooking gas stoves for the workers. These women pick tea until 4pm - 6pm depending on the time of year and currently they have to go after work to collect firewood. This can take up to 3 hours of walking and collecting. So it's no surprise that they spoke with great animation about this scheme and how they hope to spend more time with their children in the evenings as a result of this addition.

The next thing they told us about was the school bus they are planning to buy and run. Currently, students take the government bus to secondary school (there is only a primary school on the estate). This bus is often late and can be overcrowded and dangerous. It's particularly problematic in exam time when lots of students are late for exams and either miss them or retake them because they don't get to school on time. One of the workers we spoke to said this problem was a problem for her when she went to school as she missed her exams and she doesn't want the same to happen to her children.

In a country like India, where much value is put on education, it is not surprising that the Joint Body members spoke loudly and fast about the scholarship scheme that they are starting up. This fund will pay for tuition fees for higher level education that is currently not possible for lots of the workers children. Rajamma told me she wants her children to have a better life that she has and for them to get themselves good jobs.

I asked the workers who were sitting round the table, brightening the grey and misty day in their beautifully coloured saris and sparkling bracelets, what they would say to someone in the UK. They all liked this questions and talked loudly and for a long time to the interpreter! They said, 'buy more of our Fairtrade tea because we work hard and pick great quality tea for you. We want future generations to benefit as we are beginning to'. They have a list as long as their arm that they were telling me of things that they want to do with the premium money.

It was fascinating to see just what an impact Fairtrade has had in such a short amount of time in this estate.

Keep reading for more news to come from India. And last of all, a very happy Gandi day to you.

Writing from India

Fairtrade Foundation's Emma Huntly is currently in Southern India where she’s visiting plantations where Fairtrade certified tea is produced. Keep visiting back to find out more about the places she visits and the people she meets!