Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Green Tea? Evaluating the environmental sustainability of the agricultural practices in Kericho, Kenya and Darjeeling, India.
My research in December 2007 took me to the rural Western Highlands of Kenya, a picturesque and rolling plateau lying between 5000 and 8000 feet above sea level and within one degree north and south of the equator. I spent most of my time in and around Kericho, the tea capital of Kenya. Kericho's consistent daily rains, bright sunshine, and deep, fertile soil are all conducive to the cultivation of some of the world's highest quality tea. For just under two weeks, I spent my days learning all I could about tea cultivation, harvesting, production, and profitability. My time was spent visiting farms of varying size and function, as well as factories and even a tea research facility. My methods were simple but effective. The basis of my research was a comparison between two sectors of tea agriculture: smallholders and multinational plantations. Through interviews and field observation, I was able to immerse myself in the world of tea production in Western Kenya and draw conclusions about the sustainability of the agricultural practices in the tea production industry.
My methods were simple but revealing. I established a framework for evaluation, divided into four chief aspects of tea agriculture. First, I wanted to know about tea cultivation. This usually included questions about fertilizer acquisition and usage techniques, how disease and pests were controlled, how new generations were worked into the rotation, and how, if at all, water is acquired. Second, I asked questions about harvesting the tea. The discussion often was focused on the techniques and schedule of harvesting and collection. I also learned a lot about drying, processing and preparing the tea. Thirdly, I inquired about the farm's productivity. We spoke a lot about the size of the farm, the number of plants, the yields, and the relative productivity. Lastly, I asked a lot of questions about the profitability and sales of the tea. I learned about how it is sold and to whom. I learned about the economics behind growing tea, specifically workers wages and benefits and external/input costs. I also usually inquired about the quality of the tea and tried to derive a comparison between smallholder tea and plantation tea.
After two weeks immersing myself in Kenya's highland tea production, I was able to draw some conclusions. I learned that the production of tea in Kenya is complex in its structure and varied in its agricultural practices. On the whole the agricultural practices in the smallholder tea sector proved much more environmentally sustainable than those in the multinational plantations. Surprisingly, however, the overall knowledge and awareness of environmental issues was more prevalent in plantation farming. There is a lot of room for improvement in both sectors and further study is necessary to evaluate how implementation can best suit Kenya's people, economy, and environment.
The basis of India's tea agriculture is similar to Kenya's; multi-national corporations are the largest contributor to tea production, but there is a strong contingent of smallholders as well. However, India offers a new perspective on the subject. Much the same as Wangari Maathai's green belt movement in East Africa, India has recently seen a massive shift toward environmentally sustainable agriculture, especially in the tea estates. In January 2009, my research continued in the Darjeeling region in West Bengal, India. Darjeeling lies at around 7000 ft above sea level, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was the first area in the country to begin organic tea production. In 1990, just 150,000 kilograms of tea were grown annually with organic practices. Annual organic tea production has since soared to over 3.5 million kilos currently. My research continued to focus on evaluating the environmental sustainability of tea agriculture in India's highland tea region. Here, I visited three tea estates, each roughly the same size. Two of these estates (Makaibari and Ambootia) produced tea utilizing organic and biodynamic practices in all aspects of their agriculture. The third estate (Goomtee) utilized conventional agricultural practices.
In order to ensure a comparative analysis, my framework of questions remained largely the same as it was in Kenya. However, in light of the differences in Indian tea agriculture, I further refined my question framework to reflect a few obvious differences in the challenges of production. Darjeeling tea is grown almost entirely on steep hillsides, so soil conservation was a new topic I addressed. Also, the seasonal variations in temperature and precipitation offered new venues of exploration as well. I also included questions about the implementation of the National Program for Organic Production, which was put forth by the Indian Department of Commerce in 2001 to provide an institutional framework by which to evaluate and adhere to standards for organic tea cultivation.
During my three weeks studying tea production in Darjeeling, I came to many interesting conclusions. I learned that organic and biodynamic agricultural practices are very viable and successful frameworks for tea production in the Darjeeling region. These are much more environmentally sustainable than the conventional tea production I studied at Goomtee. Relative to Kenya, the organic tea practices utilized by Makaibari and Ambootia are dramatically more sustainable in all aspects of cultivation, harvesting, and processing. I also realized how the complexities of the Kenyan tea production economy, especially for smallholder farmers, create a global disadvantage for these farmers in implementing sustainable agricultural practices. The reputation of Darjeeling tea, the high consumer demand, and the resultant high prices paid for it, all seemed to create a very fluid economy through which capital investment for organic conversion was much more available.