The only way is ethics: sustainable tea production

Categories: Behind the stalls

Tessa of Organic Life Teas on taking an environmentally and socially responsible approach to tea-growing

“It was the British who forced Sri Lanka into becoming a tea producing nation,” explains Tessa of Organic Life Teas. In an era in which Brits looked to the world as their personal pantry, colonisers in Sri Lanka decided the lush green valleys lent themselves perfectly to growing their beloved beverage. Ceylon, the island’s colonial-era name, is still used today to describe its internationally popular tea.

“Tea grows well there, but it pushes the land. It is not naturally suited,” says Tessa. It’s been over a century since the British chose to make a tea caddy of the country, replacing its mixed forests with neat fields of tea plants, and the damage—soil erosion, chemical run-off and the depletion of natural habitat—is, she explains, beginning to show. “The impact is massive. I was in Sri Lanka in March, and it is shocking. The traditional tea farms do look beautiful, but when you see those neat rows of plants, you don’t realise what is going on beneath them.” Monocropping means that without the leaf-fall from trees to supply nitrates, the only way farmers can supply the substantial amount of nutrients that tea needs to grow (and, ultimately, flavour a cuppa) is through chemical fertilisers. And without the roots of other vegetation to hold the soil in place, erosion is a major problem.

Which is where Greenfield Estate—the tea estate that supplies Organic Life Teas comes in. Established 20-odd years ago, it is the brainchild and life’s work of Sri Lankan Tamil Durka Chellaram who, Tessa grins, is “a tea farmer to the core”. “His family has a long history of tea—and of fighting their way and making the best of the situation.” Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka, she continues, and it is not always easy for them to get a foothold, but they worked hard, and in 1990, purchased an estate populated by a dilapidated community of tea pickers whose families had been shipped to the Uva Highlands, but whose plantation and livelihood had since fallen by the wayside.

Land and people
There were no educational facilities, a history of child labour and alcohol abuse, and very little by way of employment or enterprise. Durka, however, saw potential. “He loved the land and the people, and he wanted to make something of the business for the community.” It took two years to get organic certification—pesticides from tea farms up the mountain were running into the estate, and the locals used chemicals on their gardens—but he persisted, employing people from the community to build a factory for tea processing in the meantime. “It was a big thing to be organic at that time: there is such an abundance of tea in Sri Lanka, it was difficult to compete—but the idea of growing organically really resonated with him. He cared about the land and the people he worked with,” says Tessa.

“We’re in the business of producing and selling food. Food is for health. You’ve got to produce food that’s good for health—it’s common sense. That’s why we feel organics is the right way,” Durka is quoted as saying.

Which brings us back round to the problem of monocropping—or, rather, its antidotes: biodiversity, forest gardening and allowing the land to revert to nature. “The soil was really poor, so we introduced the idea of forest gardening, which is similar to agroforestry. The deal is, the farm looks like a forest,” Tessa continues. “There are big and small fruit trees, pine scrubs, vines, root vegetables and liquorice as ground cover, with the tea plants mixed in.” Protective rocks and scrub barriers protect the estate from chemical run-off from other farms. Trees supply nitrates via leaf fall, as well as shade for the workers. The roots of all these plants and trees provide further nutrition while holding the soil in place, and their produce—fruit, vegetables, spices and peppers—can be harvested and either eaten or sold locally.

Quality of life
The community is transformed. Prior to Durka, no student from the Uva Highlands had ever been to university. “The first to do so was from Greenfield, and there have been eight more since then. We started English lessons, and provided school supplies and educational bursaries,” Tessa says proudly. Most members of the community are involved in the production of tea in some capacity, but whereas on more industrial farms they might find themselves working 10 hours each day with little job security, workers on Greenfield Estate work no more than eight. “They have a decent break for lunch, a good quality of life and education for their children.”

Establishing something like Greenfield takes time. “It is slow growth. It is a lot of work. But now we have established all those guidelines for ourselves and put the work in, the soil is healthy, the land is beautiful, the tea tastes equally beautiful and there is a community of workers who care about their land and their work there.” As for Tessa—well, she says, “it is always nice to land yourself in the middle of fantastic company with great ethics and morality.”