Steeped with Compassion
Organic tea from India has strong roots on Vancouver Island…
In 1998, Merville residents Peggy Carswell and her husband, Kel Kelly, took a leave of absence from their jobs and went on a 10-week adventure to India. For most people, the story would end there.
For Carswell and Kelly, however, this trip would be a turning point in their lives and in the lives of thousands of others—both here on Vancouver Island and in India.
“I did not initially set out to become an expert on tea,” explains Carswell, “I just wanted to travel through India. Shortly after we got back, Kel and I were visiting with our neighbors, Wayne Bradley and Janet Fairbanks. They told us about World Community Development Education Society—a non-profit society they volunteer for. This organization works with coffee growers in Nicaragua and imports organic fair trade coffee to North America. They said it was difficult to find fair trade organic tea. Since we had just been to Assam, they wondered if we had any information about how to connect with small scale tea growers there.”
Carswell had been captivated by India. The idea of sourcing organic tea and helping small farmers in remote villages appealed to both her sense of adventure and her heart of compassion. She began extensive research on Indian culture, tea production, organic farming, small grower cooperatives and much more. Before long, she was armed with information and on a plane back to India. Her goal was to meet with small scale tea growers in Assam and to help World Community expand their fair trade business to include tea. Little did she know that, along with her husband, she would spend the next 10 years teaching interested growers how to grow tea organically, set up a cooperative, establish an export and distribution network to enable the Assamese to increase their profits and better support their families, and establish a resource centre in Assam to promote organic farming practices.
She explains that, prior to her 1998 visit, Assam had been under political siege for decades and few Westerners had ever traveled there. On her first visit, whenever she and Kel came upon a new village, they had to be interviewed at the local police station and were assigned armed security guards to protect them from insurgents. Today, the situation has improved, but travel through many parts of northeast India can still be risky.
Assam is both the name of a state in northeastern India and the name of the distinctive black tea that grows there. Assam has a humid, sub-tropical climate and produces about 15 per cent of the world’s tea. It ranks number two in the world of tea production, second only to Southern China. Assam is also one of only two places in the world where tea is a native plant. The tea grown here is often sold as English, Irish or Scottish “Breakfast Teas.” It is said that in the 19th century, tea exported from Assam revolutionized tea-drinking habits globally, since the tea plant yielded a distinct flavor.
Carswell explains that large non-Assamese business interests control the bulk of tea produced in India. Relying on a workforce originally brought in from other parts of India, it has historically offered little benefit to the people of Assam.
In the early 1990s, a number of Assamese families began planting and cultivating tea in an effort to improve their lives. Most of the tea they harvested was sold to “bought leaf factories”—often at prices that barely covered production costs. Without access to small scale processing equipment, technical and educational support, or a market for their teas (without the middle man), many of these families were (and still are) struggling to survive.
Early in her quest, Carswell had aligned herself with the All-Assam Small Tea Growers Association and had been assured that, when she met with its members, they would be able to understand English. Minutes into her first presentation, she realized that communication was a problem. She could tell by the puzzled—yet enthusiastic—looks on their faces that they had absolutely no idea what she was saying.
“Thankfully,” she adds with a smile. “I was partnered with a wonderful Indian woman, Monalisha Gogoi. We spent several weeks sitting cross-legged on her bed, with my laptop computer, translating all of the resource materials I had brought to Assam. Over time, we also became good friends.”
On that second trip back, and subsequent annual visits over the next 10 years, Carswell learned that the Assamese people had been led to believe that chemicals were “the future of farming.” Many had lost faith in the efficacy of farming practices traditionally passed down for generations. Bags of chemical fertilizers had replaced cow manure, harsh chemicals controlled insect pests and crop rotation had become a thing of the past. New hybrid seed varieties, which required constant irrigation and where ultimately much more susceptible to insect damage and disease, were introduced, and many important varieties of rice and vegetables were being lost.
“In my opinion, this was disastrous,” exclaims Carswell. “Not only do these chemical fertilizers have a significant environmental impact, the application of pesticides can result in serious health problems for workers and people living adjacent to the gardens. The instructions on the containers are written in English. Workers cannot read the directions and, as a result, they mix and over-apply products, thinking that if a small amount of chemicals works well, then a little more should work even better! Many people are suffering from respiratory, skin and other chronic health problems relating to chemical use and misuse.”
With the encouragement of a number of organic growers here on Vancouver Island, and using information on organic farming in the sub-tropics published by organizations based in India and Britain, Carswell was able to develop training materials suited to Assam’s climate. The skills and knowledge of many farmers from the Comox Valley have played a vital part in improving the Assamese farmers awareness of composting, insect pest management and crop rotation.
After four more years and a number of two- and three-month long trips to India, Carswell was growing weary of traveling throughout the state. A central teaching and resource centre needed to be established. Not only would this be less taxing, it would also create much-needed employment opportunities in Assam. She and Kelly had still not been able to import any organic tea produced by their small group of growers and they were pretty much still funding this effort on their own.
In the fall of 2003, Carswell and a team of enthusiastic Comox Valley volunteers registered Fertile Ground: East/West Sustainability Network. The association received charitable status in 2004. With the support of a hard-working board of directors and volunteers, came an opportunity to do some serious fundraising.
Start-up funding was secured from Vancouver-based Canada-India Village Aid Society (CIVA) to assess the needs of farmers and organizations working in rural Assam, develop additional resources materials and then provide training to farmers and other groups. Support from CIVA also made it possible to start the “Growing Healthy Families Program”—providing women of Assam with information, training and opportunities that encourage healthy, local food production; and helping them find ways to diversify and increase family incomes.
Two years later, Carswell and Kelly met with members of a Rotary Club in Assam and discovered they were interested in working together to establish a project to promote organic farming practices. The following year, the two groups were entrusted with an abandoned plot of land in Digboi that was owned by Indian Oil Company, on which a demonstration garden and a classroom would be built.
In the spring of 2007, Fertile Ground and the Rotary Club of Digboi opened the Adarsh Seuj Prakalpa Organic Demonstration Garden and Training Centre. It is located 540-kilometres east of the state capital, near the India/Burma border. The Centre now boasts a resource building, demonstration gardens, and a small retail outlet that sells organic produce and compost, as well as two small scale production units where vermi-compost and various botanical formulas are made.
The Centre has become a place where Assamese men and women come to learn, children come to play and all help tend the garden and share its harvest. It is a place of learning and a place of joy. It is regularly visited by farmers, small tea growers, educators, agricultural extension staff and students, and has attracted guests from Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Germany and the United States.
“Donations from Fertile Ground’s supporters and a number of local organizations have helped make all of this possible,” adds Carswell. “Strathcona Sunrise and Cumberland Centennial Rotary Clubs purchased building materials and equipment for the offices. Proceeds from the sale of World Community’s organic tea have helped pay the Centre’s staff and develop resource materials. Chislett Manson purchased a computer and a tent for farmers from distant locations who want to visit the project to take part in training sessions. And many volunteers, including students from Camosun College, UBC and UVic, have travelled to Assam to gain work experience in the garden and accompany staff when they visit nearby villages.”
In addition to training people from the Digboi region, staff from the Centre also take their lessons on the road. A portable electricity generator—a rarity is Assam—audio-visual equipment and resource materials translated into the Assamese language allow them to visit and teach in remote villages, too.
Today, the Centre has four full-time and several part-time employees. It is managed by a capable young Indian woman named Pompy Ghosh, who spent her first year as a volunteer at the project.
Abruptly, Carswell stops talking and her eyes fill with tears. She describes the brutal family violence, abandonment and poverty that have been a constant backdrop to this young woman’s life. “This job means so much to Pompy,” explains Carswell. “When we first appointed her to this position there was a great deal of animosity in the community because it is very uncommon in Indian culture to give a job like this to a woman. She now oversees all operations, gives lectures, does the books, develops PowerPoint presentations and is our translator. I am so proud of her.”
At this point in my visit with Carswell it dawns on me that we have long-ago stopped talking about organic tea. Later, I consider it a privilege to have an opportunity to phone Ghosh in India, to ask her how her work with Fertile Ground has affected her. “Madame Peggy has changed my life,” Ghosh says. “There are so many restrictions on what you can and cannot do in India. For me to have this job is unimaginable! With Madame Peggy, I feel that I can do anything. She is my manager, my friend… sometimes I feel like she is my mother. We have the best relationship. I cannot tell you all the good things I feel about her and the work she has done. There is not enough time to do that!”
Ghosh was so excited that I had called her that she asked other people at the Centre for their thoughts. Everyone enthusiastically voiced an opinion and she had responses back to me within 24 hours. Some of these comments, reprinted here verbatim in their broken English, were:
“I have learned compost making, green manuring, collection of biodegradable and non biodegradable things separately. Also about the importants (sic) of various local weeds or herbs, saving local seed variety, and mainly importants and control of harmful insects.”
“The Centre is important because till today, in the northeast part of India, this is the only one centre where people can learn or know or get trained about organic agriculture.”
“The staff are learning a little bit of English. Moreover, now a days they have developed the courage or confidence to talk to a group of people… explaining about compost or insect controlling methods.”
“They feel very happy, and it is also not hundred per cent false to say that they feel little bit proud.”
Most humbling, however, is their answer to my final question: Is there anything else they would like the people in Canada to know?
“Yes! [We are grateful for] POLITENESS , NO CLASS DIVISION, TRUTHFULNESS, (by truthfulness we mean not making false promise, no cheating, etc.) Most specially we like one feature in the Canadians and that is ONENESS. Ie. no difference between rich and poor, between high caste and low caste, between ugly and beautiful. This is just like a God gift for us. Because in India it doesn’t matter what one’s qualification or qualities are, only one thing matters and that is one’s ECONOMIC SITUATION.”
These responses make it easy to see why Carswell and Kelly are so passionate about this project.
This winter, for the first time in 10 years, Carswell will try not to go to India. “My ultimate goal was that this project would eventually be taken over by the Assamese people,” Carswell says. “The Centre is being well-managed and I keep in touch with Pompy and others via email.
“Several of the growers we have been working with over the years are growing, processing and exporting their tea. Kel and I now have six varieties of organic fair trade tea available for sale here through our newly formed business, The Small Tea Co-operative. Proceeds from the sale directly support the tea growers. While our work is by no means complete, I think we can say that our efforts have been pretty successful. I will spend my volunteer time this winter working from Vancouver Island. I am hoping to find two or three new people who are interested in Fertile Ground and who would be willing to become board members. Together, we will do our best to support Pompy and her team from a distance.
“I love the people of Assam, but there are family and friends that I love here on Vancouver Island, too. Balancing my life in both worlds will always be a challenge.”
For more information call 250-337-8348 or visit fertile-ground.org
Help Support Fertile Ground at The Mad Hatters Tea Party
Fertile Ground has planned a fun-filled fund-raising event for 2:00 pm, Sunday, November 1st at the Florence Filberg Centre. The Mad Hatters Tea Party will feature a selection of decadent desserts, fruit and several different teas, including flavorful Indian “Chai” prepared with fresh ginger and spices. Local herbalist and owner of Innisfree Farms, Chanchal Cabera, has promised to make up a special Mad Hatters blend for all to sample and enjoy. There will be prizes for the most unusual hats, a silent auction and much more.
A highlight of the evening will be a slide presentation, showcasing Assamese culture and, of course, the Adarsh Seuj Prakalpa Resource Centre. Money raised will enable Fertile Ground to continue to maintain the Centre and provide information and training to interested farmers, self-help groups and tea growers in other parts of the Assam.