Change is Brewing

Fertile Ground is brewing positive change for tea farmers across continents

Swapna Basumatary (right), an organic tea grower from Assam’s Bodo tribe, sharing some of her ideas with workers at a garden under conversion to organic. Photo courtesy Peggy Carswell.

I love tea. I love the feel of the hot cup in my hands, the smell, the taste, and of course the comforting ritual surrounding the drinking of tea. Even so, I’m quite sure I don’t love tea as much as Peggy Carswell, founder of Fertile Ground: East/West Sustainability Network, which since 2003 has provided training, resources, and encouragement to small tea farmers throughout the region of Assam, India.

I had the pleasure of drinking tea with Carswell in the sunny living room of her beautiful owner-built home in Merville. As we talk and sip, Carswell sits on the floor in order to sort through and show me the wonderful selection of teas she had just brought back from Assam. She fans them around her so we can appreciate the varying designs on the packages. Some are decorated with brightly colored and intricate designs; some have photos of the tea farmers on the bags. At one point, Carswell reaches behind her to grab some small glass jars filled with different varieties of tea. In the jars I can see the different appearances between the teas found in the bags—the trending green teas, the orthodox teas, and the CTC (cut, tear, curl) teas. It is a deliciously entertaining and educational visit.

Like the teas that surround Carswell during our visit, tea has encircled her life for the past 20 years. The story begins in 1998, when Carswell and her former husband, Kel, travelled Assam for a 10-week holiday.
Actually, the story really begins back in the 1800s, when Robert Bruce, a Scottish Major, first discovered tea being grown in Assam. Bruce noticed local tribesmen (the Singhpos) brewing tea from the leaves of a native bush. The tribe members would pluck the tender leaves of the wild plant and dry them under the sun. Bruce sampled the concoction and found it to be similar to tea from China.

During this time efforts were being made by the East India Company to break the Chinese monopoly over global tea trade. The Company wanted to break this monopoly by producing tea in the British colonies, including India. Bruce’s efforts would subsequently launch a botanical shift of permanent significance to the tea trade, as Assam would eventually eclipse China in worldwide tea production.

Today, Assam is one of the world’s largest producers of tea with 13,000 gardens and a workforce of more than two million people. In fact, it is estimated that 12.5 per cent of the total population depends on this industry for their livelihood.

Assam is located in northeast India and shares its two boundaries with Bangladesh and Bhutan. The Assam state is one of the richest biodiversity zones in the world. It consists of tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, riverine grasslands, bamboo orchards, numerous wetland ecosystems and, of course, the tens of thousands of hectares of land covered end-to-end by stunning tea fields.

Although Assam is geographically and culturally beautiful, politically, the area has been plagued with unrest for the past several decades. Back in the late 1990s, when Carswell first travelled to Assam, the region had just reopened its borders to allow access for people from outside the state. Even so, the area was still destabilized by civil unrest—with episodes of insurgency and state sponsored counterterrorism activity.

“The unrest started in the 70s when there was a movement to separate Assam from the rest of India,” Carswell says. “It was a very dangerous place for a while, and accordingly, the area was restricted and did not reopen until 1996. Even so, the area was still somewhat dangerous. In fact, we often had to check in at the police station upon our arrival at a village, and sometimes they insisted on providing armed guards to escort us.”

Nevertheless, Carswell and her husband found the people of Assam to be completely friendly and accommodating. “We fell in love with Assam’s lush green hillsides, its rich cultural diversity and wonderful food,” she says.

Under the guidance of founder Peggy Carswell, Fertile Ground has provided training, resources, and encouragement to small tea farmers throughout the region of Assam, India. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Upon their return to the Comox Valley they could not get Assam out of their minds. “Shortly after we got back, friends from the World Community Development Education Society, a non-profit society that works with coffee growers in Nicaragua and imports organic fair trade coffee to North America, asked if we could help them find a small-scale grower who was producing fair trade organic tea,” Carswell says.

The following year she found herself back in Assam, this time looking for a source of tea for World Community. But what she found was only discouragement. Most tea growers in Assam are on what can be described as a vicious chemical cycle. “In 1999, when I tried to find a source of organically-grown tea produced in Assam, I found out very quickly that farmers, tea growers, and families in Assam had no access to information that helped them focus on natural farming practices—ones that didn’t require regular use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” recalls Carswell.

“What I soon saw was that as a result of aggressive promotion by chemical companies, and the partnerships they’d developed with government, educational and lending institutions, most people had started to lose confidence in their traditional methods of farming. Assam’s tea plantations were completely dependent on chemical inputs, and by the late 1990s, many people had already become convinced that increased production and income was directly linked to the application of purchased inputs—most of which required them to borrow money at high interest rates from banks or private money lenders.”

Ironically, it is widely believed that going organic means reduced yields, though it has been shown many times that a properly managed organic tea garden can produce as much as, or even close to twice the yield of a conventional garden.

In addition, the changing climate has induced rising temperatures and reduced rainfall, thereby decreasing the productivity of tea crops throughout the region. However, organic cultivation of tea is, in fact, a sustainable way to combat climate change. Use of naturally available products such as organic manure or compost increases climate resilience. In addition, organic tea cultivation can be a solution to address the fall of crop productivity under current chemical farming practices.

Carswell knew that what the farmers needed more than anything was information. But this was also a problem. “There were no videos, no books, no training programs, no resource people—nothing. And certainly nothing available in any of the local languages that were spoken or written in Assam.”

Upon Carswell’s return home from her second trip she continued to think about the situation in Assam and the people there. It was clear the problems in Assam would not be solved in a short time. “I’d worked hard and had a garden and home here in the Valley. I lived simply but well. I had access to pretty much everything I needed—and somehow It just didn’t feel right to turn my back on a situation that I could see was only going to get worse,’” says Carswell.
And so began Carswell’s focused endeavor of improving the lives of the people of Assam. Shortly thereafter, Carswell was travelling to Assam on a regular basis.

In 2003, Carswell founded Fertile Ground: East/West Sustainability Network to further her efforts in Assam. “I began carrying out research into organic and natural farming practices, visited organic farming projects in various parts of India, and worked with a friend to begin translating resource materials from English into Assamese.

“By 2005, awareness about the harmful effects pesticides were having on human health and the environment had started to spread, and I was having a hard time keeping up with requests for training and information,” recalls Carswell. “Being on the road and moving from one village to another was exhausting. I needed to find a place where people could come to see firsthand how the practices and ideas we were promoting worked—a place where they could get hands-on training and where their experiences, successes and challenges were understood and welcomed.”

Carswell eventually found a group of like-minded people in Digboi who also wanted to set up a resource centre and demonstration garden. With support by the Digboi Rotary Club and on land belonging to the Indian Oil Corporation, the Adarsh Seuj Prakalpa (ASP) Centre was opened in the spring of 2007, exactly 10 years ago.

Carswell recalls what it was like during those early days of converting the land from wasteland to farmland. “We worked side by side with the people of Digboi, a small town close to the India/Burma border, to develop a demonstration garden and resource centre promoting sustainable agriculture. The site had previously provided living quarters for workers at the local oil refinery, but the buildings had been abandoned and then demolished. Before work on the garden could begin though, a small mountain of broken bricks, rocks, old shoes, glass and disintegrating plastic bags had to be removed.”

But the hard work paid off in dividends, as the training centre is now a thriving place. “Today the land is lush and green. There are papaya, lemon, olive, custard apple, mulberry and plum trees and rows or raised beds filled with a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers,” Carswell says. “The ASP Training Centre is a place of sharing and learning. It’s considered the birthplace of the organic farming movement in Assam.”

Since the centre opened, hundreds of people travel there and receive training. Last year the centre was improved with a 14-bed farmer’s hostel, so people from far away can come knowing there is a place for them to stay overnight.

“Most visitors are farmers, tea growers or members of self-help groups or non-governmental organizations. Some are teachers, tea garden workers and college students,” says Carswell. “Others have turned up just to find out why this group of foreigners has come to Assam and what information we have to share.”

Carswell continues to travel to Assam every year to conduct training about traditional and environmentally-sustainable farming methods. The work has been exhausting at times, but she can see that fundamental changes are beginning to occur.

“About three or four years ago we started connecting with a number of well-educated, open-minded young people, many who had studied outside of Assam,” she says. “They were looking closely at the issues and problems facing the existing agriculture system, and could see how multi-national chemical and seed companies are undermining the security of local farmers.

“Experienced organic tea growers are joining hands with these enthusiastic young ‘agri-preneurs’ and people are beginning to share their knowledge and train each other, instead of relying on help from outsiders.

“Ten years ago, a small number of people who believed in the potential of organic farming studied it and began practicing it. And they’re getting good results,” Carswell says. “It’s wonderful to see growers and resource people standing up in front of their people and sharing information about organic farming methods they’ve had success using—and explaining why these practices work. Now they are local experts.”

It’s important to note that Assam is a very complicated region. The population is made up of many different communities, including a large number of tribal groups.

“When we first arrived, growers from different parts of the state would meet ‘kindred spirits’ at training sessions, but some participants were a bit uncomfortable, reticent or reluctant to share their ideas or successes,” Carswell says. “When I look back on those days, I see that as well as teaching how to make compost or how to control insect pests without relying on pesticides, Kel and I brought together people from a number of communities and regions and helped build lasting friendships and connections between many different groups.”

Tenzing’s garden in Assam

Carswell continues to look at ways to help the people of Assam continue to help themselves. A change in attitude—and the emergence of a new generation of educators from local towns and villages—shows that they are working toward achieving that goal.

In 2013, the Organic Small Tea Growers Association of North East India (OSTGANE) was formed. This is an autonomous association of small tea farmers formed and managed by the farmers themselves. “OSTGANE is a very diverse group, with participants from Assam and several other states in northeast India,” Carswell says. “Already this year, they’ve organized two meetings—one of which was held at our training centre in Digboi. The sessions are informative, celebratory and well attended—and are attracting a number of new growers.”

At Adarsh Seuj Prakalpa, plans for the future focus on creating revenue streams to support the efforts of the training centre and to also illustrate creative and alternative ways of revenue generation for the farmers. A new greenhouse will be built which will enable the farm to start plants earlier in the year. A shade house and additional raised beds are also in the works. In addition, the centre will increase production and sale of vermicompost—a method of recycling wastes into valuable organic fertilizer.

Young farmers are also looking for ways to generate regular income to support their family farms, such as opening their homes to travelers. “This is a big change,” Carswell says, “because in Assam, guests are like gods. The idea of charging a guest for accommodation is difficult for some of the older generation to contemplate, but they recognize that eco-tourism could be a way for some small farms to generate additional revenue.”

What does the future hold for Carswell? “I’d like to find ways to move the work Fertile Ground has done forward. There are still lots of myths and misunderstandings about how to be a successful small-scale farmer, and those need to cleared up—not just for tea growers in northeast India, but for growers and consumers everywhere.”

Last year Carswell was recognized by the Women’s World Summit Foundation, an international, humanitarian network based in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization, whose focus is to serve the advancement of women and children’s rights, development and piece, awarded the 2016 Women’s Creativity in Rural Life award to Carswell for her work in Assam.

“I’m very, very grateful for many ways people have supported our work in Assam,” Carswell says. “Each year, World Community and Edible Island Whole Foods donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of World Community organic tea. We were able to carry out a number of important projects as a result of contributions made by Strathcona Sunrise and Cumberland Centennial Rotary Clubs, the Interact Club at Highland Secondary, the Powderhorn Community in South Minneapolis and by individual donors. Fertile Ground has played a significant role in the development of the organic farming movement in Assam—and we couldn’t have done it without all of you.”

The change Carswell has been hoping for is beginning to happen, as she shows me while sitting on her living room floor surrounded by packages of organically grown tea produced by small scale growers living in villages across Assam. “See this design here? And see how this tea grower has put a picture of himself on the package? When I see them using their own designs and photos, it shows me they’re not only making good quality teas, they’re learning to be proud of their traditions and their way of life. It shows me there’s hope for the small tea growers of Assam—and that they feel that hope too.”

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