The history of tea is filled with folklore and epic international conflicts which often fetishize the harsh realities for the individuals actually involved in the stories. Understanding the stories and struggles of marginalized people is a top priority for the privileged in this world at the moment. For this reason, it is more important than ever to look at these stories in the tea world so we can better know how to support their stories and increase the opportunity for mobilization to a more dignified livelihood.
Drinking tea is a privilege that has now reached communities across the globe in the past few centuries. Prior to this time, tea had a very long history that was exclusive to the original communities that began cultivating and processing tea; as well as monks and aristocracy. This international privilege that we all enjoy today is due to deep roots of colonialism and industrialization.
The stories of the development of the tea industry in places like Sri Lanka and India are layered with prestige and the legacy of the hardworking European planters, but little on the plantation systems that were adopted from the American slavery system. When India gained its independence from England over 70 years ago you can find tales of the heroic Indian families that took over the famous estates of Darjeeling and Assam; leaving out that the plantation system was passed to a deeply-rooted caste system where the laborer immediately turned into a subhuman necessity entering into continuous cycles of exploitation and marginalization.
Slavery has now turned to indentured labor and failed plantation systems are turning to bought leaf factories and “independent” small tea growers. The stories today praise the autonomy of the small tea grower, but always leave out that these small tea growers are often paid as little as $0.12 per kilogram for harvested green leaf. ( For reference, it takes me 3 hours to harvest one kilogram. ) These are all stories that get hidden behind a “Fairtrade” label or fancy brand.
If you want to better understand these stories and their origins, feel empowered to ask your tea vendor about these stories; or better yet become informed yourself and share these stories with your friends and vendors. Oftentimes, even a tea vendor that has been in the business their whole life is not aware of these stories because they are hidden deep below the romantic folklore of tea.
If you would like to learn more about the importance of understanding the forgotten stories of tea, consider joining a panel discussion I will be a part of called “Not Just Tea” on June 30, 2020 at 9:30AM PDT along with Rui Lui (owner of Grass People Tree), Lisa See (author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane), and Linda Louie (owner of Bana Tea). Register for this free event and read more information about the panel here.