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A jumbo cup of Assam tea

Elephants don’t eat tea leaves, but often pass through estates during their migrations   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

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How a small tea garden in the Brahmaputra Valley became the first one in the world to secure an elephant-friendly certificate

At the edge of the Bodoland Territorial Area in Assam, where the Brahmaputra valley plains meet the hills of Bhutan, there are two tea farms owned by a farmer named Tenzing Bodosa. Earlier this year, these became the first in the world to receive a new certification launched by the University of Montana’s Broader Impacts Group in the U.S., in partnership with Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), which describes itself as “a global community dedicated to the development of products and tourism that contribute to the conservation of threatened wildlife.” The tea from Bodosa’s farms was certified as ‘Elephant Friendly Tea’. It is till date the only tea to have received this certification.

The journey to the global stage was a long one for Bodosa and his tea. The village of South Kahibari in Udalguri district, where Bodosa lives, is a place that did not have electricity until three years ago. Its inhabitants were and are mostly small farmers. Bodosa’s father’s family grew paddy. When his mother married his father, her family gifted the couple a herd of cows and buffaloes. They had their own poultry and goats. Fish came from their own ponds. “It was a wonderful life,” says Bodosa. “There was no need to go to the market.”

The first TV

Change started to come to the village in the early 1990s, when Bodosa, now 31, was six or seven. The village that had led its own isolated, timeless life got its first TV. “It was a big black-and-white TV. There was a keeper of the television whose job it was to switch it on and off at appointed hours,” recalls Bodosa. The village had no electricity and the TV ran on a truck battery. The battery had to be taken by handcart to the relatively bigger village of Dimakuchi around 5 km away for charging. Running the television was a village project.

Those were the years when Assam was roiled by various insurgencies. In the Bodo areas, the Bodoland movement had started. It was extremely violent. A lot of people, including one of Bodosa’s brothers, got killed. His mother sold a small plot of land and with that money sent him off to the relative safety of the nearest city, Guwahati. There, he became a gardener in a school.

His requests for enrolment in the school were denied; the school authorities, while supportive of his desire to study, would only help him to join evening classes elsewhere. Bodosa moved on and found a job as a waiter in Shillong. Several jobs, trades, and years later, he was in Bengaluru, working as a driver and mechanic, when his ageing mother began to insist he return home. Bodosa obeyed. There was one problem, though. “What to do in the village?”

So Bodosa, like his father and his grandfather before him, became a farmer — but instead of paddy, he decided to grow tea. He learnt the basics from a planter in a nearby estate, a friend of his father’s. However, after seeing a rabbit and some fish die from the use of pesticides, Bodosa began to think of alternatives. It was his Bengaluru links that came in handy. He requested renowned organic farming expert Narayana Reddy for help. Reddy taught him the basics of organic farming. Bodosa then reached out to a Canadian NGO called Fertile Ground that works in Assam. They reached his village, and helped him with compost pits and other such things.

By this time, the resourceful Bodosa was almost ready to start manufacturing tea. He had, after a lot of searching, found a small machine for drying tea leaves made by a reclusive man in Meghalaya called John Marbaniang. In 2008, he bought a 25 hectare plot in the forest right on the border with Bhutan, built himself a treehouse, and began to set about growing tea in earnest.

“One full moon night, 14 or 15 elephants came. I heard a sound, came out, and saw them,” he says. The area has several herds, with the number of elephants running into several hundreds. They roam the forests of Bhutan and the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam. Their corridors are increasingly under threat, both in India and in Bhutan. With human populations rising and plantations guarded by electric fences sometimes right up to the borders of Bhutan — there are several just across the border from Udalguri — conflict between humans and elephants is resulting in casualties on both sides.

In their corridors

It was concern over the man-elephant conflict that brought Lisa Mills of the University of Montana to Assam. “For years, I have been working on various community-based conservation efforts focused on Asian elephants,” she said in an email interview. “Tenzing contacted me for suggestions regarding elephants that were moving through his plantations. He wanted to reduce human-elephant conflict and support the conservation of elephants.” He had found her on Facebook after an incident in which a man was killed by an elephant in the vicinity of his farm.

A lot of Assam’s tea plantations are in elephant habitats and corridors. Elephants don’t eat the tea leaves, but they often pass through or stop for rest in the estates during their long migrations. Electric fencing, deep drainage ditches, chemical pesticides and fertilisers are hazards that the animals are forced to negotiate, sometimes unsuccessfully. Baby elephants are especially prone to falling into ditches. Adult elephants, which have a weakness for salt, sometimes end up poisoning themselves on fertilisers, which contain inorganic salts, and pesticides stored in tea estates.

“Data collected over many years pointed to specific interventions that could make a significant difference for elephants to reduce mortalities and help reduce human-elephant conflict,” says Mills. “Tea production and the communities associated with tea plantations are in critical elephant movement zones in Assam and the certification standards attempt to address issues that would improve mortality rates and lessen human-elephant conflict… To make the largest impact possible, we have determined that we can apply positive economic opportunities to create business incentives to help reduce negative impacts on elephants.”

Bodosa’s tea, which is an attempt at creating such a business incentive, has found a market in the U.S., where it is being sold through two distributors. “We also have interest from the zoo retail market here in the U.S. because the tea aligns with their conservation mission — which is wonderful,” says Julie Stein, Executive Director of WFEN that oversees the certification programme.

“We started with a small tea shop that specialises in small batch premium quality teas, and we also took tea products to the World Tea Expo to give out samples and discuss marketability of the products with potential buyers,” says Mills. She is hopeful that as the market for their trademarked ‘Elephant Friendly Tea’ expands and the certified tea obtains premium pricing, large plantations will also start seeking certification under the programme.

Teatime for all

In his little Assam-type cottage in Kahibari village, sitting in his bedroom which doubles up as a storeroom — there are large packets of tea stacked in a corner — Bodosa says he has found one new U.S. buyer, Missoula Tea Company, after the certification, and they pay him $2 extra for every kilo.

Asian elephants are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and are classified as an endangered species. Given their requirements for large areas, elephants are regarded as an “umbrella species” because their conservation will also protect a large number of other species occupying the same area, according to IUCN. In its Red List, IUCN says the most important conservation priorities for the Asian elephant are conservation of the elephant’s habitat and its corridors and the management of human-elephant conflict as part of an integrated land-use policy by recognising the animals as assets.

In other words, if being elephant-friendly gives people economic benefits, it is possible they may become friendly towards elephants — which is what elephant-friendly tea certification aims at. Coffee plantations, most of which are located in South India, are also sites of human-elephant conflict, Mills points out. “Perhaps if we are successful, we can work on certification and marketing of other products and services as ‘elephant friendly’ and help support even more positive change,” she says. Will it be coffee after tea?

After editing newspapers around India, @mrsamratx chucked up the rat race to chase more pleasant activities such as writing books.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2018 4:25:18 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/a-jumbo-cup-of-assam-tea/article19888475.ece