Healthy Soil, Healthy Mankind: Our Journey Towards Sustainable Development At The Iconic Makaibari Tea Estates

Established in 1859 by my forefather Mr. G. C Banerjee, Makaibari is the first tea factory in the world. Located at the foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling, India, we have been producing some of the finest teas the world has ever sipped.

Makaibari spans 670 hectares over six separate ridges. The tea covers only 270 hectares while woodlands cover twice that area.
While in many other plantations tea is a contiguous carpet, at Makaibari, the tea is ensconced between the forests which provides a natural setting while helping to prevent soil erosion. Even though these make supervision difficult and one has to work thrice as hard to cultivate tea at our plantations, we make these painstaking efforts on purpose as we do care for the environment as well as the community. And that’s what makes Makaibari’s produce so unique.  

We believe human beings only imbalanced nature for their own use and needed science to bolster the equation of their monstrosity. Science, it seemed, desired victory over nature while conveniently forgetting that the creature that wins against the environment ultimately destroys itself. We were inspired by Rudolph Steiner's biodynamic practices and believe that healthy soil is healthy mankind. The goal of biodynamic practices coupled with permaculture, usher harmony between soil, microorganisms, plants, animals and humans, and is a simple yet magical experience. Through our integrated efforts we implemented organic-biodynamic farming throughout the estate. That means no chemicals are used in the production of our teas and the biodynamic farming practices help balance the ecosystem. These practices not only take care of the soil which produces the tea but also the mankind which help produce the finest teas in the world and the consumers who intake our work of art. As many are aware, what ‘Champagne’ is to wine ‘Darjeeling’ is to tea.In 1988, we became the first organic certified tea garden in the world. We were also able to inspire our neighbouring tea plantations to adopt organic farming and sustainable practices. Thus, the organic movement that we started at Makaibari spread across the area. Today, Darjeeling is the only tea growing region globally which has 80% of her plantations certified organic. 

Many of us are familiar with Fairtrade certifications. Fairtrade is a sustainability-focused movement aimed at improving the socio-economic health of small producers and farm owners. Fairtrade certification ensures that wherever the produce is bought from, a certain percentile is going back for the upliftment of the agricultural community. Previously, Fairtrade certifications were focused on small-scale coffee farmers’ organisation. When it came to tea, the Fairtrade Labeling Organisation (FLO) in Cologne, Germany faced a quandary. There were no small tea-growers in India. When they came across Makaibari, their dilemma ended which has a strong record of corporate social responsibility. It was after studying the Makaibari model that the criteria for tea were set and Makaibari was requested to join the FLO.

We are particularly mindful of the empowerment of women at our estates. Women form the majority of workers in the tea gardens. Over the years, we witnessed that the plantation ladies were the most hardworking on the estate. They were up at 4’o clock in the morning every day to gather firewood and prepare meals for the families. They cleaned and scrubbed and they send the children off to school all before 7’o clock when they join their friends to pluck tea till 4’o clock in the afternoon; an hours break at mid-day. They got no respite at home after their daily labour as they cooked their evening meals monitored their children’s progress, and cajoled their easy going husbands to shoulder a trifle more responsibility. Finally, they fell into an exhaustive slumber.  It was a hard life and I wondered how I could alleviate the life of the plantation ladies. Therefore, we came up with multiple social enterprise initiatives that revolve around empowering the ladies of the communities. The Makaibari homestay program, alternative income from cows, education for children and adults and our pioneering approach to composting, all contribute towards this goal of self-sustainability without tampering the rhythms of nature and the powerful cosmic energy that flows through our land. The tea estate became first of its kind to appoint women field supervisors –a significant initiative towards women empowerment. 

On a sidenote, in 2014, Makaibari created a record by selling its handcrafted specialty tea for USD 1850 per Kg, thus becoming the most expensive tea ever made in the country.

Here we have been developing and nurturing a sustainable community that revolves around building a harmonious relationship with Mother Nature, for our children, for Darjeeling and for the planet and that is what we mean by healthy soil, healthy mankind…

[This article is based on the book “The Rajah of Darjeeling Organic Tea: Makaibari” by Rajah Banerjee,        Cambridge University Press, 2015]. 

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Swaraj Kumar (Rajah) Banerjee is a fourth generational tea planter at Darjeeling. On graduation from London University, joined Makaibari in 1970. Transformed the colonial hierarchical management structure to pioneer organics  global tea and biodynamic to tropical agriculture with stake holder participation.

The Makaibari model  has inspired  over 80 % of Darjeeling tea to GO ORGANIC and the  entire farmlands of neighboring state of Sikkim. The  innovative village tourism at their Homestays at Makaibari, have  empowered the ladies, snowballing into a regional movement, with state government support. Makaibari today is a sea of forests with islands of permacultural tea.

An innovative  practical  course  commenced a decade ago, attract schoolchildren and volunteers from all over the globe to understand the nuances of sustainability and ethics, irrespective of class, creed ,age or gender. Ongoing research for use of alternative energy for villages of the sub-continent are on the verge of fruition.


Leveraging 'People' Power of Sustainability

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