January 5, 2006
In India, fair trade is changing a centuries-old industry
By Nina Luttinger and Gregory Dicum
The cool, misty highlands of the Western Ghats punctuate south India’s steaming tropical plains. Their forests shelter tigers and elephants, and protect the fragile watersheds of the flatlands below. They also harbor pieces of a colonial legacy: the tea industry.
Colonial authorities and entrepreneurs established the first tea estates in this country in the 19th century, marrying British management and capital with Indian land and labor. The estates were worlds unto themselves, remote colonies-within-a-colony with no nearby settlements. Plantation owners provided housing and provisions, and managers lived on-site, in picturesque bungalows overlooking impossibly rolling vistas covered with the profitable crop. They took tea and glasses of whiskey from silver trays proffered by white-uniformed Indian butlers.