The mid-august tea auction in Calcutta witnessed an unusual event – there were no Darjeeling teas listed in the catalog. The 86 tea gardens of Darjeeling are often thrown into chaos as political strikes and climate change disrupt the harvesting of some of the world’s most prized – and often pricey – teas. 

2017 saw one of the longest labor strikes in recent years. Workers walked out in mid-June and returned at the end of September, leaving the bushes untended for 104 days. 

The loss to the Darjeeling tea industry is estimated to be $75 million with much of the damage continuing into the 2018 spring harvest. 

The management of Glenburn Tea Estate gave their perspective on the issues that brought about the most recent strike –

The Gorkhaland issue that precipitated the strike is an age-old problem that has been around for over a century, and keeps getting out of hand every few years.  Gorkhas are of Nepalese descent but have lived in India for centuries. At the heart of this strike was a common chord of the Gorkhas, the majority ethnic group of the Darjeeling region, to seek expression of their own identity as distinct from the Bengalis who dominate the state of West Bengal of which Darjeeling is a minor area. 

 

Darjeeling’s hilly terrain has been home to over 80 tea gardens for over 150 years.


Historically, the Darjeeling hills should have been a separate state called Gorkhaland but the British added it to the province of Bengal for ease of administration. The people of Darjeeling feel they are treated unfairly by the State Government of West Bengal, that they do not receive revenues in proportion to the amounts generated from the region and even basic infrastructure and development have been neglected. They want to report directly to the central government in Delhi, as an independent state.

The length and timing of this strike has been catastrophic for the tea industry. We have lost much of the prized Second Flush production, as well as the monsoon harvests where the large quantity of tea produced in perfect weather conditions make up for the smaller harvests we get in First and Second Flush. 

The bushes also grew completely out of control, so we lost the rest of the season as well, and have spent the past six weeks getting rid of weeds, and skiffing the bushes back down to the ‘bonsai’ size they are kept at to limit flowering and send all the nutrients to the ‘two leaves and a bud’ that we pick. Our main focus has been to prepare the bushes and get our plucking table back in order so that we have a good First Flush in 2018.  

 

The Ambootia Estate in Darjeeling is a bio-dynamic tea garden.


How will this event affect American tea consumers? 

You will see a spike in prices through early 2018. 

Many large importers stock supplies of Darjeeling ahead so they avoid such disruptions in the supply chain.

I was in one of the world’s largest tea warehouses in Hamburg Germany recently where there was little concern about the loss of this year’s crop. But for those of us who bring in 10 to 20 chests from select gardens, this is a bit more troublesome as we watch our stockpiles dwindle. 

Despite earning no income from their gardens since June, Glenburn Tea Estate reports it has paid all workers their required annual bonus. Most workers who left the garden during the strike in search of alternative work have returned to their homes on estates.

Photos copyrighted by Bruce Richardson. Read more about Darjeeling teas in The New Tea Companion.

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