A New Harvest

India, March 5, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Niraj Lama/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The completed bridge has made travel to and from the village easier. Photo: Niraj Lama/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The path to Kulung Phaka is steep and beautiful. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The next generation of Kulung Phaka's youth sits outside the meeting hall. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Darjeeling tea is one of the world's most enjoyable beverages — but it doesn't come easily to your cup. Tea-growing families in the villages that dot Darjeeling's hillsides work hard just to make ends meet.

The cultivation and processing of Darjeeling tea, an exclusive product of the Darjeeling hills that unfold at the foot of India's eastern Himalayas, employs around 50,000 laborers in 72 large tea gardens spread across the region. The tea business, for the most part, carries on much as it has for generations; and that sometimes means challenges between estate owners and workers.

At the Poobong tea estate, labor and management relations could be better. The estate has a history of shutdowns — during those times, there are no wages or benefits for the workers. The labor benefits of working on a tea estate include housing, education and medical facilities for the laborers and their families.

When estates like Poobong shut down — whether for labor disputes or because of adverse market conditions — tea communities suffer. Families already struggling to get by sink deeper into dire poverty.

Mercy Corps, through a partnership with Tazo Tea and local organization DEG, is helping bridge the gap between tea workers, their employers and the larger world around them. On the Poobong tea estate, that collaboration turned into the building of an actual bridge — and flourished from there. Throughout the process, it's been a poignant example of people working together to reach a solution.

Paving the way

Kulung Phaka is a small village of 200 citizens located within the grounds of the Poobong estate. It's a remote place where electricity only arrived in June 2006. A road has yet to come to the village: an old an often treacherous mud path is all that connects Kulung Phaka to the rest of the estate and, indeed, the outside world.

This village is among many in the Darjeeling hills where the Tazo Tea-funded Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI) has been working for the last four years to improve the living conditions of tea families.

In the case of Kulung Phaka, meetings with villagers quickly determined that safe access to the nearest road was their first priority. Therefore, an all-weather footpath connecting Kulung Phaka to the nearest road has been constructed and the old rickety bamboo bridge — which often washed away during rainy season — has been replaced with a sturdy bridge.

But the bridge was only the beginning.

A community helps itself

A key component of each community-led project that CHAI undertakes is the village's Community Initiative Group (CIG). These groups, made up of village representatives selected by the community, are responsible for making decisions on what activities will best benefit the village. Mercy Corps, through local partner DEG, then works with the village to make those goals a reality.

Recently, the village has built eco-friendly, hygienic toilets to help combat waterborne illnessand a water supply system that makes life much easier and healthier for village members. These two measures are critical because, sadly, waterborne diseases are still the greatest cause of infant mortality in developing countries. Safe drinking water will dramatically reduce these tragic occurrences.

In addition, some of the village's youth have entered training through CHAI to become local health care providers. Health workshops are regularly organized and scholarships given to deserving candidates.

The first phase of Kulung Phaka's collaboration with Mercy Corps was about infrastructure development and improving health standards. The next phase is perhaps even more critical for the village's future.

Connecting to the outside world

Kulung Phaka's work with CHAI has evolved into a more complex process of empowering the villagers, whose confidence has been undermined by years of deprivation and isolation.

"We were so involved in our own struggles that we had lost the feeling of being a community," said Mohan Rai, a member of the CIG after a Mercy Corps-led advocacy training. "And because we were not united the authorities did not listen to us. Now, after CHAI's continual engagement with us, we have rediscovered our unity. Our eyes have opened."

Kalyan Tamang, a 26-year-old member of the youth business group, has a much different attitude these days about poverty and isolation.

"We were earlier afraid to speak out; even the guards at the city hospital would intimidate us," Tamang said. "But now after four years of interacting with CHAI project team members, we have developed confidence to deal with people. We speak, and we are being heard."

Youth is served

Like most young people in the hills Mr. Tamang was jobless, married and with children. Once in a while he worked on construction jobs in Darjeeling town, which involved an hour long walk up a steep hill to catch a bus for a two-hour ride to town.

Kulung Phaka's youth business group was granted a small loan by CHAI after a few business training sessions, with which they started a vegetable cooperative. The group now sells vegetables grown in their village to retailers in Darjeeling. Previously, these vegetables were bought by middle men from Darjeeling town who paid very little to local farmers.

This initiative has empowered the whole community.

Another successful business was started by Prakriti Dewan, Prasilla Dewan and Pranita Subba — three young women who have become village role models. They also secured a loan from CHAI; with it, they're selling household articles in the village and surrounding areas. They source their supplies from a wholesaler in Darjeeling and go door-to-door selling the wares.

In just six months' time, they have paid back more than 50 percent of the loan amount.

"We did not believe in the CHAI project at first. But after they built the toilets and the footpath in the village we knew they were here not just to talk," said Prasilla Dewan. "We trust them a lot now. We are confident that we ourselves can do more now."

"We have encouraged entrepreneurial skills among the youth because that way they can sustain themselves," said Dr. Sanjay Gurung, CHAI's project manager. "But our main aim has been to help the villagers discover the potential that they have individually and as a community.

"We want empowerment, and not dependence."