Fourth generation tea estate owner, Rajah Banerjee, has created an agricultural community respected around the world for its organic products and sustainability.
Story & Photos by Sophie Ibbotson with Max Lovell-Hoare
As the tiny blue engine of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway puffs and pants its way from the plains of West Bengal into the mountainous foothills, I feel as if I am entering paradise. Arid brown fields and clouds of dust suddenly give way to lush rainforest in brilliant jade, and thousands upon thousands of emerald green tea bushes emerge. The beauty of the landscape and the warmth of its people draw me back time and time again, as a writer, a film maker, and a friend. In Darjeeling, paradise has a name: it is Makaibari.
This tea estate is an ecologist’s dream. My first visit coincided with the discovery of a type of caecilian, a tail-less amphibian that scientists had believed to be extinct for the past 120 years. In fact, it was alive and well among the tea bushes of Makaibari, attracting the attentions of a CNN film crew.
Makaibari has been run in accordance with bio-dynamic principles since the 1970s and has been certified as organic for over 20 years. This gives a huge boost to the local wildlife. Over a thousand acres of virgin rainforest provide ample habitat for a Bengal tiger, cloud leopards, rare deer, over 300 species of birds, and an infinite variety of insects. Today, 70% of its area is under forest cover. I rose at dawn with Barbara, a retired social worker from London, in a bid to catch sight of one of Makaibari’s pied hornbills, vast birds of prey with wingspans 10ft wide. We were not disappointed.
Tea fields are framed by virgin rainforest habitat on the estate where rare indigenous wildlife thrives.
Take five minutes with the estate’s visionary owner, Rajah Banerjee, and ‘sustainability’ will be the word on your lips. For Rajah, Makaibari is not just a tea estate or a commercial endeavour, but a living, breathing organism at the heart of his community. “No man can be an island of prosperity in the sea of unhappiness,” he explains. “Freedom is the ultimate desire of all human beings, and sustainability – in economics, in politics and in the environment – is the way for us to achieve that. India has 800 million marginalised farmers. If they can become grassroots entrepreneurs, this will make India truly shine and, when India shines, the world will be radiant.”
Rajah lives the mantra he preaches. He has made each of Makaibari’s workers a stakeholder in the estate, and since 1994 a joint body of elected workers (predominantly women) has decided how profits should be spent.
Each estate family has two cows to provide milk and manure for organic fertilizer.
One of their most important policies has been to give each family on the estate two cows to care for. The cows provide milk, which can be consumed or sold for profit in the local town, and they also produce copious quantities of manure. This manure can be sold back to the estate as organic fertiliser, and also poured into communal bio-gas converters to use as fuel for cooking. Women no longer have to spend long hours collecting firewood, and so the forests are also preserved.
Selected organic teas from this estate rate as the best black tea in the world and the most expensive at auction — quite an achievement!
The people of Makaibari are proud of their estate, and rightly so. Since 2008 they have been running the Volunteers in Makaibari (VIM) program, inviting visitors from around the world to engage in their unique social and ecological project, to contribute skills and expertise, and to learn something beneficial that they can take back to their own communities. Makaibari is a model for sustainable agriculture and sustainable communities, and a key part of this role is spreading the word.
In the two years that the program has been running, well over 200 volunteers have come to Makaibari, staying and working for anything from a few days to six months. Most volunteers hear about Makaibari through word of mouth and prefer to offer their time directly to the estate, ensuring that the money they pay for food and accommodation goes straight to the workers rather than to an intermediary company. The estate does not charge volunteers a registration or administration fee: recognizing the donation of your time and energy as most important.
Makaibari’s four primary schools, library and IT suite, as well as the health center offer diverse volunteering opportunities, but sometimes visitors want to try their hands at something a little different. Barbara, my bird-watching companion, is a volunteer with the UK’s Carbon Trust and keen to see how Makaibari might better use alternative energies. She spent her time identifying potential sites for solar panels, analysing how efficient they would be.
On her return home, she intended to approach alternative energy providers in Europe to sponsor the conversion of a village from standard electricity to solar power. “There is so much potential here,” she said. “Everyone is so ambitious and open-minded to new ideas. Many of the ideas I had before I arrived were actually already in place – I had to keep coming up with new ideas to keep up with the pace of innovation here!”
Tea estate women have benefited greatly from this sustainable community model of living and working.
Older volunteers are particularly valued at Makaibari because they have experience and skills to share. Although no specific data has been kept, it’s estimated that almost 60% of VIMs are over 50 years old. A small team of volunteers from the US with engineering and construction experience has designed and built water pumps and water storage tanks so that women no longer have to walk to the river for water. Health care professionals have trained a team of physiotherapists who now rotate between Makaibari’s seven villages, and business people have supported female would-be entrepreneurs in areas such as book keeping, marketing and computer literacy.
Makaibari Tea Estate’s Community in a Nutshell:
1574 acres, two-thirds of which is virgin rainforest.
Founded in 1859 as the world’s first tea factory, it has been in continuous operation ever since.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, 4500 ft above sea level.
Population of 1730 people, divided between 7 villages.
All school-age children are educated in one of Makaibari’s four primary schools,
A health centre staffed by a doctor and team of travelling health worker.
A community library and computer center.
All VIMs live with a family during their time on the estate. Homestays, which cost US $25 per couple per day and include all meals, bring an additional income stream to the families, who take great pride in their homes. Each host family has taken a small loan from Makaibari’s development fund in order to equip their home with western style toilet facilities, and, as constant building around the estate shows, the scheme has already been hugely popular. Homestay guests can expect their own room with basic facilities.
The homestays are well-maintained and very clean but you should not expect all western comforts – refrigerators and satellite television are rare luxuries. As well as being conveniently located, the homestays give volunteers an opportunity to genuinely experience local culture, in a manner that a hotel cannot possibly provide.
Community members have been trained as homestay hosts and given small loans to create for volunteers basic facilities and furnishings within their homes.
My host family was eager to teach me a little Nepali, the children didn’t laugh too hard at my pronunciation, and I was proudly introduced to friends and local traditions. Each meal was freshly prepared with organic produce grown at Makaibari and cooked over gas from the cows in the barn next door. You can’t get fresher than that.
After each long day out and about in the clear mountain air, a cup of Makaibari’s Darjeeling tea was my much-awaited treat. I’d seen the tea growing in the fields, watched the women carry it to the factory for processing and now, best of all, was able to appreciate its flavor. The focus on community involvement in, and benefit from, every stage of the tea production process enabled Makaibari to become the first Fair Trade tea estate in the world.
The effort has clearly paid off, not only for workers but also for tea drinkers: Makaibari’s Muscatel (2nd flush) tea has been rated as the best black tea in the world, and the estate’s patented Silver Tips Imperial is the most expensive tea ever to have been sold at auction. It is purchasable on the Makaibari website for $20 per 50 grams (1.76 ounces).
Tea processing has added more sustainable jobs on the estate as well as development of valuable new skills.
Makaibari draws me back because it is unique in so many ways: as a location, an eco system, a business, a community, a volunteering opportunity and as a holiday destination. It is a sustainable model that can, and should, be replicated not only in the third world or in agricultural settings, but wherever there is a need for greater inter-dependence between communities and the environment in which they live — in short, everywhere. If the relationship between people, or between people and the environment, is not sustainable, none of us can claim to be truly free or prosperous, as is the Rajah Banerjee vision. We must work together, contribute what we have learned, and share what we know. This is the message of Makaibari.
To volunteer at Makaibari, or to get more information, visit www.makaibari.com, email email@example.com. It is also possible to stay at the tea estate without serving a volunteer.
Getting there: The nearest airport to Makaibari is at Bagdogra (IXB), an hour’s drive from the estate. Domestic flights arrive daily from Kolkata (CCU) and Delhi (DEL), both international hubs. If arriving by train, there are sleeper services from Kolkata and Delhi to Siliguri, from where you can catch the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway to Kurseong, the town overlooking the Makaibari estate. Volunteers and homestay guests will be met at the station or airport and driven to Makaibari.
Also in Travel with a Challenge feature article collection, we invite you to enjoy other richly-illustrated India travel stories: Darjeeling’s Miniature Himalaya Railway, India’s Peacock Village, and The Matriarchs of Megalaya.
With Incredible Indian Tours, discover India or Nepal on your trip of a lifetime, blending cultural and heritage experiences to amaze and enthrall. We also offer specialist tours for women only or for country festivals and events. 60% of clients are over 45. www.incredibleindiatours.com
Sophie Ibbotson is a freelance journalist and photographer who lives and works in Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. She has a particular interest in politics and economics in the region, and advises government bodies and NGOs on international development and co-operation. Sophie first visited the Makaibari tea estate in 2008 while producing the Tracing Tea television documentary, and retains a strong relationship with the estate and its workers. www.tracingtea.com.
Max Lovell-Hoare produces and directs the Tracing Tea television documentary. His interest in Makaibari was piqued by the estate’s micro-finance and micro-enterprise models, subjects on which he advises government departments and NGOs in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Max has lectured on tea and his travels to the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs and will this year launch the Tracing Tea brand of organic and ethically traded teas. www.tracingtea.com.