By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
November 21, 2009 09:15 ET
DARJEELING, West Bengal — Swaraj Kumar “Rajah” Banerjee swept into his office wearing the khaki-colored, Raj-era planter's uniform that he has made his signature style since the 1980s. The outfit gives him an air that is at once aristocratic and vaguely military — and hints at a genius for marketing that has made him the driving force behind the organic movement on Darjeeling's famous tea plantations.
A London playboy of sorts in his 20s, Banerjee was lured back to India in 1970 by the promise of a colonial lord's idyll of riding and shooting on the family tea estate an hour's drive from Darjeeling. But when he was thrown from his horse, he had an experience that he describes as transcendent.
“Before I hit the ground, I had an out-of-body experience,” Banerjee tells me, deadpan. “I went to that zone where the soul goes when we cross over to another frequency — there is no death. And there was this beautiful cadenzas — light, music, no pathos, but melancholic — and the trees connected and transmitted this ululating chant, 'Save us, save us.'”
That evening, he told his parents he was moving back to the tea garden for good.
“They were delighted for the wrong reasons, and I was not going to tell them what I'd experienced earlier, because I'd have been certified insane,” Banerjee recalls. “But I knew I had to stay and bring the trees back. The voyage began then.”
Long before the organic movement took hold here, his mystical experience began to translate into monetary gains, both for the plantation and for its workers. To convert the tea estate to compost-based fertilizers, Banerjee created financial incentives for the tea workers to raise cattle and spread manure over the plantation's 550 acres of tea plants, and encouraged each household to raise five varieties of indigenous trees that he later purchased and used to reforest depleted areas of his land. The result is that today Makaibari has 1,070 acres of forest — including 300 acres of sub-tropical rain forest that are more than a thousand years old and play host to a greater variety of wildlife than many of India's national parks.
“His organics was a deeper organics than a lot of estates that would just follow the rules,” said Joseph Smilley, an organic certification expert with San Diego-based Quality Assurance International. “He created whole permaculture systems that allowed the people of the estate to benefit as well.”
Since earning organic certification in 1988, Banerjee has also built a biogas facility to convert surplus manure to cooking gas, a move that has stopped plantation workers from stripping the forests for their cook fires and also reduced indoor air pollution — which the World Health Organization estimates causes 1.6 million deaths a year worldwide, primarily among children and women. Meanwhile, though using organic methods costs as much as eight times more than using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the higher prices that the premium organic tea commands on the market — together with tea tourism and other initiatives — make up most of the difference. Makaibari's “single estate” tea has sold for world record prices at international auctions, for upwards of $400 a kilogram.
“It was approaches like that which differentiated him from some of the other organic growers who followed the rules but didn't do the big, transformational work to really make it successful both monetarily and ecologically,” said Smilley.
The success of the model is evident in the number of imitators, Banerjee says.
“The good news is that around 1988 to 1994 after we were certified organic, it was a very lonely time. People used to sneer at me,” Banerjee says. “[But] I'm happy to say that now 60 percent of the tea estates in the Darjeeling area are either under conversion or are certified organic.”
Featured in a documentary by French filmmaker Xavier de Lauzanne and countless travel and tea industry articles, Banerjee has emerged as the face of Darjeeling organics. And he's not quitting there. In neighboring Assam, tea gardens have been plagued by strikes by workers who allege that wages are pathetic and working conditions are inhumane. But in 2002, Makaibari became the world's first tea plantation to qualify under the Cologne, Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling Organization's standards, which allow producers of coffee, cocoa and (now) tea to charge customers a small premium to support a better standard of living for local workers. Under the scheme, the premium goes into an account managed by elected members — mostly women — from seven villages, who use the funds for development projects, such as setting up a computer center for the village children, creating a microcredit institution to finance medical care and education, and renovating village houses so they can be marketed to foreign tourists as “home stays.”
Though his success has driven his competitors to go organic, his love of the spotlight hasn't exactly endeared Banerjee to his rivals, who talk about his genius for marketing as though it hints at some inherent weakness in his tea. What they don't get is that by developing logos and distinctive packaging, Banerjee made Makaibari into the brand that stands for organic Darjeeling tea, as well as equitable treatment for his workers. And within the first five minutes of meeting the self-styled king of organic tea, it's clear that he could care less about detractors.
“It's difficult to give Raj too much credit, because he loves to take it anyhow,” said Smilley, chuckling. “You'd never use the word humble for Rajah, but basically the guy walks his talk.”
Banerjee's next step may be taking the organic movement off the plantation. Through Organic Ekta (or “Organic Union”), a joint project with U.S.-based Mercy Corps, Makaibari supports around 200 small organic farmers from local communities. Banerjee believes this could be the seed for something much bigger, and plans to branch out from tea and small farms to organic cotton fields and then on to pulses, rice and other Indian staple crops. He doesn't think it will take much. Some 80 percent of India's 800 million marginal farmers practice rain-fed agriculture — which means they have too little water to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In a sense, they're already organic, but they're too poor to capitalize.
“If we get networked strongly to enable the certification of these 640 million people and market their produce at a fair price,” says Banerjee, “then I think we're done: India will be the organic fruit bowl of the world.”
Let that steep for a few moments.