The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India


Nestled in the Himalayan foothills of Northeast India, Darjeeling is synonymous with some of the finest and most expensive tea in the world. It is also home to a violent movement for regional autonomy that, like the tea industry, dates back to the days of colonial rule.

In this nuanced ethnography, Sarah Besky narrates the lives of tea workers in Darjeeling. She explores how notions of fairness, value, and justice shifted with the rise of fair-trade practices and postcolonial separatist politics in the region. This is the first book to explore how fair-trade operates in the context of large-scale plantations.

Readers in a variety of disciplines--anthropology, sociology, geography, environmental studies, and food studies--will gain a critical perspective on how plantation life is changing as Darjeeling struggles to reinvent its signature commodity for twenty-first-century consumers. The Darjeeling Distinction challenges fair-trade policy and practice, exposing how trade initiatives often fail to consider the larger environmental, historical, and sociopolitical forces that shape the lives of the people they intended to support.


Darjeeling town, perched on one of the highest ridges in the northernmost part of West Bengal, is connected to the rest of India by a rough and bumpy road that begins in the dusty market town of Siliguri. At Siliguri, the railroad from West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, gives way to a narrow gauge, steam locomotive known locally as the “Toy Train,” which carries tourists up the ridge on a smoky six-hour journey to Darjeeling. By car, the journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling takes just three to four hours, traversing through the foggy forests and tea plantations that fall off the road and plummet into the valleys below. Cars zig and zag back and forth up the mountain, weaving in and out of the path of the Toy Train, and passing a few villages precariously clinging to the sheer hillsides. Dense forests of duppi (Cryptomeria japonica) trees hug the road in a moist evergreen shade. They are planted in military-like formation—perfectly spaced, with impeccable posture— their armlike branches presenting bulbous clumps of needles straight up toward the sky.

The drive is mesmerizing (and for many, nauseating), and the landscape is striking. The tea plantations are immediately recognizable. Green and orderly like the duppi, the fields of tea go on for miles over and around the undulating landscape. But Darjeeling’s is a beauty of a manufactured kind: the product of over 150 years of extensive capitalist extraction. The vivid greenness of colonially rooted tea plantations and duppi forests obscures the acute environmental and social effects of a long history of monoculture and marginalization. Long brown streaks left by landslides on the verdant slopes are reminders of the precariousness of people and plants here. These scars evoke questions about the sustainability of the entire place. This is the landscape of the twenty-first-century plantation.

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