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Is Your Tea Vegan?

(Munnar, India. A sea of tea.)

It was almost exactly ten years ago that I first visited a tea plantation. It was in Munnar, India, and I was with two good friends, on bicycle, and tired but happy to have arrived. Munnar, once a famous hill station known for fair weather and rolling mountain views, it is now a tourist trap full of tea plantations. I wouldn't say it is still a place of charm but, in full disclosure, our trip was one of those traveling stories that you remember in bitter humor for the rest of your life (f*'n Joseph). That, I'm sorry to tease, is not for this blog. Let's just say it involved a corrupted tour guide, fictitious elephants, three men spooning for survival, and all day rides on buses and bikes sadly reaching dead ends. Understand, when I say rides on buses and bikes, only folks that have ridden in the mountains of India can begin to guess where the story may lead. Ok, enough of that. Now I really am teasing. (It's a great story. ;) )

(Anthony and I on a bus ride to nowhere. Notice we aren't smiling.)

Perhaps you will relate to me when I say I find many types of landscapes, natural and unnatural, to hold beauty. I used to ride my bicycle down to the back of the airport in Philly and watch low flying planes over a backdrop of the industrial lights of chemical plants. I loved it. A totally human space, enchanting in a bleak way. Similar can be said of Munnar. As far as the eye can see, tea plantations have replaced nature. To know what is missing is tragic, but the beauty of the green and the symmetry are stunning. Sort of like a virus under a microscope.

And, like a microscope, when you look closer, you see the elements at hand. In this case, what I saw were tiny women permanently hunched over (and I mean for life, they will never have healthy bodies with this work). Their backs and hands were carrying spray guns full of chemical pesticides. Now, for years prior to going to India, I had only drunk organic or fair trade tea. After seeing this though, and ever since, I've had virtually no real tea. What I saw was too heartbreaking. Yes, I am aware that what I am describing is typical in agriculture. Still, tea is one of the world's leading commodity crops and therefore deserves heavy scrutiny. So after living in India for the bulk of a decade, I'm pretty confident that I never once had a cup of chai with tea leaves in it.

My application of veganism here is two-fold. The first, of which I will speak about briefly, is the environmental aspect. Monocultures are the same as cities when it comes to their eradication of wildlife. This is straight forward and impossible to deny. Whereas we should embrace cities and make them green, we needn't embrace monocultures. There are more effective ways to farm as well as it is a system that needs more updating. Its progress as an industry is lagging. Its systems are archaic and destroying the planet. Additionally, the chemicals used further kill off plant and animal life than intended, then flush downstream back into our lives, hurting our health in the long run. Add cow's milk to your tea and you've doubled the environmental damage. Moving on.

My second reflection as to why tea isn't always vegan are the human rights issues. Being one of most produced products on earth, by sheer numbers it becomes one of the most exploitative forces in labor and human rights. There has been progress to alleviate this. Most tea now comes from Kenya, not India, and the majority of that is small shareholder farms. (I've not read about conditions in China but one can guess.) So we are moving forward but again, the volume still means too much and too many are exploited. In one region alone in India, Assam, nearly one million people work on plantations and the majority of those are generationally indentured slaves. That is one million too many slaves. (Some may argue with my use of the term slave rather than servant but I choose to do so based on economic slavery definitions. When families are kept as poor as these families are, without fair access to education, then they are shackled to their place in life.)

When abject poverty exists, so does the suffering of all systems and things around it. Imagine trying to explain to a poor parent that killing that endangered animal they wish to feed their hungry children is wrong and they shouldn't do it. Imagine asking them, on such extreme budgets, to buy the more expensive health and hygiene products that do not cause cancer and pollute waterways. Tell the same person not to burn forests to grow food because it is a short term solution with longterm negative results and you may literally be sentencing them to a future of malnutrition and death. So if you want to save the gorillas, the rivers, the forests, begin by helping girls go to school. This simple step impacts every concern written on this page and much more. Evidence has shown us that getting girls and women access to education alleviates all of this. This is a long game, generations to see results, but the results are there already. We must continue to advance the well being of women to correct the wrongs of humanity.

This blog, as a voice for topics I feel people might consider within the thinking of holistic veganism, will often focus on human topics. It can't be stated enough, to stop animal or environmental destruction, we must address the source of the problem, not only the symptoms. Human suffering is the link that leads to the rest of our problems. As consumers, we drive the forces that shape or destroy the planet. We hold profound power. You can create a better world. We are all potters of our own vision. Purchasing tea, as an example, that reflects the idea of a sustainable world, is one more spin on the wheel molding your creation. The wheel is spinning. Left alone the clay flies off or dries up but you can shape it with small efforts. Once made aware, as long as you're willing to develop your skills, you will be a better craftsperson. The world is what you make of it.

Some steps that result in change:

Sponsor a girl. Children International seems to do a good job at this.

Educate yourself. Regarding tea, here is a very useful link that links to many other useful bits of information. Ethical Consumer is amazing! Ethical Consumer article on Tea

Read or watch the work of the Rosling family. The book Factfullness is a must read. There are also lots of talks and videos online. The skinny of it all is that they use data to show how the world is improving in order to encourage more progress and to reduce fears and prejudices. Very inspiring and empowering stuff!

Know that fair trade or organic don't assure either of those claims. Disappointing, I know, but with a little effort and following guides like those made by Ethical Consumer or The Food Empowerment Project, or similar organizations, only takes a few minutes of our lives and can impact the entire life of those at the end of your purchases. Guide to Fair Trade Labels


Once empowered with the facts, shop with others in mind. Use the privilege and opportunity life has afforded you to buy better products, even if they cost slightly more. You are investing in your future, and that of others, and you drive down prices by increasing demand.

Remember that this is only about one product but if you buy 'it', then 'it' has a story. Look at what you consume the most of in life and look those products up.

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