The cool, misty highlands of the Western Ghats punctuate south India’s steaming tropical plains. Their forests shelter tigers and elephants, and protect the fragile watersheds of the flatlands below. They also harbor pieces of a colonial legacy: the tea industry.

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Photos: Gregory Dicum

Colonial authorities and entrepreneurs established the first tea estates in this country in the 19th century, marrying British management and capital with Indian land and labor. The estates were worlds unto themselves, remote colonies-within-a-colony with no nearby settlements. Plantation owners provided housing and provisions, and managers lived on-site, in picturesque bungalows overlooking impossibly rolling vistas covered with the profitable crop. They took tea and glasses of whiskey from silver trays proffered by white-uniformed Indian butlers.

After independence, in 1947, new labor laws required estates to provide schools, housing, and medical clinics. Though this improved the prospects for workers’ children, it didn’t make a life of plucking tea much easier: even today, the hours are endless, the slopes steep, the sun blinding. Workers spend at least nine hours a day, six days a week traversing these hills. For this they earn a base pay of less than two dollars a day, which puts them at the top end of agricultural laborers in India. A class of Indian managers has moved seamlessly into the bungalows vacated by the British, giving these estates the feel of a land out of time — a forgotten eddy of history.

The future of Indian tea — which about 10 million people here rely on for their livelihood — is uncertain. Auction prices in south India have dropped by a third since 1998, in part due to economic stagnation (Russia), war (Iraq), and competition (even India itself, the world’s largest tea consumer, now imports the low-cost African variety). Climate change threatens to parch these lush hills. And as the country’s 88,000 estates consolidate into ever-larger industrial concerns — Hindustan Lever and Tata Tea, the two biggest companies, command about 60 percent of the domestic packaged-tea market — workers are finding themselves out of work, or finding their hard-won protections under attack. Malnutrition and suicide rates are increasing.

Recently, a new angle has come to these steep hills: fair trade. Last year, we visited three plantations in the Western Ghats that are monitored by Bonn-based Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International. They are among 26 producer groups that grow tea under remarkably high labor and environmental standards, earning the right to be marketed as certified around the world. The premium paid by buyers goes into accounts controlled by democratically elected boards of workers on each estate, and is used to create retirement funds, or to invest in astonishingly well-equipped clinics, schools, and recreational facilities.

Fair trade is giving workers’ children the chance to leave the estates and enter the rapidly growing Indian middle class — upward mobility simply out of the question for their tea-plucking forebears. It has reduced the labor strife common on other estates (this year half a million tea workers went on strike in West Bengal). The organic and biodynamic techniques of many operations improve worker health, help estates better cope with drought, and provide a top-quality product to demanding European markets. In an uncertain global context, fair trade is bringing together workers, management, and consumers — turning this colonial commodity relationship on its ear.