When the mosquitos were bad Paulo pulled blades of citronella and gave us some to smear on our skin. He told us the citronella also protected the tea plants from insects. As the manager of the fully organic farm, Paulo is proficient in the ways different species work together for mutual benefit. Pesticides aren’t used on the tea farm so Paulo and his team rely on plants like citronella and the abundant bird population to protect the tea plants from insects.
The farm itself is tucked inside a nature reserve where tree removal is forbidden. To expand the treeline, Paulo and his team nurture young ones until they are strong enough to be planted in the farm or made available to the public. As we walked through rows of saplings in the nursery, I thought about the three tenets of the farm’s mission: sustainable farming, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. I wondered how many companies that claim these values actually fulfill them?
The plantation is so healthy more species of animals live on it than in the surrounding forest. The company’s efforts to restore the neighboring river, the water source for the farm and the locals, have been recognized by a German organization that is investing in its continued decontamination. The tea farm has in fact had a positive impact on the local ecosystem and environment.
Paulo led us up a ravine and through the overgrowth to an expanse of leafy tea bushes. The pickers plucked at impressive speed. Each wore a hat and mask to protect them from mosquitos. They carried baskets in front instead to protect their backs. As effortless as they make it seem, their work is hard. They are standing all day with backs bent, sweat dripping off their noses, mosquitoes whirring in their ears, and snakes sunbathing in the nearby bushes.
These employees receive a standard wage so they have greater security (common practice on tea plantations is to pay pickers by the bushel). They live in the town encircling the farm and their children attend the schools the tea company helps support. The wonderful Sonia, who manages these projects, later showed us around the schools. She introduced us to the kids who playfully yelled random English words at us. Some of the programs the company sponsors are computer classes and environmental classes for which they’ve hired teachers and supplied computers.
We walked to town at sunset – trying to avoid death by moto. Music spilled into the street where smiling women braided their daughters’ hair and middle-aged men in plastic lawn chairs drank and teased each other.
In other places I visited in Colombia, I saw people finish their bag of chips and toss the empty plastic behind them. I took long bus rides with schoolchildren on their daily commute to distant cities and later saw them doing homework in internet cafes. Against this backdrop, the tea farm’s commitments to environmental and social sustainability seem radical, especially when you remember that it is tea that made it all possible!
written by Christina Bovinette