The labor of terroir and the terroir of labor: Geographical Indication and Darjeeling tea plantations

Abstract

In 1999, Darjeeling tea became India’s first Geographical Indication (GI). GI has proliferated worldwide as a legal protection for foods with terroir, or “taste of place,” a concept most often associated with artisan foods produced by small farmers in specific regions of the Global North. GI gives market protection to terroir in an increasingly homogenous food system. This article asks how Darjeeling tea, grown in an industrial plantation system rooted in British colonialism, has become convincingly associated with artisan GIs such as Champagne, Cognac, and Roquefort. The answer lies in a conceptual dyad that frames how British colonial officials, the Indian state, and international consumers have understood Darjeeling and its signature commodity. Since the colonial era, these actors have conceived Darjeeling as both an idyllic “garden” space and an industrial “plantation” space. As I show through an analysis of GI marketing materials and interviews with planters, pluckers, and consumers, this dyad maps in surprising ways onto labor relations. While planters’ and marketers’ discourses tend to emphasize the “garden,” laborers’ investment in GI lies primarily in an active—if also ambivalent—embrace of the plantation, encapsulated in the Nepali word “kamān.”

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Darjeeling tea logo is available in the Darjeeling Tea Association’s Media Kit: http://darjeelingtea.com/files/media.asp.htm (Accessed February 4, 2013).

  2. 2.

    The Tea Board claims the camellia sinensis bush—the finer, lighter, and exotic jat (variety) of tea—is part of Darjeeling’s terroir. The monocropped landscape of Darjeeling tea was not so homogenous, however. Tea laborers knew how to differentiate between the smaller, coarser leaves of the “chiniya jat” (camellia sinensis) from the glossier, greener, and more prolific leaves of the “assame jat” (camellia assamensis).

  3. 3.

    All personal names and plantation names are pseudonyms. .

Abbreviations

AOC:

Appellation d’origine côntrolée

DTA:

Darjeeling Tea Association

GI:

Geographical Indication

TRIPS:

Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights

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Acknowledgments

In addition to the helpful comments from the editor and the two anonymous reviewers, I would like to thank Kirin Narayan, Jane Collins, Jill Harrison, Paul Nadasdy, Claire Wendland, Katherine Ewing, Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, and Alex Nading for their comments on drafts of this article. A version of this paper was presented at the 2011 American Anthropological Association annual meetings. I would like to thank Virginia Nazarea, Jonathan Padwe, and the other panel participants for their helpful feedback. Research for this article was supported by the Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An Andrew W. Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Completion Fellowship and the Michigan Society of Fellows supported the writing of this article. All errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Sarah Besky.

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Besky, S. The labor of terroir and the terroir of labor: Geographical Indication and Darjeeling tea plantations. Agric Hum Values 31, 83–96 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-013-9452-8

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Keywords

  • Labor
  • Plantation
  • Terroir
  • Tourism
  • Tea
  • India