In Bangladesh, the mention of tea gardens conjures up the rolling green hills of Sylhet, or perhaps even the plantations up north in Panchagarh. But it comes as a surprise that tea is now being grown along the Garo foothills in Sherpur and Mymensingh.
The tea gardens here are not expansive plantations. Tea is grown here in limited spaces of on spare plots of land. Experts call this small-holding tea cultivation. And the owners of these ‘gardens’ are different too.
Actually the trend of such smaller tea gardens started in Panchagarh, the northern-most district of Bangladesh. In 1997 the Tea Board discovered that there was potential to grow tea in the area and the initiative was taken up by the private sector. This limited scale tea plantation grew in popularity and began to spread.
Abul Hashem of the village Charipara of Ghoga union in Muktagachha, Mymensingh, is a farmer with a penchant for different types of cultivation. Two years ago he had gone to visit family in Panchagarh and the tea plantations there piqued his interest. He saw how people were using small plots of land to earn a living by growing tea. Then in November last year he began his own little tea garden on a plot of four decimals of land. He planted three-inch high seedlings and these have now grown to 10 inches. Abul Hashem said, “My plantation has inspired others. No one dreamt of cultivating tea here before.”
The upazila agriculture officer Md. Faizul Islam Bhuiyan said Hashem’s tea plantation has exceeded all expectations. He said, “Hashem has done a good job without help from anyone. We are now providing him with technical assistance.”
Ilyas Uddin of Daogaon union has been inspired by Hashem. He began growing tea on fallow land in his village Kamlapur. Now such small tea gardens have sprouted up on four acres of land in Jhenaigati, Sribaradi and Nalitabari.
Entrepreneur Md Amjad Hossain was the pioneer of tea cultivation in the area. He is the head of Garo Hill Tea Company. According to the Tea Board, they had carried out a survey in the Garo foothills in 2004 and found potential for tea to be grown in the area. However, nothing was done about it at the time due to lack of interested entrepreneurs, land and funds.
Amjad Hossain was aware of the tea Board’s survey and gradually began encouraging the people Garo and Hajong people of Jhenaigati in Sherpur to cultivate tea. He sent 13 local farmers to Panchagarh in 2017 to see how tea was grown there. Then in April last year 26 farmers of three upazilas began growing tea. Amjad Hossain said, “It is amazing to see that 90 per cent of the cultivation here is a complete success.”
And now, Amjad Hossain said, over a hundred farmers are eager to begin tea cultivation. He has created a nursery with 200,000 seedlings and has also set up a processing plant in Sherpur town.
There is a small tea cultivators’ development committee in three upazilas of Sherpur now. President of the committee Abdur Rashid said, “The committee has 26 members now and 98 more are waiting to join.”
Once the tea leaves are picked, dried and processed, they are ready to be brewed and consumed. A factory is being set up in Sherpur for the purpose.
Growing tea is popular as it is a permanent means to make money fast, said tea expert Nasim Anwar. Head of the private tea consultancy firm Patti Service, Nasim Anwar, says no one has faced any losses in these small-holding tea plantations so far. That is why it is so popular.
Rafiqul Islam of the village Majhipara, Tentulia upazila, Panchagarh, said, “We grow tea on 20 decimals of land and sell 20 thousand to 22 thousand taka worth of tea every 40 days.”
Small-scale tea cultivation
Bangladesh Tea Board welcomes such an initiative for small-scale tea plantations. Deputy director of the tea board (Planning) Munir Ahmed told Prothom Alo, the future lies in such small-scale plantations. The demand for tea has increased so much that there is no alternative to such cultivation.
According to the Tea Board, tea consumption in the country has exceeded production. Tea is being imported to meet the demand. In 2014, total tea production was 60 million kg, while domestic consumption was 67 million kg. In 2018 production was 82.1 million kg and consumption 90 million kg. Of this, 8 million kg came from small scale plantations. Over the past four years, small scale tea production has increased nine fold.
Bangladesh Tea Board has set the target for small-scale sector tea production at 10 million kg in 2020 and 30 million kg in 2030. Total tea production at that time is projected to be 140 million kg and demand 130 million kg. Of this, 30 million will come from the small cultivation.
Munir Ahmed said, “If we can meet the production target of the small plantations by 2030, then we will no longer be dependent on exports. In fact, there will be surplus.”
Tea experts feel that small scale tea cultivation can be carried out in 25 districts of the country. Tea can be grown in such limited scale on plain land, though the quality of hill-grown tea is better.
There is a gradual decline in the number of tea garden workers. They are moving to other professions. This is another reason behind the government’s encouragement for small scale tea cultivation. As evident in the north, such cultivation is an economic boost for the poor populace of the region. With proper planning, this can be an effective tool for poverty alleviation in the future.
* Buddhajyoti Chakma from Bandarban and Raziur Rahman from Panchagarh helped in providing information for this report. This report appeared in Bangladesh in Prothom print and online and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir