Makaibari – A one-of-its-kind tea estate

Makaibari – A one-of-its-kind tea estate

June 22, 2014

The Makaibari Tea Estate, located at 1,200 metres (5,000 feet) in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal in Darjeeling district, produces the world’s best teas, sold at premium prices worldwide. Now with the football Word Cup on in Brazil, there’s more reason to think of Makaibari, as some of its premium teas are being served at cafes in and around the World Cup stadiums. This is the first time the ‘champagne of teas’, as Darjeeling tea is called, is being officially served at a FIFA World Cup, one of the biggest tournaments in the world.

As a tea estate, Makaibari, which translates as 'cornfield', has a long history, and a history of innovation too. But what many are not aware of is that the Makaibari estate is also a biodiversity hotspot. A wide variety of flora and fauna abound within the estate area, something very rare for any agricultural estate, let alone a tea estate.

The man responsible for a big part of this transformation is Rajah Banerjee, the chairman of Makaibari Tea & Trading Co Pvt Ltd (earlier this June, Rajah Banerjee sold off almost 90% stake to the tea major, Luxmi Group, though he remains the chairman, and the face of the company).

Makaibari tea estate

Brief history

Makaibari Tea Estate was established in 1835 by the British Captain Samler, who bequeathed it to Girish Chandra Banerjee in 1859, with whose family it remained till the recent selling of the majority stake to Luxmi Group. From Girish Chandra, the estate passed on to his son, Tara Pada and then to his son, Pasupati Nath, who in turn bequeathed it to his son, Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, popularly known as Rajah Banerjee. The name befits the person to the T: he is something a legend in the tea industry, a leader in employing innovative methods in tea cultivation and grower of some of the world’s best teas, not to mention his swashbuckling looks and his habit of riding around his estate in a horse to look after the tea gardens.

When Pasupati Nath Banerjee took over the estate it was like any other tea estate. The efforts towards forest conservation started with him, though the reason was entirely different. He, like his forebears, was interested in big game hunting, and so wanted a part of the forest inside his huge estate. When Rajah was young, prodded by his mother, he gradually realised the importance of nature and its inhabitants, and consequently that the forest was a blessing to the estate. Flora and fauna flourished inside, making the estate an environmental treasure trove. 

When he took over the estate in 1970 after returning from his studies in London, he set about the task of getting the stakeholders in the Makaibari estate – that is, the workers, staff and their families living in the seven villages on the estate – to realise the importance of nature conservation. It wasn’t easy at first, being used as they were to the ways of exploiting the forest for every need, including hunting for food and cutting trees for firewood. But like with him earlier, his ‘Makaibari community members’, as the people living on the estate are called, realised over time the importance of conservation.

Today, the highly successful community forest management is held up as a model by environmentalists and conservationists around the world.

Plucking tea at Makaibari

Biodynamic tea estate

On taking over, Rajah Banerjee realised that dense tea monoculture was neither environmentally nor economically or socially sustainable.
In 1988, Makaibari became the world`s first certified organic and biodynamic estate, being certified so by the international certification authority, Fairtrade. Sixty-seven per cent of the area of the estate, or 1,023 of the 1,513 acres, is virgin sub-tropical forest where animals, birds and insects abound. The forest is actually an extension of Mahananda Wildlife Santuary. Thus at Makaibari tea grows in harmony with the area’s natural ecological system.

“Our decision for organic growth was made out of desperation”, says Banerjee. “All over this region, nature was destroyed, trees were cut down, we had a huge problem with erosion and many animals died due to the insecticides. We were forced to change something.”

The change was to convert the estate to permaculture. Tea bushes have been integrated into six tiers of plants, forming a biodynamic ecosystem that enriches the health of the soil, checks erosion and encourages a wealth of birds, butterflies, insects and even a few big animals like leopards, elephants and tigers.

The six tiers of flora in Makaibari are the…

  • Forest
  • Five species of albizzias (albizia is a genus of fast-growing subtropical and tropical trees and shrubs) which provide shade in the tea-growing areas
  • Indigenous fruit trees like peaches, plums, guavas and cherries within the plantation area
  • Temporary legumes grown inside the plantation area and in the villages within the estate
  • Tea bushes
  • Grass banks and ground flora like herbs and weeds
  • These six layers of flora have helped make Makaibari a unique area of biodiversity and a one-of-its-kind tea estate in the world.

A leopard spotted in Makaibari

Makaibari Tea Estate has a healthy population of flora and fauna. It is home to at least five separate flocks of the Indian pied hornbill, the ‘king of birds’ whose position in the world of birds is similar to that of tigers in the food chain. There are also three species of monkeys in Makaibari, the largest being the golden langur. Makaibari’s rangers have also seen elephants coming to their forest from the Mahananda sanctuary. Many leopards and other wild cats dwell in the Makaibari forest, where tigers (the rangers often find pug marks) also stray in. And then there are countless varieties of birds, insects and flora.

(L) Pied hornbill; (R) Hornbill spotting area in Makaibari

Having biodiversity is not enough; it also needs to be protected. Makaibari under Rajah Banerjee has built up a robust system of protection.

  • The estate has 15 rangers who patrol the forest to ward off human intruders.
  • They have been trained by Aligarh Muslim University's environment department in patrolling techniques, identifying flora and fauna and forest-mapping.
  • They patrol in groups of two or three every morning and evening.
  • They have an important job at hand as since the tea estates around Makabari do not have any forests, the workers from those estates often try to enter the forest to collect firewood and even poach wildlife.
  • Also poachers from outside try to enter to kill animals.

The rangers also help in the conservation of plants and trees. It is mandatory for all rangers to plant and nurture multiples of 27 indigenous species of trees of their choice every year in and around their own villages or in areas adjoining the forest. Of the 27 species, one must be a species of bamboo (there are 33 bamboo species in Makaibari) and one an indigenous fruit tree. The rangers are rewarded handsomely for this.

A group of rangers on a patrol

It would be normal to connect Makaibari with all things tea, so much so that even a species of insect found at the estate has been nicknamed ‘Tea Deva’ by Rajah Banerjee because it looks like a tea leaf. According to Rajah, Makaibari's decades of harmonious coexistence with nature has led to the evolution of this species of insect, which (as per him, again) is the only such evolution in recorded history. The Tea Deva, which feeds on insects that harm tea leaves, has attracted the attention of entomologists worldwide. Some though consider it to be the Javanese leaf insect, which is found in south-east Asia.

A 'Tea Deva' on a tea leaf

Makaibari has maintained a sustainable human environment too, an essential component to being a biodynamic tea estate.

  • In 1994, a joint body was instituted by the tea estate to regulate the activity of the seven villages inside and also to take up developmental work.
  • Each family in the estate is provided with cows, which they use for milk and manure.
  • The surplus is allowed to be sold outside, thereby providing another source of income.
  • The surplus manure is converted into the non-polluting renewable fuel, biogas, which is used for cooking. This serves two purposes: firewood no longer needs to be collected, thus saving the forests; and women no longer have to work hours before they start plucking the tea leaves to collect firewood, thus decreasing their workload.
  • For tea-plucking purposes, there are women supervisors too, a rarity in tea gardens.
  • There is a Ladies’ Joint Body which is in charge of allocating funds to projects in the tea estate.
  • A ladies’ group in Makaibari called ‘Prayatna’ has undergone intensive training in the construction of tea boxes for packing Makaibari’s teas and in silk screen printing.
  • The workers have created a community loan fund.
  • Makaibari in collaboration with Mercy Corps initiated a project called ‘Organic Ekta’, which supports 200 small organic farmers in eight communities.
  • Because of the fame of its tea, Makaibari receives a lot of visitors, which the estate has seen as an opportunity. A home stay project was initiated in 2005 called ‘Hum Tera’ wherein villagers decided to open up their homes to guests for a price.

All these benefit the workers and their families as it generates additional income. This in turn has improved labour relations, as the families are happy. Also, Makaibari as a brand gets greater exposure and creates a new market.

(L) A Makaibari homestay; (R) A typical homestay bedroom in Makaibari

The tea factory at Makaibari Tea Estate is the oldest tea factory in the world. It was set up in 1859 by Girish Chandra Banerjee, the great-grandfather of Rajah Banerjee.

What you can do there

Anyone interested in tea should visit this organic and biodynamic tea estate. The green tea bushes spread over a huge area are a very pleasant sight to behold. The factory with its huge sorting and drying machines is open to visitors. You might even be lucky enough to run into the tea guru, Rajah Banerjee. Mornings are the best time to see the production process. Visits are free, or you can opt for a program of tea plucking, tasting and lunch in a local homestay for Rs 200. Also not to be missed are the very well-preserved forests around the tea-growing areas which make Makaibari the unique tea estate it is. There is a hornbill spotting area, and you can also sport a lot of other birds. Butterflies also abound.  If you are lucky a leopard or two or an elephant or even a tiger might show itself to you.

The estate is 3 km below Kurseong along Pankhabari Road, and 1 km below Cochrane Place. You can take a taxi from Cochrane Place or take a pleasant downhill walk (it’s much steeper coming back, so a taxi might suit many). En route, the lushly overgrown old graveyard at St Andrew's has poignant reminders of the tea-planter era.

Makaibari also runs a pioneering homestay and volunteer programme from a separate office 50 m below the main entrance. Volunteers can find placements in teaching, health and community projects.

There are 24 families who have renovated their homes nicely and offer rooms to tourists. The homestay ates are very attractive (approx. Rs 1400/- per person per night, subject to change) and includes homemade breakfast and two full meals. Most of the homestay owners are good cooks and prepare Nepali food really well. They would even invite you to use your own culinary skills if you so like. You even learn how to make culinary skills from them.

The homestay bookings are coordinated by a local body known as Volunteer in Makaibari (ViM). The body also coordinates and conducts the tours inside the estate and other activities.

(L) Pickers returning to the factory with their collections; (R) Inside the factory

Achievements of Rajah Banerjee and his Makaibari tea estate

  • In 1970 Makaibari became a pioneer in the tea industry when it first embraced biodynamic principles of farming, becoming the first organic tea garden in the Darjeeling district.
  • Banerjee returned two-thirds of the land to sub-tropical forest, which improved the health of the soil, brought back teeming wildlife and improved the lives of the people who shared this ecological system. 
  • The garden is also a leader in developing tea tourism beginning in 2000, with home stays for scholars and tourists in its bungalows.
  • In the 1990s when Darjeeling tea was selling for $75 per kg, tea from this garden brought $400/kg at wholesale.
  • The Banerjees have lectured on biodynamic farming throughout the world. Their many awards and accomplishments inspired other farmers to emulate Makaibari’s methods.
  • Premium tea vendors like England’s Hampstead Tea sell Makaibari’s Silver Tips Imperial for $40 for 100 g.
  • Makaibari’s specially harvested biodynamic white and green Darjeeling set record prices and garnered praise from discerning tea drinkers including the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan.
  • Makaibari sent 300 kg of its tea to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and recently shipped several hundred kg to Brazil to be served at breakfast during the FIFA World Cup.

Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, the 'Rajah' of Makaibari

Unparallelled success story

The success of Makaibari’s methods tells a wonderful story of sustainable agriculture being commercially successful as well as benefitting the environment and local communities. Makaibari not only produces the finest of Darjeeling’s aromatic amber brews, there, tea is a way of life.

The tea bushes amidst the forests make Makaibari a biodynamic tea estate

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Comments (2)
Suparna Reply
June 22, 2014
Got to know a lot of info about Makaibari. The information about homestay would be useful to many. After all, this is one of a kind.
Ananyo Reply
June 22, 2014
The selling of the estate marks the end of an era. Though Rajah Banerjee's contribution to tea farming would never be forgotten.
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