Tea Pickers of Srigongol

The surrounding area of the small town of Srimongol is known primarily for it’s tea estates which form a rich carpet of green across it’s rolling hills. These estates are interspersed by some remaining tracts of lush primary tropical rain forest. An array of produce; bananas, papaya, guava, pineapple, lemon, lychee, jackfruit, mango, pomelo, orange, fig, rubber and rice is also grown here.

It’s now the tail end of the monsoon season and nature is at its most extravagant. The sky is a play of weather cells; cumulonimbus rising cathedral like, bringing forth the occasional outburst of heavy rain, thunder and at times incredible plays of light. The landscape is a celebration of green, bursting with new life. Tropical regions are at their best during this time, one can almost feel the cells of the body drinking in the abundance of nature, purifying water, oxygen, new life. It can be life giving, intoxicating, a reminder to oneself we are of nature. Some of the scenes alongside the small windy roads, in the thatched-roof villages and in the fields are so beautiful they take your breath away. It would be hard to find a greater contrast anywhere from what is the squalor and congestion of Dhaka less than 200 km away to the west.

The tea bush is heavily dependent on rain for new growth and it’s only these new growth leaves which are harvested, then dried, ground and bagged for export around the world. Monsoon season is the picking season; June, July, August and slightly either side of these months. Here the tea bushes are shaded by koroi trees which give the landscape further dimension and provide welcome shade for the tea pickers, most of whom are women, hindu, some from the surrounding tribal groups. Men make up most of the work force in the tea factories. The area has a feeling of being more in South East Asia than South Asia, it is close to the eastern boarder with India.

Picking is demanding work. During an 8 hour work day the women are expected to pick a minimum of 23kg of tea leaves, though they average between 35 and 40kg. The more the women pick, the more weighted down they are; the tea slung over their heads falling to their backs in a cloth bundle. This bundle is tied tight and carried upon their heads back to the factory or to a collection point at lunch break and again at close of day. The bundles are then weighed. The women earn somewhere in the vicinity of a dollar for their day’s effort. I say this all too casually, when really the difference between 75c and $1.50 could be measured by the purchasing power of just a little more protein in their families diet, a little more fish or chicken, a few more eggs...

Depending on what value judgement we place upon this meager earning; it can be seen either as exploitative in the extreme or a healthy and gracious way of spending one’s working life; drinking in nature, communally, physically. It could be argued that spending one’s most productive years chained to a desk in a glass tower pumping hot air into the corporate bubble is just as exploitative of the worker. Is it more regal to use one’s mind or one’s body in the engagement of work? Surely the only thing of importance is to what end we use our minds or our body for, to who’s profit and to what benefit...

Here the body is being used for what it was designed for, the lungs are breathing in fresh oxygenated air, the workers are soaking in nature day in and day out and as a result these people remain fit and agile into old age. Some of the women are extraordinarily beautiful, strong, fit, earthy and radiating health. Without exception they have perfect unblemished skin ranging in colours from light brown, to copper, to dense and rich black, which is ever more striking next to their rich, bright coloured clothing. They each carry to work a plastic container of ground water dispensed from a hand pump at a well to keep themselves hydrated through the day. After a demanding day of work picking tea leaves the women gather bundles of fire wood to be used for cooking back at the family dwelling.

Our guide speaks to us of a climate which has very obviously changed. There were, up until recently (five years or so ago) six distinct seasons. This is no longer the case; only three seasons now prevail; the dry session, the wet season, and the winter months, there now prevails an abrupt change between each within this new norm. During the rainy season rain often arrives in more prolonged, heavier deluges, with less frequency. Winters are arriving earlier. The  past two winters challenged long standing records falling to 3ºC, a temperature which was almost unheard of in these parts. Through the year Srimongol’s temperatures do tend to fluctuate a great deal, however that fluctuation is becoming far more abrupt and more pronounced, in a word ‘unpredictable’. Climate change is playing out for the people of this area; I do wonder to what effect this will have in the years and the decades to come.