2011 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner
Sarah Besky, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Paper Title: Moral Economies of Land, Labor, and Justice on Darjeeling Tea Plantations
Abstract: This article explores how tea plantation laborers in Darjeeling, India understood their place in the circulation of an environmental commodity – fair trade and organic Darjeeling tea – and confronted the alienation of land, labor, and product. Moving beyond economically rooted theories of empowerment, I explore how, in an era in which environmental commodities are increasingly seen as material vehicles for social change, the universal concept of justice is made “practically effective” when people engage it in particular, place-based histories of cultural and economic encounter (Tsing 2005:8). I draw upon environmental history, linguistic and kinship analysis, and gendered narratives of identity to understand how workers in Darjeeling localized the universal concept of “justice” to comment on the conditions of life and tea production. Workers used “justice” to position themselves in postcolonial national and regional politics as well as a global environmental commodity chain. “Justice” grappled with tea’s place among Darjeeling’s “imperial ruins” (Stoler 2008), in which Nepali workers saw the remnants of a stable moral economy and productive tea industry. Workers believed that they could revitalize these ruins, not with organic certification schemes or fair trade premiums, but through the formation of a separate Indian state of Gorkhaland.