Tea for Tusker

Have a cup of tea. Save an elephant. That is what Tenzing Bodosa’s farm would like to achieve.

Pondicherry is smallest district in India at 9 sq km. Kutch in Gujarat, on the other hand, is the largest at a mammoth 45,650 sq km area. Udalguri in Assam is relatively middling sized.  Stretching 1,700 sq km, it lies in the north east corner of the north east state of Assam, abutting both Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. The foothills of the mighty Himalayas are nearby.  Khairani is a tiny village in this district – the 2011 census states the population to be less than 200. And one man from this tiny village may just hold lessons on how commercial enterprises can co-exist with nature.

Tenzing at his farm

Tenzing’s smiles show a man at peace.  And he truly is. It was not always so.  This was a boy who had to grow up fast. A village chief’s son, his early years were comfortable. The Bodoland agitation changed all that. Caught between the violent protesters and the  Government, his land owner family was amongst those squeezed between the militants and the Government. Tenzing lost his elder brother and his father when he was in the sixth standard. 7 other family members of his extended family, including his father’s younger brother lost their lives. A worried Rohini Bodosa, Tenzing’s mother packed off Tenzing.

Tea picking

The 11 year old Tenzing was off to discover the world. Guwahati, Agra, Jaipur, Bangalore, Nellore. Multiple cities, multiple jobs.  His last job was a stint with IJM India Infrastructure, the India arm of a Malay construction company implementing highway building contracts.  Early 2006, Tenzing returned to Assam. Despite all the hardships he faced, a smile rarely leaves Tenzing’s face. Maybe the name itself confers fortitude and equanimity.

His mother’s advancing age precipitated the return. Also, the Udalguri district was now covered by the BTC Accord. Signed in 2003, Bodoland Territory Council (BTC) Accord allowed for an autonomous Administrative unit to be created that was run by the BTC.  With peace returning to the region, economic development soon followed.

Elephants drop in for tea

Hornbills vie with peacocks and deer. An odd leopard might appear. Elephants trundle in. No fences, no drains that would trouble the young elephants. 500 bighas of land with close to 70% of the area being a wild forest. Tenzing decided to crop only 150 bighas. Tea gardens share their space with elephant apple shrubs, gambhari and dimoru (fig) trees. A completely organic estate, intercropped with other fruits and vegetables, reliant only on bio-fertilizers.

Fruits on the farm

When he started upon his return in 2006, Tenzing’s family had a small piece of land.  Not having spent much time on agriculture, Tenzing sought expert help. He reached out to and worked with Dr. L. Narayan Reddy – the pioneer of organic farming in Karnataka. Fertile Ground, a Canadian NGO helped the adoption of organic practices. Physically present on the ground, the NGO has spent close to 8 years helping Tenzing as well as other farms in the region. The practices have helped and now Tenzing’s organic green or orthodox black can command prices upwards of Rs. 1000/kg.

Where Tenzing needed no help was in his core belief that animals need to co-exist with humans.  That belief has been a key driver in how he has shaped his farm. Even when his tea pickers complained of the dangers wild elephants posed, Tenzing persisted.

A few years ago, amongst the many visitors that the farm hosted, unknown to Tenzing, were a few from the University of Montana’s Broader Impact Group (that has partnered with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network).  Multiple discussions and visits later came the certification.  In April 2017, Tenzing’s farm became the world’s first certified elephant friendly farm.  

Today Tenzing’s focus is on his son.  Barely 2 years old, Kimzing seems to be giving a serious hearing to his father’s words. After all, it is not just the future of the tea farm at stake.

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