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The Garden at the Beginning of All

During this marvelous first full month of spring, we're featuring the teas and tisanes produced on the Teatulia Tea Estate in northern Bangladesh. Here at the Emporium we just adore this spunky little tea producer, but to understand the true marvel of Teatulia Teas, you'll have to wade through quite a lot of bullshit. Cow shit, to be more precise, though we understand that "dung" is the term preferred in polite society. In a very real way, Teatulia is a company built on true grit and cow poop. Lots and lots of cow poop.

Link to a greeting card featuring a photograph of a secluded path on the Teatulia Tea Estate, Tetulia, Panchagarh District, BangladeshIf we wish to grasp how Teatulia Teas came to be, we must begin with a bit of geography and history. Present-day Bangladesh lies within the incredibly fertile watershed and delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. Flowing from the west (the Ganges) and the east (the Brahmaputra), these two mighty rivers tumble into one another near the geographic center of Bangladesh then flow south to empty into the Bay of Bengal through the multi-gaped Mouths of the Ganges. Like the Tigris and Euphrates to the west, and even more like the Nile even farther west, the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers have together shaped the essential geography and history of Bangladesh.

And that history is quite grand, in terms both of temporal reach and of historical significance. Known throughout most of history as "Bengal" ("Bangladesh" shares the same root word), this area was settled at least four and a half millennia ago, around the same time that Sargon of Akkad first conquered Mesopotamia and Noah took up boat building. The people of Bengal endured through the many long centuries and through the many Dravidian and Indo-Aryan and Buddhist and Muslim and Hindu ruling dynasties that came and went, came and went, until the British came in about 1757 and finally went in 1947.

At the time of the British withdrawal, Bengal was partitioned into a western and an eastern territory, largely along religious lines. The western territory became part of India (just then a newly minted modern state) while the eastern territory became part of Pakistan (also a newly created modern state). Separated by the full northern reach of the Indian subcontinent, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (as the two co-states were then called) managed for a couple decades to hobble along as a single country, but growing tensions between the two widely separated territories eventually led the people of East Pakistan (formerly eastern Bengal) to assert their independence on March 25, 1971. After a short but still terribly bloody war with West Pakistan, East Pakistan became Bangladesh and remains so to this day.

Kazi Shahid is a Bangladeshi man who has first-hand experience of much of this recent Bangladeshi history. Through the ups and downs, the twists and turns, and the outright upheavals, he has steadily built both his reputation and his business in the relatively new but still so very old Bangladesh. Anchored in agricultural production, he diversified his business over time to include vibrant entrepreneurial enterprises in construction, communications, and seafood harvesting and processing. During the same years he also diversified his personal life to include a devoted wife and amiably ambitious sons.

Sometime in the late 1990s, though, Kazi Shahid seemed to take leave of his senses. "Boys," he told his sons, "I think I'll build me a tea estate up north in Tetulia."

Link to a greeting card featuring a photograph of an estate waterway on the Teatulia Tea Estate, Tetulia, Panchagarh District, BangladeshWhile totally crazy, this idea wasn't quite so crazy as it might appear to those among us who lack a few key facts. A quick glance at a map shows that India has thrown a friendly arm around the shoulders of Bangladesh, with the great Indian body to the west, the hand of the Seven Sister States to the east, and both connected by the narrow arm of the Siliguri Corridor to the north. Northern Bangladesh is thus cradled to the west, north, and east by India's finest tea-growing regions, including Darjeeling and Assam. Moreover, Bangladesh is no blushing neophyte when it comes to tea production. It is, in fact, one of the ten largest tea-producers in the world.

Here, though, are the key facts that made Shahid's latest dream appear so cockamamie. Yes indeed, Bangladesh did grow quite a lot of tea, but the major tea estates were all founded to the east and south, far from the often parched and brittle lands to the north and west. Moreover, practically all Bangladeshi tea was consumed by the Bangladeshi people, as these teas had absolutely no international recognition, appreciation, or distribution. With no broader market available for Shahid's imagined teas, the last thing that the Bangladeshi people appeared to need was yet another tea estate hacked into marginal northern lands.

And about those marginal lands northwards in Tetulia: That's just what they were, still largely untouched by agriculture or industry because they were good for practically nothing (or so thought everyone but Kazi Shahid). Tetulia Upazila (a land division more or less equivalent to a US county) lies at the northernmost tip of Panchagarh District, which in turn lies at the northernmost tip of Rangpur Division, which in turn lies at the northernmost tip of Bangladesh. In other words, Tetulia is absolutely as far north as a traveler may go in Bangladesh and still be in Bangladesh. Because Tetulia shares the tropical monsoon climate common throughout Bangladesh, it endures hot, rainy summers followed by pronounced dry seasons in the cooler months. Practically all of the region's rain falls during the monsoon season (June to September), but the northern watershed quickly carries these waters south to the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.

By the 1990s, when Kazi Shahid turned his gaze northwards, centuries of this pattern — quick monsoon drainage followed by months of bone-dry weather — had left the northern soils dry, dusty, and leached of all good things needed to support robust agricultural undertakings. Northern Bangladesh was essentially a desert, abandoned by all but the hardiest native plants and animals, while the people who remained there barely eked out lives of abject poverty on their so stricken lands.

Kazi Shahid's sons and advisors no doubt pointed out these daunting geographical and economic facts. No doubt they also made Kazi Shahid aware of the judgments of all Bangladeshi tea experts, who vigorously asserted that tea shrubs wouldn't grow on these northern lands, and even if they did, the tea produced from their leaves wouldn't be fit for swine. Kazi Shahid always responded, as though he hadn't heard a word they'd said, "Boys, I think I'll build me a tea estate up north in Tetulia."

Link to a greeting card featuring a photograph of estate quarters on the Teatulia Tea Estate, Tetulia, Panchagarh District, BangladeshAnd so he did. He purchased 1,215 hectares of "worthless" desert land in Tetulia (obviously the inspiration for Teatulia's corporate name), then he set about building him a tea estate. Kazi Shahid clearly understood that he couldn't just toss out some tea shrubs (Camellia sinensis) onto the injured land, then hope for the best. Rather, he knew that he would need to help the land heal itself, and he would have to wheedle, cajole, flatter, and otherwise charm the land into nurturing his tea estate, as though the land were an aging but still lovely old lady who needed only a kind attention or two to bloom once more.

Cue the cow poop. Kazi Shahid and his sons (especially Kazi Anis Ahmed, a son with a literary bent) knew that great acreages of Bangladesh had been irrecoverably harmed by bombardments of chemical fertilizers and pesticides during the Bangladeshi "Green Revolution", so they determined that their tea estate would be founded on wholly organic principles. The first (but certainly not last) organic principle that they put into play involved the spreading of cow manure over land badly in need of replenishment.

Cow poop, of course, requires cows to poop it, so the Kazis (father and sons) began to acquire cows that they brought together into a small but growing herd on their new northern lands. In short order, though, they realized that cow herding wasn't a hobby to be carried out in spare evening hours: It was damn hard work that required unceasing attention. Ahmed (the son with the literary bent, who completed his doctoral dissertation in comparative literature at New York University) solved this dilemma in a way that will surely ripple throughout the company and the region and perhaps even the world for some time to come: He turned to the Tetulia people for help.

The people then living in the Tetulia region had little in the way of income, less in the way of prospects, practically nothing in the way of hopes and dreams. So, Kazi Anis Ahmed reasoned, instead of the Kazis becoming cowherds themselves, why not lease the cows to the people in exchange for modest lease payments made in milk and cow poop? During the two-year lease period, the people would keep any cow-generated income above their modest lease barters and, at the end of two years, they would own the cows free and clear. Everyone won. The Kazis got manure for their intended tea gardens and milk for their newly founded organic dairy, and the people got a new modest income stream with the possibility of richer payoffs down the road.

Kazi Anis Ahmed's simple, sensible, and deeply humane reasoning has paid dividends beyond anything even he perhaps imagined. Kazi Shahid's crazy dream has become a substantial and beautiful reality. Acres and acres and acres of lush, absolutely gorgeous tea gardens now stretch north and south and east and west in Tetulia. Much of the beauty of these gardens emerges from the co-plantings: That is, Kazi Admed and his inspired team have carefully intermixed the tea shrubs with native trees, bushes, grasses, and herbs that provide such marked ancillary services as pest control and water management. The inter-plantings have worked so well, in fact, that the tea estate now produces a thriving line of wholly organic herbs grown, harvested, and packed on the estate then shipped to markets in Bangladesh and beyond.

To illustrate this finely managed integration and interdependency of the estate plantings, the Teatulia tea plants are shaded by neem trees that also provide significant water management services. When the season's right, though, the neem leaves are also harvested for use in Teatulia's delicious and oh-so-healthy Neem Nectar Black Tea. Similarly, the estate workers cultivate ginger, peppermint, and lemongrass to serve as natural pesticides, but these organically grown herbs also add their marvelous flavors and aromas to Teatulia's popular herbal infusions.

Link to a greeting card featuring a photograph of Neem trees shading tea shrubs on the Teatulia Tea Estate, Tetulia, Panchagarh District, BangladeshAnd the people of Tetulia are loving it. For the first time in generations, families see futures for themselves beyond mere abject scraping by. Through the cow poop leasing program, a great many local families have achieved modest but sustainable living incomes, and some of the most industrious families have gradually built substantial herds that represent real wealth. Moreover, through the many requirements of tea, herb, and dairy production, the Kazi enterprises in Tetulia provide dependable local employment offered to the people at sustainable life wages. Perhaps grandest of all, through the Kazi Shahid Foundation, the tea garden workers (mainly women) and their children participate in educational, cultural, and recreational programs that would have been flights of the wildest fancy just two decades ago. Thanks to the vision of Kazi Shahid and the hard work of his sons, these flights of the wildest fancy have come home to roost in Tetulia.

After a dozen years of operation, the Kazi & Kazi Tea Estate remains the only fully organic tea enterprise in Bangladesh, certified so by both the EU and US certifying agencies. Perhaps of more importance, this estate has become the quintessential demonstration project for both sustainable agriculture and sustainable development. Under Kazi Anis Ahmed's amiable but firm guidance, the estate has continually and vigorously incorporated additional principles and practices of sustainable organic horticulture and of fair-trade business development. He has, for example, fully incorporated low-intervention farming techniques that minimize irrigation to practically nothing and use native plantings to manage soil conditioning and aeration. All of these practical agricultural efforts happen within the family's one shared and overriding concern: to help the Tetulia workers achieve fully sustainable economic independence, a goal that becomes reality for more workers day by day.

We do most wholeheartedly believe that, first and foremost, you should buy tea for its flavor, aroma, color, and health benefits. Rest assured that, when you buy any Teatulia tea, you'll buy a damn fine tea with a flavor, aroma, and color beyond anything you'll find among the "bargain" teas at your local big-box factory food store. But when you buy Teatulia teas, you're also buying into the fundamentally important and inescapable principles that the earth must be respected or else; that some people must not be forced to endure lives of terrible desperation just so some others may snatch up "bargains" at unfair prices; that life — after all and at its best — is a bewilderingly beautiful web of connections as stunning as the garden at the beginning of all.

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