For zero waste and ecological justice to be positive, liberating forces, we need to replace the colonial infrastructure and the colonial mindsets that restrict communities like Darjeeling from cultivating real solutions rooted in traditional cultures, values, and ecosystems knowledge.
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) staff have just returned from a tour across the Himalayas, where members of the Zero Waste Himalayas network have been organizing community-based initiatives to reduce waste, reduce plastics and improve local livelihoods. At GAIA, we believe the world’s ecological crises are best addressed through local economic solutions that are developed, owned, and controlled by the communities and workers at the frontlines of these crises.
The legacy of the British Empire continues to be deeply felt in the “Hill Station” of Darjeeling. Hill stations were towns built by the British across the mountains of India, as places they could escape to during the heat of summer. Today, these townships continue to be popular tourist destinations, providing glimpses into the days of the Raj, with all its colonial trappings.
Modeled after European settlements of the time, Darjeeling is bound by a set of concrete sewage and waste systems that dispose the town’s waste down steep ravines and waterways (jhoras) – to be carried down the mountainside into the lands below. Even today, the “roll down the hill” approach remains intact with raw sewage plummeting downhill to pollute communities downstream.
As a hill station, Darjeeling was both a center for colonial rule as well as the hub of the “tea plantation” economy. Tea plantations in Asia were developed as feudal, extractive systems and to this day remain an iconic example of how colonial rule established a global extractive economy that exploits human and natural resources in one part of the world for the benefit of those in another. A majority of the workers carrying out the labor of picking tea leaves on these steep mountainsides are women who suffer severe health impacts as a result. Tea plantations also involve the deforestation of indigenous forests and chemical-intensive monoculture, causing soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the poisoning of soil, water and human bodies Despite social movement efforts to create political autonomy in the traditional lands of the Gorkhas, Darjeeling’s tea economy has remains one of severe exploitation and wealth extraction.
On the other side of Darjeeling, the Mineral Springs tea estates were abandoned over 50 years ago, soon after India’s independence. For almost two decades, former plantation workers were left to suffer the consequences of their sudden unemployment. Severe poverty in the region quickly led to rapid deforestation in the reserved forest area, as villagers struggled to make ends meet through harvesting firewood. But hope was restored about 20 years ago when local communities joined together to form a farming cooperative that delivered milk and yogurt to the town of Darjeeling.
With the help of local environmental justice group – Darjeeling Ladenla Road Prerna and other local organizations, this small dairy cooperative – the Sanjukta Vikash Sanstha (SVS), began to restore the largely abandoned tea farms in 2003.
The Sanjukta Vikash Sanstha (United Development Association) is a farmer collective involving 450 families that has cultivated a certified (organic and fair trade certification) permaculture farm on the remnants of an abandoned tea plantation. Owned and operated by over 450 families from a dozen villages across the Mineral Springs watershed, SVS is a living example of how biodiversity and community health can be restored in a post-colonial wasteland though collective practice and traditional, Indigenous knowledge.
By using traditional, natural farming practices, SVS has restored biodiversity and ecosystem health across the mountainside, a contrast to the monoculture tea plantations that surround Darjeeling. Unlike these corporate tea farms, these farmers practice mixed cropping, producing tea alongside oranges, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, and a host of native, seasonal vegetables. This has resulted in sustainable land-use and economic resilience for the community. This has also allowed SVS to successfully sow seeds of hope in a landscape dominated by the corporate tea farms.
The Mineral Springs community also hosts a handful of idyllic mountain homestays, where 10-day long permaculture design courses are conducted for practitioners from around the world. This is a flagship program of DLR Prerna in the hills of Darjeeling. The course draws inspiration from traditional knowledge and value systems and combines it with locally appropriate technology to enable communities to create design systems that are resilient and regenerative in nature.
In recent years, the SVS communities have increasingly been confronted with plastics and other municipal waste contaminating their water systems from Darjeeling’s ridge above. Like most traditional farmers, zero waste is seen as being complementary to their efforts in forest farming. Their farm illustrates how composted food scraps directly contribute to soil health and fertility, and they understand how plastics are a direct threat to both nature and culture. Hence, it made sense for Darjeeling Ladenla Road Prerna to connect these practices with zero waste initiatives over the years.
In meetings with local government officials, we learned that Japanese and Korean incinerator companies had courted some officials in recent years. Like other places around the world, and in the absence of zero waste awareness, the burn companies are always ready to swoop into capitalize from any crisis.
After visiting with these communities, it was clear that more dialogue, awareness and organizing is needed to advance recycling and composting programs in the region. What was even more evident is that for zero waste and ecological justice to be positive, liberatory forces, we need to replace both the colonial infrastructure and the colonial mindsets that restrict communities like Darjeeling from cultivating real solutions rooted in traditional cultures, values and ecosystems knowledge.
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