Pinky Munda, 25, is eight months pregnant with her second child. She lives at a tea plantation in India's northeastern state of Assam, where her husband is a laborer.
Six days a week, Assam's tea workers—more than 50 percent of whom are women—have to collect at least 48lb (22kg) of tea leaves to earn 137 rupees ($2.10) for a day's work, well below the 250 rupees ($3.80) minimum daily wage for unskilled labor in the region. Most plantations have no toilets, no drinking water and no running water. Workers are forced to defecate in the tea bushes and have no way to wash their hands before they go back to picking.
Of the approximately 1,000 laborers working at Ouphulia Tea Garden, Pinky's husband is one of the permanent laborers, which entitles his family to a house on the estate. But the Mundas' single-room brick house, plastered with an amalgam of mud and cow dung, doesn't have a toilet or bathroom.
The Assam region is known around the world for its tea, found in supermarkets and pricy tea boutiques. The tea grown across the state's 765-odd estates and 100,000 smaller gardens, mostly concentrated in the eastern part known as Upper Assam, contributes more than half of India's annual tea production of about 1.2 million tons, making it second only to the world's leading tea producer, China.
But the world's thirst for Assam tea has also earned the region a far more dismal reputation. Almost a fifth of the state's population of about 32 million is estimated to be living on tea estates, and most of them are in Upper Assam, the region with the worst maternal mortality ratio in the county. According to the latest national health survey, Upper Assam records 404 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births—more than double the national average.
Health experts say the high maternal mortality rate among tea garden workers is due to a combination of poverty, malnourishment, and a lack of basic sanitation and healthcare facilities.
The Plantations Labor Act of 1951 mandates that certain basic provisions be offered to plantation workers, including drinking water, separate toilets for men, and women, housing and medical services. But the law does little to guarantee even these basic rights for most of Assam's tea pickers. Without action from plantation owners and the government, rights activists and tea workers worry nothing will improve.
Bare-bones Hospitals and Salted Tea
At home, Pinky Munda and her family often drink salted black tea, a vestige of the British colonial era. Colonizers in the 19th century would give laborers salted black tea to help replace the essential salts lost through dehydration. But as each generation born on the plantations produces the next batch of laborers, drinking salted tea has become an everyday habit, even for family members who don't work in the fields.
Dr. Khalekuz Zaman, a maternal mortality specialist with the Assam government, said consumption of copious amounts of salt by female tea workers is one of the reasons for the region's high rates of maternal death. "The nutritional intake of adolescent girls is poor on plantations. They suffer from anemia, and due to their regular intake of salted tea they develop hypertension," he said. "This then becomes pregnancy-induced hypertension or anemia."
Every week, Pinky gets a free ration of just 6.7 fluid oz (200ml) of milk, one banana and an egg that the plantation's management gives to pregnant women living on the estate. Every three weeks, she goes to the estate hospital for a free checkup.
The hospital, with its bare-bones facilities, has not had a doctor for the past year. A pharmacist prescribes medicines; nurses deliver the babies. Five to six babies are born at the hospital each month, one of the two nurses on staff told News Deeply. The nurse asked not to be identified because she didn't have her employer's permission to speak to the press.
"We look at the ultrasound results and if a pregnancy seems complicated, we take that woman to Assam Medical College for delivery," the nurse said, referring to the government-run teaching hospital about 35 miles (56km) away.
"Tea garden women come to the hospital at the last minute of delivery," Dr. Ratan Kumar Kotokey, the principal at Assam Medical College, said. "They come with severe anemia, high blood pressure, respiratory and abdominal infections."
Uttam Majumder, senior assistant manager at Ouphulia Tea Garden, acknowledges the estate is falling short on hygiene and medical facilities, but said his company is doing all it can. "The hospital here is not good. But all other tea garden hospitals have similar facilities," he said.
Majumder said drinking water is always available to laborers during their work hours, and every year the estate builds a few new toilets and repairs old ones in workers' homes. "But workers are habituated to defecating in the open. They don't use them," he said. When asked about the lack of toilets for workers out in the fields, Majumder said: "Putting toilets in the field is impossible. If we start doing that we will have to build 100-200 toilets. We are helpless."
No Place for Pregnant Women
About 30 miles (48km) from Ouphulia, the laborers at Singlijan Tea Estate have similar grievances about toilets and drinking water. Singlijan is owned by M.K. Shah Exports, which supplies its teas to leading international chains such as Starbucks, Twinings and Tetley, according to the company's website.
"The limited drinking water we get has tea leaves and salt added to it. It stinks at times," Sangeeta, a tea picker who requested only her first name be used to protect her identity, said. "The groundwater here has high iron content. It changes color and even after boiling looks dirty."
With no water filters installed in their homes, most of the laborers use a crude contraption that funnels water through a piece of cloth holding sand and crushed bricks, which are supposed to absorb some of the iron. But it doesn't help much.
"That water is harmful," Dr. Kotokey at Assam Medical College said. "It can cause neurological as well as abdominal problems."
When asked to comment on the issues raised by Singlijan tea workers, the manager of the estate directed this reporter to the Indian Tea Association (ITA), an independent body representing the interests of tea producers in India. Madhurjya Barooah, a secretary with the Assam Branch of ITA, did not respond to several requests for an interview, only saying in a brief phone conversation: "MMRin tea gardens is not high."
But Dr. Zaman said that, "except for a few tea gardens, the management at most have done nothing for pregnant ladies."
He agrees the government needs to do more and pointed to the recent introduction of mobile medical vans in Assam as a step in the right direction.The vans are expected to travel around tea plantations conducting regular free health checks for tea garden workers.
But Sangeeta from Singlijan plantation said it will take more than new toilets and health checks to improve the lives of Assam's tea laborers.
"The real problem of tea garden workers is that we are not aware of our rights and entitlements," she said. "Until that changes, nothing will change for us."
This story has been updated to remove the description of salted tea as a medical treatment in the colonial era and to clarify that the mobile medical vans have not yet started giving free checkups to tea plantation workers. We have also specified that Dr. Kotokey is the only principal at Assam Medical College and corrected the spelling of Madhurjya Barooah's name.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Global Citizen.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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