Crisis grips Iranian tea industry

The Guardian

Lahijan, June 16:

It was smuggled to Iran in secret, from under the nose of the British establishment in India. But now the country’s tea industry is deep in trouble and the verdant gardens that once sustained millions of farmers and their workers are used only for grazing sheep. Despite having one of the world’s most avid tea drinking populations, the Iranian tea economy is reeling from an influx of foreign imports and smugglers who, local traders complain, often have close family ties to powerful figures in the Islamic regime. The consequences are plain to see. In Lahijan, in the north of Iran, the historic capital of Iran’s tea industry, land that was once a lush vista of tea bushes is now occupied by houses and flats, built by tea factory owners who have moved into the building trade in response to their industry’s decline. Several

of the town’s tea mills are derelict. Others are at a stand-still or operating at half capacity. Unable to sell their produce, factory owners owe around 170 million sterling pounds to the banks.

Some 40 per cent of the half-million tea farmers in tea-rich Gilan province have gone out of business, because the factories are no longer buying their crops. Hundreds of thousands of pickers have been forced out of work. “I blame the government. They have to stop smuggled and imported tea,” said Golagha Habibi, owner of a tea farm, “As long they fail to support us, I don’t see how we can continue.” Last year was the worst in the 100 years of the Iranian tea economy. For the first time in nearly 50 years, Habibi did not cultivate his crops. He was forced to sack his 20 women pickers. This year he tried to resume picking, but a lack of demand forced him to stop, so he has shelved plans to open his own tea factory, and ekes out a living restoring and selling second-hand jeeps.

He is one of the lucky ones. “Single produce farmers are in a horrible situation,” said Habibi, who is the local representative of the tea farmers’ organisation, “Out of 150 tea factories in Gilan province, there were only 30 working last year. Each employed an average of 25-30 workers, so you can imagine the consequences.” It is a remarkable scenario in a country where tea is consumed from habit rather than thirst, often in quaint tea houses that are part of the urban landscape. With alcohol forbidden under Iran’s Islamic legal code, Iranians drink the equivalent of 120,000 tonnes of tea each year. But they are no longer drinking the Iranian variety, characterised by its richness and an absence of added flavourings. Tea drinkers are turning to the glut of foreign varieties.