Leaves of Wrath

Rob Schmitz Jan 10, 2011

It doesn’t take an economist to figure out why farmers whose families have grown tea for generations in China’s Pu’er region are now dropping everything to grow coffee. It’s all about the Benjamin–er–Maos. Farmers can double what they make growing coffee on the same land they grew tea on. But there’s another more troubling reason that became clear during my reporting trip there: Many farmers are getting a raw deal from China’s tea industry. Several farmers in Pu’er told me they’re fed up with how giant tea farms take advantage of the region’s poor by luring them to their plantations with promises of high salaries, only to trap them into signing a long-term contract for wages they can barely live on.

Xu Meiling told me she was twenty years into her contract. In that time, she says she’s made an eighth of the price of the tea she picks. The rest of it, she says, goes to her plantation boss. In return, she and her family get a roof over their heads on plantation land. Now that she’s learned how to grow coffee, she’d like to leave, but she’s scared of the repercussions if she breaks her contract. Besides, she says, she’s not even sure if she’ll be able to leave in ten years when her contract is up. “Most people I know have to sign on for ten more years, or you might get in trouble with the boss,” she told me. -A modern-day Grapes of Wrath with Chinese characteristics.

On a tour of a Pu’er tea plantation, I saw more evidence of the gap between a plantation owner and his workers. After walking by rows of workers’ quarters made of mud bricks and tin roofs, plantation owner Dong Jiwen asked me if I wanted to see where he lived. I did. We walked further. Around a bend, there it was: a massive faux-colonial house that looked like a cartoon version of the home in Gone With the Wind. In front of the mansion stood Dong’s pet monkey.

The rope around his neck was tied to a post. When the animal saw us, he jumped at us, flashing his teeth. Each time, he was caught by his leash in mid-air, and it snapped him backwards. That didn’t deter him. He jumped again and again, swiping his scrawny arms at me. I asked Dong if the monkey had a name. I imagined something like Killer, King Kong, Murderous George. “His name is Monkey,” he said, as he turned around to start the tour of his palace.

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