Sarah Besky

Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Sarah Besky
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Fair-trade practice is more than a matter of raising wages. Sarah Besky has studied the economic, political, and ecological complexities of the international tea trade as a test case.

When we buy a box of tea labeled “fair trade,” we think we’re doing our small part to do some good. But are we really? The short answer: Not necessarily, according to Sarah Besky, who joins the Brown faculty from the University of Michigan this fall.

Tea, and particularly fair-trade practices in that industry, have been the focus of Besky’s most recent research, which she turned into a book titled The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India, published in 2014 by University of California Press.

Besky spent considerable time in the Indian town of Darjeeling, located in the Himalayan foothills, where she worked alongside tea pickers and observed plantation practices to get at the heart of what she sees as a disconnect between the fair-trade movement and the reality that many tea plantation workers face. Darjeeling teas can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound, but harvesters of that product can make as little as one dollar a day.

Consumers buying tea labeled “fair trade” assume that they’re contributing to better working conditions and wages for those workers, but that’s often not the case, Besky found. The fair-trade system, which was originally created to support coffee cooperatives, does not translate as well to the tea industry, which is largely driven by plantation labor. There still aren’t enough small-scale tea operations to keep up with demand for fair-trade tea.

“Sit with that: How could a plantation ever be fair?” Besky asks. “Workers live on these farms and they make a low wage because they are supposedly getting a lot of their compensation in the form of housing and food and medical care. The Indian government and fair traders alike believe that they’re making more than the minimum. But one dollar a day is remarkably below the minimum wage.”

Through her research, Besky found herself so intrigued by the complexities and paradoxes of tea that she’s now at work on a second book on the financialization of the industry. Unlike many other products like pork and corn that are traded on the futures market, tea is physically sold at an auction, with its valuation dictated by an elite group of Indian tea tasters. The Indian government is pushing to reform this 150-year-old system, and Besky’s book looks at the ways, ecologically, politically, and historically, that tea has thus far resisted attempts at financialization.

“How tea tastes and smells and how people engage with it shape the way it circulates in the world,” Besky says. “We can’t separate production contexts from intermediary contexts like auctions and brokerage.”

Besky is also currently involved in a collaborative project on labor and environment through the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. She will examine the environmental history of Darjeeling, where Nepali laborers, recruited centuries ago by the British, are now calling for their own state, which they call Gorkhaland.

Besky comes to Brown this fall as an assistant professor of anthropology, with joint appointments in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

From early in her studies, Besky said she was drawn to anthropology because it exposed her to different places and cultures and allowed her to think about solutions to social problems.

She’ll be bringing both of those interests into her classes this year. In the fall, Besky will teach an undergraduate lecture course titled “Anthropology and Global Social Problems” that will touch on a range of issues, including the U.S.-Mexico border, conservation in Papua New Guinea and, of course, tea. In the spring, she will lead a class called “Money, Work and Power” that will look critically at issues of capitalism and inequality, bringing together economics and anthropology. It’s the kind of cross-disciplinary learning that Besky has enjoyed since college — one she’s eager to share with her students at Brown.

“I remember being in college and being a graduate student and it’s really that intersectional thinking that helps me better understand anthropology. It’s that same ethic of curiosity that fascinates me the most about Brown, and I’m excited about working with students who are interested in inequality and problems in the world and thinking about nonstandard ways of approaching them.”