The Society for Economic Anthropology is very pleased to announce the Winner of the 2014 SEA Book Prize:

Sarah Besky. 2014. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. University of California Press. (link)

This book tells a story about the social life of Darjeeling tea – some of the world’s most expensive and sought after tea, which is grown high in the Himalayan foothills of Northeast India. Tea laborers, planters, and townspeople all know that Darjeeling and its tea are famous all over the world. Some trace this fame to the misty mountain climate or the loamy soils; others talk about the laborers’ nimble hands; and others mention the importance of the region’s spiritual geography. Whatever the reason, since colonial times, Darjeeling tea has been associated with luxury and refinement, and the region has been a romantic “outside” within India: a cool, mountainous complement to the plains, and a home to exotic Nepali-speaking tea pluckers, recruited by British planters in the 1850s to staff what came to be known as “tea gardens.” This book narrates how contemporary Darjeeling tea workers’ ideas about value, social justice, and the plantation emerged through their encounters with tea’s colonial legacy, culminating in a Nepali-led regional separatist movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Besky argues that Nepali-speaking women tea laborers in Darjeeling have developed both a deep attachment to the plantation landscape in which they work and a nuanced critique of the tea industry itself. In the book, Besky rethinks the plantation as space, as concept, and – crucially – as home to tea workers and tea bushes. Drawing on ethnographic research in the tea fields of Darjeeling, Besky frames the virtual and embodied spaces of fair trade, Geographical Indication, and subnationalist movements aimed to reform India’s plantations as “third world agrarian imaginaries” that depict plantations and their laborers as “in need” of development. Besky identifies the ways in which women workers push back against the competing and sometimes contradictory notions of justice in these imaginaries. Besky highlights that in order to formulate meaningful ideas and practices of justice in agriculture, critical analysis must attend to the lived experiences of laborers and to the material conditions that shape their everyday lives.

A brief description of how the nominated book fits into economic anthropology:

The Darjeeling Distinction contributes to three key areas of economic anthropology: the ethnography of ethical trade in the context of neoliberalism, the role of law and economic nationalism in shaping economic development, and the interface between labor and ethnicity. It explores strategies for integrating India’s most prized agricultural commodity into a global market for ethically sourced and geographically distinguished goods. In the late 1990s, Darjeeling’s tea plantations became the first in the world to receive fair trade certification. Hope was high among certifying agencies that fair trade would alleviate the inequities of tea production and provide more sustainable livelihoods for workers. To date, this is the only study of fair trade certification on plantations. But this book is about more than fair trade. It situates fair trade amid two other moves to adapt Darjeeling tea plantations to a 21st century market for sustainable and ethically sourced commodities and to bring the Darjeeling region into a 21st century multi-ethnic Indian democracy. The first, WTO Geographical Indication status, uses international law to define the borders of Darjeeling, to “protect” the tea grown there as the intellectual property of the Government of India, and to stimulate demand. The second, the Gorkhaland agitation, is a longstanding movement to form an Indian state separate from West Bengal, which would include Darjeeling, its tea plantations, and its majority of Indian Nepalis, or “Gorkhas.” For many in Darjeeling, Gorkhaland was the only means by which economic development would ever be actualized. These movements were all strategies for reinventing the plantation, yet each only partially addressed the concerns of plantation workers themselves. For workers, concepts of justice were relational, based upon gendered experiences of plantation labor. Importantly, Besky seeks to understand not only how women tea workers understand each of these strategies for the improvement of the plantation and plantation workers, but also what the plantation means to workers themselves. Doing so, she shows how colonial economic formations bear upon postcolonial ethnic and national identities. For women workers, who comprised the majority of the plantation labor force, labor, management, and the actual tea bushes and plantation landscape supported one another reciprocally (if also unevenly) in what Besky calls a “tripartite moral economy.” Such a perspective calls attention to the persistence and meaning of the plantation as a material, social, and economic form. Fair trade and GI, propelled by universal notions of economic sustainability and hegemonic ideas about the region’s ecology and people, and the male-dominated Gorkhaland movement, driven by a desire to redefine Darjeeling’s place within Independent India, each presented challenges to this moral economy.

  • Cory-Alice Andre-Johnson, University of California Press

Honorable mention: David Stoll, 2012. El Norte or Bust: How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town. Rowman and Littlefield.

Debt is the hidden engine driving low-wage migration to the United States. So argues this ethnography of migrants, moneylenders, and swindlers in the Guatemalan highlands, one of the locales sending Latin Americans north in search of higher wages. Like many low-income rural populations, the Ixil and K’iche’ Mayas of Nebaj are growing rapidly in numbers. Particularly for young Nebajenses, it is ever more difficult to find employment that satisfies their needs and wants.   Aid agencies have provided microcredits to turn the Nebajenses into entrepreneurs, but credit alone cannot boost productivity in crowded mountain valleys, which is why many borrowers have invested the loans in smuggling themselves to the US. Back home, their remittances have inflated the price of land so high that only migrants can afford to buy it. Thus more Nebajenses have felt obliged to borrow the large sums needed to go north. So many have done so that, even before the the US financial crash in 2008, many Nebajenses were unable to find enough stateside work to keep up with their loans. This triggered a financial crash in their home town. Now many migrants and their families are losing the land and homes they have pledged as collateral. Migration, moneylending, and large families, this study argues, have turned into pyramid schemes in which low-income Guatemalans transfer risk and loss to their relatives and neighbors.

  • David Stoll, Author

 The 2014 book award committee reviewed 24 books published since 2012. Finalists also included:

  • Jessica Smith Rolston, Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West.
  • Paige West, From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea.
  • Donald Wood, OGATA-MURA: Sowing Dissent and Reclaiming Identity in a Japanese Farming Village.

The SEA book prize is given biannually to the best (non-edited) book in economic anthropology. The book prize includes a $500 award, and will be presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC and during the SEA Friday afternoon business meeting.

Thanks to committee members who gave of their time and energy: John Millhauser, Sandra Weinstein Bever, Joseph Lehner, Peter Redvers-Lee, Daniel Murphy, Nicole D. Peterson, Akiko Takeyama, Jennifer Vogt, Walter Little and Robert Marshall.

Jeffrey H. Cohen, chair, book prize committee.