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Harvesting Our Tea
Available on BBC iPlayer

For centuries women have picked tea on the steep slopes of Turkey's Black Sea region. It is gruelling work, and much of what they earn has traditionally been handed to their husbands. But now a new generation are turning their backs on tea picking, and the industry's survival is uncertain. 'Harvesting Our Tea' follows the young women who hope change is coming, and the older ones who fear for their way of life.

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PART I: Zeynep

Zeynep, a 29-year-old PhD student, is one of the many young women who were forced into tea picking from a young age. As seen through her eyes, the audience engage with an honest family portrait. Her father is a builder who owns all family land, while her mother leads the work on the tea fields. Her sisters, most of whom are training to become doctors and teachers, joke of the traditional expectations of them as they sit around the breakfast table and recall the famous quote: “If you educate girls, you’ll have to pay for tea pickers”. Zeynep tries to get to the roots of why women have been forced into tea picking by confronting her mother. She asks her why she never cared about owning land or receiving the fruits of her labour. Her response is sarcastic, as she struggles to understand the fuss. As Zeynep’s dad puts it: “What difference would it make, what’s mine is hers?”. He intended no harm, but rather, he could not see how a tradition spanning generations continued to exploit the female tea picking communities. The androcentric values where never questioned by her mother’s generation – but now, Zeynep was ready to question and act upon it. She’s grown up seeing her mother’s life of low pay and subservience, and fears that the same will happen to her.  “Tea picking was a force of motivation for me to study and reject this lifestyle” she says, while she packs her bags for a new life as an academic in the capital, Ankara.

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"I always thought I better make it through education, or I'll end up stuck picking tea"

-Zeynep, 29 

PART II: Gulten

56-year-old tea-picker Gulten, draws on her cigarette as she works tirelessly on the land left to her by her beloved mother-in-law. She, unlike Zeynep’s mum, shed blood and sweat to own the land she picks tea on. As a woman, she talks about how she had to work drastically harder than her male relatives. She, however, is an exception, as she says: “When I look at all of the women around me, none of them are landowners”. The new generation of women like Zeynep are not interested in owning land nor tea picking. They are instead, opting out of tea picking for jobs in the cities in what they see as an act of liberation from traditions that have oppressed them. Gulten fears for the disappearing tea culture and asks: “Who will be left to tea pick when I am gone?” as she wanders through the tea bushes on fog-capped mountains alone. She has conversations with her niece Seher, who explains that an entire generation of tea pickers are opting out due to the toughening work conditions. Selling tea is no longer easy, as the state tea giant Caykur imposed limits on the amount of tea they can sell to them, encouraging tea being sold to private factories who pay significantly less. Consequently, farmers’ incomes have been falling steadily for the last decade, including Gulten’s. Despite this, Gulten continues to hold onto the hope that her daughters and daughters-in-law will continue to look after her beloved tea picking fields.

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"In the old days, we didn't really fight for our rights like we do today"

-Gulten, 56 

PART III: Esin

38-year-old free-spirited tea picker Esin, blankly stares out of her balcony, looking slightly concerned, and discusses how she does not want to bring a child into this world until making a living out of tea farming and agriculture is possible. While hope for the future of tea begins to disappear, she talks of the fight to salvage the dying industry through a local solution, the Hopa Tea Cooperative. The cooperative was established by a group of tea pickers in 1959. It’s one of the only non-state organisations to pay tea pickers high rates and support small-scale farmers. Overall, 4200 tea pickers sell their tea to the cooperative, and half of them are women. Esin, who works as an accountant at the cooperative, tells us that more women have started owning land and selling their tea to the Cooperative, providing a glimpse of hope for the future of tea. Yet, despite her uplifting tone, the future remains uncertain, as Turkey’s inflation rate has soared to a 19-year high at 47%. 

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"The changing industry has turned us farmers into machines."

-Esin, 38 

A 23’ character-led observational documentary, “Harvesting Turkey’s Tea” speaks of similar struggles that women and agricultural workers face across the world. It engages a wide audience outside Turkey, as the issues covered are common everywhere; how to survive economically in the face of a changing industry. Using footage of these women’s day-to-day lives from a month-long ethnographic shoot, this documentary is sectioned into three parts, and contrasts the intergenerational experiences of three tea picking women as they face economic decline and inequality.