Restoration of degraded landscape through Community Stewardship by Mineral Spring Sanjukta Vikas Sanstha (MSSVS)

Mineral Spring, at 1000-1800m above sea level, connects the Senchel Wildlife Sanctuary with the riparian forest patches of Darjeeling district, West Bengal. It is an important catchment area for the Rungdung river, a tributary of the Teesta. Located in the Eastern Himalayas biodiversity hotspot, Mineral Spring comprises the basties (hamlets) – Harsing, Dabaipani and Yangkoo, and constitutes what was then the Mineral Spring Tea Estate that was established in 1824 by the erstwhile Harrisons Tea Company. Post-independence, wavering financial investments and conflict with trade unions soon followed, and the estate closed in the 1950’s.

Need for the Initiative

In the two decades that followed the closure, the area witnessed acute distress, poverty, malnutrition and widespread environmental degradation. Cultivation of monoculture tea over a long period had rendered the soil unsuitable for agriculture and with limited opportunities to earn a living, many took to clearing the forest for fuelwood and timber. In the 1970’s, civil society from Darjeeling intervened to address health and educational issues of the Mineral Spring residents. However, these efforts terminated during the Gorkhaland agitation of 1986.

Conservation Initiatives and Impacts

To restore the landscape and diversify livelihoods, the communities organised a collective called the Mineral Spring Sanjukta Vikas Sanstha (MSSVS) in 1996, with support from DLR Prerna, a Darjeeling based NGO. MSSVS comprises 456 small farmers/ tea growers from various caste and ethnic groups, and a democratically elected governing body of unit representatives from 11 hamlets. Various sub-committees also exist to handle specialised tasks such as the Internal Approval Committee that oversees the internal control systems and documentation necessary for organic certification and compliance by members; Fair-trade Premium Committee that looks after sharing and investments of the fair-trade premium earned by Mineral Spring tea; Women’s wing that works alongside women self-help groups; and the Action and Advisory Committee that handles internal audits and advice on decision making. The NGO provided capacity enhancement support in terms of participatory planning, governance issues, organic farming and certification, linkage building and resource mobilisation. With support from WWF India’s Project S.E.R.V.E., restoration work began with block plantations of native species to rehabilitate native diversity. As part of the diversification process, tea bushes from parts of the old plantation were uprooted and replaced with other food and cash crops. Besides these, permaculture courses were conducted for local farmers from all over the district to strengthen the resilience of small farmers. Today, the restored landscape covers an area of 300 hectares and stands in stark contrast to the plantation monocultures that dominate the Darjeeling landscape. Mineral Spring and the forest patches within and around it support a greater diversity of fauna such as Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger), leopard (Panthera pardus), barking deer (Muntiacus muntjac), wild boar (Sus scrofa); and fewer incidences of pests such as Helopeltis antonii (tea mosquito bug), which can be attributed to a better balance of predators, control agents and overall ecosystem health. Furthermore, the residents also have access to a greater diversity of NTFPs of wild edible plants, medicinal plants and fodder. The once-degraded land now produces organic, fair trade labelled tea, oranges, ginger, cardamom and seasonal vegetables. The Fairtrade label ensures that the product complies to international standards and guarantees a Fairtrade minimum price. The benefits from the fair-trade premium are further invested in socio-economic and environmental activities.

Recognition in India Biodiversity Awards

Mineral Spring Sanjukta Vikas Sanstha (MSSVS) was nominated for the India Biodiversity Awards under the category of ‘Community Stewardship’ in 2012.

Contact - Mr. Mahendra Rai Secretary, MSSVS Email: