We started our journey from Jamalpur and headed towards Garo Hills of Jhinaigati in Sherpur after hearing that tea is being cultivated there.
Sherpur is about 35 kilometres away from Jamalpur city. From there, we took a narrow road through the Sal-Gajari forest and arrived at a place called Banorani. It turned out to be an under-construction resort, with work on only two floors having been completed.
A small signboard hanging from its unfinished wall reads "Garo Hills Tea Co".
We were asked to wait there if we wanted to visit the tea garden. After a while, Sabbir Sagar arrived on a motorcycle. He is one of the caretakers of the Banorani Resort and the tea company.
We had heard about the entrepreneur behind the Garo Hills Tea Company - Md Amzad Hossain Phoenix. Originally a businessman in the garment sector, he came to this region 16-17 years ago, in a bid to buy hilly land. Son of a former high official in the forest department, Amzad was born in Habiganj. Sagar Sabbir is from the same district as well.
Tasar Ali lives in a corner of the resort with his family. Talking to us, he said he has been working for the Garo Hills Tea Company from the very beginning. In fact, it was he who managed to buy 50 acres of hilly land for Amzad. The unfinished Banorani Resort is being constructed on one acre of that land.
"Land was cheap when sir [Amzad] bought them, Tk3 lakh per acre," said Tasar.
Sitting next to him, Sagar added, "I came here two years ago. Prior to that I used to work at a garment [factory], owned by Amzad sir."
A bit later, tea farmer Rafiq Bangali joined us. He cultivated tea on about three kathas of land under the direct supervision of Garo Hills Tea Co.
The tea company began its journey in 2018, with land brought from local Bangalis and a few Garo families. Currently, the company has 19 small tea gardens under its supervision.
In the last few years, with efforts from the Bangladesh Tea Board, tea cultivation is gaining popularity. Plans for tea cultivation in Sherpur, Greater Mymensingh and Muktagacha have been submitted to the Ministry of Planning.
The project named "Expansion of small-scale tea cultivation in Greater Mymensingh" is waiting for approval. The Tk74 crore project was supposed to start from January 1 this year, but has been delayed on account of some changes. The project is due to end on December 21, 2025.
Under the project, tea will be cultivated on 231 acres of land in Sherpur.
From the Bangladesh Tea Board, its Deputy Director Mohammad Ali, Senior Scientific Officer of Agriculture Department Dr Mohammad Masud Rana, Senior Scientific Officer of Entomology Department Dr Mohammad Shamim Al Mamun, Scientific Officer of Soil Science Department Naeem Mostafa Ali and Assistant Development Officer Md Moniruzzaman have inspected the activities of Garo Hills Tea Company on several occasions.
They have also examined the soil in the tea gardens and identified the forested areas of Ghajini, Bakakura and Sreevardi in Jhenaigati as suitable for tea gardens.
Sabbir said Garo Hills Tea Company's tea processing factory will be set up beside Banorani Resort.
Later, after talking to Tea Board Planning Division Head Munir Ahmed, I came to know there is a possibility of small-scale tea cultivation on 15,645 acres of land in 15 upazilas of five districts in greater Mymensingh.
According to the Tk 74-crore-proposal, awaiting approval in the ministry, if 15,645 acres of land are brought under tea cultivation, 16.37 million kgs of tea will be produced annually in this region.
On behalf of Garo Hills Tea Company, Rafiq Bangali - the head of the committee for motivating Bengalis and Garos to cultivate tea - is cultivating tea on three kathas of land.
He said four Garo families have been interested in cultivating tea and many more are expected to follow them.
Another tea farmer Md Azizul Haque, 75, who is cultivating tea on 8 kathas of land, said, "I am cultivating tea because there will be a [tea] factory here. We can sell our tea there."
Tasar Ali of Garo Hills Tea Company said 13,000 hectares of land suitable for tea cultivation will be added to the land owned by Bengalis in Sherpur. This is collectorate land and most of it is high and in the forest, which has been used for jhum cultivation by Garo-Kuch for many decades.
Munir Ahmed told me over the phone that there would be tea gardens on farmers' land but he does not know about the khas land.
Sabbir Sagar said Bengalis are more interested in tea cultivation than Garos.
Kanu Ram, one of the four Garo tea gardeners, planted tea on 17 decimals of land near his house.
"I have been cultivating tea for three years. I am now a little frustrated about what to do with tea as there is no way to process tea here," he said.
Amjad Hossain Phoenix, managing director of Garo Hills Tea Company and the main entrepreneur of tea cultivation in the hilly areas of the greater Mymensingh region informed that 27,000 improved varieties of tea saplings have been distributed to local farmers for commercial tea cultivation.
The planting of tea saplings started on 29 April 2018. In the meantime, six farmers in Sreevardi of Sherpur, three in Nalitabari, 13 in Jhenaigati, four in Nakla and one farmer in Muktagacha of Mymensingh have started tea cultivation on 5.31 acres of land, he added.
If this initiative is successful, the regional office of the Tea Board will be set up in the Mymensingh region.
However, I cannot throw the thought of the collectorate land out of my mind. History says that all plantations, for example, sugar, tea, etc. start with a golden dream but later locals lose their land and become labourers on their own land.
Garo, Hajong, Kuch have been foresters and jhum farmers for many centuries. The question of where the tea gardens will take them always concerns me.