Thursday, January 31, 2013

Going organic

Dear readers,

It's been a long time I haven't posted, maybe being far from China kills my inspiration, I wish I could have fresh news to tell, brought directly from the fields of Xishuangbanna, I wish I could feel the dampness of Jinghong on my skin, breath the fragrant air of a banana plantation, walk through a misty tea garden in the morning... Since I came back to France, I have learned a lot of biology stuff, and I think many of the fundamental aspects that we study at university can find their use in a tea garden.

Unlike many farm products, tea stays in the field all year round, it requires long term planning. Decisions made today might have an impact for decades. Managing coffee, fruit, vine, cacao and tea plantations requires even more care than growing cereals.

What makes tea farming even more unique is that what we harvest the leaves. In most cases, we rather take the fruits or the seeds. As far as agronomy is concerned, this implies different management policies, therefore, tea farming is a body of knowledge in its own right.

I think there is a large room for improvement in the management of the tea gardens in Yunnan, and I also feel a willingness from the farmers to learn and do better. It seems that the traditional knowledge is being forgotten by the younger generations, or at least put aside...
For several decades, the use of pesticides was the rule of thumb, just like anywhere in the World. But nowadays, the bad side of agro-chemicals is more and more exposed to both the consumers and the producers. The consumer is worried about health issues, while the farmer is concerned about yield, selling price and sustainability.

Menghai market

Nowadays, going organic is a reasonable choice and many producers are considering this option, some of them have already done it. But in many cases, it seems they lack of technical support. While it is profitable for a pesticide producer to dispatch agronomists who will teach the farmer how to use chemicals, there is not much money to be made on teaching how to keep predators in a tea garden to avoid spending money on insecticide. Where there is no money, there is no will.

Eutrophication  due to fertilizer run-off, Erhai lake, Dali,Yunnan

Unfortunately, managing an organic tea garden requires even more knowledge than doing conventional farming. You need to know about ecology, population dynamics, natural cycles, nutrients management and many things related to your local environment.

I have a friend in the North of Menghai who is taking a course about hevea management, his village, allowed new land for rubber tree plantations, in other words, they burned several hills of rainforest to increase the villager's income (this is quite a poor area compared to the average of Xishuangbanna). Hevea is well known for consuming a lot of water, but when my friend asked the teacher if it could have any consequence on the groundwater reserves, the teacher just laughed at him, giving no explanation. It could be just another bad teacher, but the appalling fact is that water management is not even included in the training program; while at the same time, the tropical botanical garden of Xishuangbanna is writing several papers about the impact of rubber tree plantations on the local climate.

I believe change is possible, especially in Xishuangbanna, because people are not starving anymore, they have a choice to make. I don't consider the tea farmers as poor and exploited people, they are an actor of the society and as such, they have an influence on the economy and environment, they shape part of Yunnan's landscape. It affects tourism, biodiversity and tea economy; with such important responsibilities, they should be given the tools and keys to manage the land properly.

People love Nature, but its soft power is too often crushed by hard cash, only knowledge can reverse this trend.