Monday, February 20, 2017

One man and his tea

By:  Dr. Margaret Jones Williams, Vientiane Times, February 4, 2017

This story starts in 2008. On a misty morning, Phasi, a local farmer of Ngodphae village, in the northern Lao province of Xieng Khuang, climbed Phou San, a mountain close to his village. Huddled in a fleece jacket against the chill of the morning, he ascended higher and higher on the slopes.

Collecting dewdrops on the tips of his fingers, his hands brushed the low shrubs by his feet as he was panting up the mountain. Stopping cold in his tracks, he suddenly bowed down, close to one of the light-green plants by his feet. In an affectionate gesture, he stroked the top of the Camellia sinensis bush, turning the branches around to see whether the pointed leaves bore the secret he was looking for. A smile crumpled up his weather-worn face, as he gently tugged a reddish-brown fruit off the tip of the branch.

"When we were small, my sister and I walked up the slopes behind our house to sit and play in the wild tea shrubs. We loved the fresh scent of the budding leaves, the view from the mountain and the breeze that carried the sounds of the village up to us. Sometimes, we would pick a few leaves and chew on them, comparing the taste of different bushes. My love for these plants has grown with me as I aged into adulthood," Phasi smiles.

The soft-spoken man kept collecting fruits from the wild tea bushes and shelled enough thumbnail-sized seeds out of them to grow 800 seedlings, which he planted on an area that eventually grew into 10,000 tea bushes and three hectares. "I get advice from my sister, who has become a real professional in collecting and germinating the seeds. Also, I have participated in study tours to spark more ideas and learn techniques," Phasi says.

Phasi's love for tea has inspired others. Today, he is the leader of five tea-growing groups, involving 63 families. Newcomers to the tea business often visit his family's well-kept tea garden, where they seek advice on details of cultivation and production.

Phasi is unfazed by the effect his tea business has had on his village. "Of course people are earning more income by selling their tea. But this is just a side product for me. What really counts is that we are using these ancient plants in a way that does not disturb our beautiful environment and strengthens our bodies at the same time."

In fact, Ngodphae has seen dwindling numbers of poor households, much of it directly related to Phasi's initiatives. Today, Phou San's tea cultivating area covers about 250 hectares and is expected to grow stronger with Laos' government promoting the region as the homeland of tea cultivation. Since starting the business in 2008, Phasi's family has gained an additional income of about 70 million kip, the equivalent of about US$8,400, while producing 654kg of processed tea.

Camellia sinensis var.assamica , the wild tea species at home in Laos, is a unique part of the local biodiversity. These tea plants in their natural forest habitat are often called "ancient tea" as they can become over 400 years of age while retaining their excellent flavour and scent. Wild tea trees can grow to a height of 15-20 metres, whereas the cultivated bushes in tea gardens are usually kept at less than one metre.

By organising farmer-to-farmer visits, carrying out forest surveys and by funding new nurseries, the wild tea farmers of Ngodphae have been supported by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, UNDP and FAO, with funds from the Global Environment Facility.

Forests around the village containing wild tea plants used for collection of seeds have been protected since 2014. The marriage of protecting the diversity of local species with introducing agricultural practices that help lift families out of poverty is successful, and home-grown. New approaches, like organising touristic visits to the tea gardens, help create new market channels.

"Marketing is not my cup of tea," laughs Phasi, "so I am glad we tea farmers have help for that now. My favourite pastime is still to walk up the slopes, sit down amongst my plants, chew on a few tea leaves and enjoy the view, knowing that nature does most of the work for me."

FACT BOX

The wild tea plant Camelliasinensisvar. assamica, an evergreen shrub, has had a strong connection to the southern, eastern and south-eastern parts of Asia. Tea consumption dates back to the Chinese Shang Dynasty (1556-1046 BC), where it was enjoyed as a medicinal drink, becoming fashionable among the British much later, who introduced tea to many other parts of the world. In Laos, the production and trade of tea started during the Lane Xang Kingdom, but cultivation picked up substantively in the beginning of this century due to an increasing demand from China. This resulted in a ten-fold increase in Laos' tea cultivation areas in the short timeframe of the last 10 years.

--This story is attributed by Dr. Margaret Jones Williams, Environment Unit Manager, UNDP Lao PDR.

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