20 Jun 2018 Story Climate change

Greening Vietnam’s tea industry

UN Environment / Lisa Murray

How sustainable farming is turning the tables for Vietnamese tea growers

The act of drinking tea is a key part of many of Vietnam’s social rituals and interactions. As a commodity, tea is also one of the country’s most important exports. But in recent years, unpredictable, heavy downpours and overuse of agrochemicals have led to poor quality crops, low yields and a decline in the reputation of Vietnamese tea within the global export market.

But now, with the help of UN Environment and partners, Vietnamese tea growers have begun to turn the situation around, resulting in an impressive adoption of sustainable farming techniques and a 30 percent increase in average income in only two years.

Thanh has been growing tea since 1983. Her two children grew up among the tea bushes. Tea has always been Thanh’s primary income source and the six cyclical harvests she reaps throughout the year have become integral to the rhythms of family life. Standing amidst the perfectly straight rows of tea plants covering her two-hectare plantation, she explains the devastating effects of heavy rainfall on her smallholding in past years.

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Using fewer chemicals has increased demand for Vietnamese tea from international buyers – and brought a welcome boost to growers’ livelihoods. Photo by UN Environment / Lisa Murray

 “When the rain came, the topsoil – the fertile layer – just washed away. We were left with only rocks and stones; nothing could grow.”

Climate change has led to increased heavy rainfall and flooding in this region of northern Vietnam; those farmers who are unlucky enough to grow on steep gradients without sufficient tree cover have had to cope with frequent landslides and severe crop damage due to soil erosion. Like most other tea farmers in her commune, Thanh’s previous reliance on herbicides and pesticides meant her crops fell short of international trading standards.Her heavy chemical use was also damaging the  soil  she and her family depend on – killing off beneficial organisms along with pests, resulting in reduced organic matter and poor soil drainage capacity. These poor natural resource management techniques contributed to the widespread water contamination threatening livelihoods throughout Vietnam’s Central and Northern Highlands.

The scale of this land degradation challenge and its impact on tea farmers around Asia prompted UN Environment to collaborate with The Rainforest Alliance to establish the Sustainable Tea Production Landscapes project. Since 2014, the Global Environment Facility-funded initiative has been working across five of Asia’s best-known tea-producing regions – Darjeeling and Assam (India), Yunnan (China), lowland Sri Lanka and Vietnam – educating smallholder farmers and large estate tea growers on the dangers of land degradation and training them in sustainable farming and land management techniques.

While the project’s environmental aims are to protect and restore soil fertility, enhance carbon sequestration and conserve the biodiversity found in tea production landscapes, it also aims to secure farmers’ livelihoods by reducing their vulnerability to climate-related crop failure – an aim that is already bearing fruit.

Since she began implementing sustainable farming techniques after receiving training from the project, Thanh’s family income has doubled, and the nearby tea factory is willing to pay more for her crops due to their improved quality.

“We’ve stopped using herbicides completely,” she says, explaining how she now uses organic methods to control pests and boost the soil’s nutrients. “I’ve learnt to apply mulch and grow hedges, so that natural ecosystems can work against pests; we also intercrop tea with legumes, which replenish and fix the nitrogen into the soil.”

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“We’ve stopped using herbicides completely”: Thanh is one of thousands of Vietnamese tea farmers who have embraced sustainable farming. Photo by UN Environment / Lisa Murray

Thanh’s enthusiasm has also made her an excellent peer educator, and she has trained around 70 other tea growers in sustainable farming techniques to date. According to Rikolto, the project’s implementing partner in Vietnam, over 3,000 stakeholders from tea-producing communities, grower cooperatives and local government in Yen Bai, Lai Chau and Thai Nguyen provinces have been trained in alternatives to agrochemicals and effective soil management. Rikolto have used the Farmer Field School methodology, which focuses on learning through experience, capitalising on local knowledge and empowering growers to take ownership of land and soil issues. The curriculum also emphasises the importance of using compost and green manure, and of planting shade trees to keep temperature and moisture levels constant.

Today, Thanh’s fields are a lush, rich green. But it wasn’t always this way.

“Before I joined the project. The tea plants were small and red in colour due to malnutrition. Now, they look healthy because they are under the shade and getting what they need,” she says with a grin. “My yield has doubled!”

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The Mainstreaming Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes project is a is a $14 million Global Environment Facility-backed partnership between UN Environment, the Rainforest Alliance and partners in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and China

For more information on the Sustainable Tea Production Landscapes project, contact Max Zieren.