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Mount Ali Tea Plantations

Farewell, Monoculture


After Typhoon Morakot triggered massive landslides last summer, Taiwan's tea farmers have begun to rethink their relationship with nature, interspersing trees among their tea plants to benefit the soil and the local ecosystem.



Farewell, Monoculture

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 450 )

"On August 7 last year I went to my tea plantation to apply fertilizer. When it began to rain in the afternoon, I thought, 'That's great, we'll get a very good quality winter tea this year and a very high yield.' I even continued to spread fertilizer despite getting soaked by the rain. When I got up the next day, I saw that the small creek opposite my home had swollen into a torrential river. So I rushed to my tea plantation, where I couldn't believe my eyes: The entire plantation had been washed away in a landslide. I was so numb, I couldn't even cry. Two days later the entire mountain shifted. My tea factory was lifted up and sank back into the debris again. My father had started this business from scratch thirty years ago, working hard for 15 years before he was able to build this tea factory. Then it came into my hands, and I spent another 15 years expanding the business and enlarging the buildings. My father and I struggled for thirty years, and then everything was completely gone."

Although ten months have passed since the typhoon struck southern Taiwan, for Taihe Village in Jiayi County's Meishan Township on the slopes of Mount Ali, and for 44-year-old tea farmer Kuo Chun-nan, it seems to have happened yesterday.

The shifting mountain moved Kuo's tea factory by 40 meters. Two months ago Kuo had no choice but to tear it down, because his septuagenarian mother broke into tears whenever she walked past it.

Kuo continued to plant tea, renting someone else's tea fields, but he let his own plantation stand in ruin on the crumbled mountain slope, no longer weeding or fertilizing. Much to his surprise, the tea leaves in the abandoned plantation grew well and in abundance. Kuo picked some of his Jinsyuan tea leaves, worked them between his palms into a roll, fermented them and brewed them into handmade black tea. The flavor was aromatic and delicately sweet.

"Maybe God wanted to give me a chance to take good care of my land and to create another business," Kuo says with a smile.

"But it hurts," Kuo's wife Huang Bai-chun quickly chips in as she rushes in and out of the living room with boiling water for the next pot of tea.

If it wasn't for the typhoon – the biggest disaster in a century for southern Taiwan – the tea farmers on Mount Ali would not have even considered changing the monoculture tea cultivation that they had used for the past three decades.

Yet now that its detrimental effects had become so painfully obvious, they began to plant trees inside their tea plantations.

"Tea farmers used to hate all other plants – flowers, grass, trees – because they were seen as stealing nutrients from the tea plants, negatively affecting yields and quality," notes artist Lin Chun-yung, who promotes a tree planting program in Taihe. It was nearly impossible for tea farmers and trees to co-exist, Lin recalls. For them, planting trees in top-quality soil was like planting an orchard in a luxury residential district in downtown Taipei.

For years Lin and other environmentalists patiently tried to persuade local tea farmers to abandon monoculture, yet their advice fell on deaf ears. The farmers just couldn't accept the idea that planting trees would help protect the tea plantations. However, last year's typhoon floods literally swept away their stubborn resistance.

Taihe Village has some 300 families, 90 percent of whom make a living from growing tea. Annual production is worth almost NT$300 million. In the past "Mount Ali Qingxin Oolong Tea" cultivated on tea plantations on the area's moderate mountain slopes fetched NT$1,800 per catty. But as Chung Yung-feng, a former head of the Cultural Affairs Department of Jiayi County, explains, due to the excessive use of fertilizer, the tea plants developed shallow roots, which negatively affected water and soil conservation. Environmentalists have estimated that every catty of mountain tea incurs social costs of more than NT$10,000.

Environmental organizations have long been criticizing tea cultivation in mountain areas for its destructive effects on the ecosystem. In the wake of Typhoon Morakot, everyone is blaming the mountain tea plantations. But the tea farmers in Taihe are not willing to throw in the towel and bow to public criticism. Instead, they are planting trees to reverse their negative image.

When he came to Taihe two years ago as an artist-in-residence, ceramicist Tsai Chiang-lung arrived in the village as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," planning to expose the truth about the environmental destruction caused by mountain tea plantations. But after living with the locals for a while, Tsai discovered that except for tea monoculture, the local residents' lifestyle was quite soft on the environment. They saved electricity, recycled or reused materials, collected rainwater, composted kitchen waste and engaged in subsistence farming. He thought that cultivating tea in the mountains would not pose as much of an environmental hazard as everyone thought if trees were planted in the plantations to improve soil and water conservation.

Taking Care of the Environment, and Business

Subsequently, Tsai, who has headed the Jiayi chapter of environmental NGO The Society of Wilderness, held classes in the village to help the tea farmers understand the relationship between farming and the ecosystem and to introduce them to different kinds of trees. He told them that tea plants can coexist with trees and even benefit from such an arrangement, because the trees help retain soil moisture. As a result the tea plants' roots will grow deeper, helping to hold back the soil, while fallen leaves act as a protective layer and also fertilize the soil.

"Tea plantations that are green have a balanced ecological relationship. There are birds, insects, tea plants and trees. It's possible to look after both the environment and business," Tsai observes. In the wake of the typhoon disaster, the tea farmers on Mount Ali were willing to plant different trees such as the stout camphor tree, Taiwanese incense cedar and the Buddhist pine.

Experts from the farmer's association's tea marketing group have been making the rounds at local tea plantations to convince farmers to free up land for trees. Twenty-two tea farmers in Taihe have decided to join a tree planting program, opening up a dozen privately owned tea plantations which account for about one tenth of overall tea cultivation acreage. About 5,000 trees are scheduled to be planted there this year.

"We treasure this piece of land more than anyone else. It's our lifeblood," says Kuo as he gets ready with shovel and hoe to plant a Taiwanese incense cedar sapling on his tea plantation.

Chung, who currently works in Taipei, knows every tea farmer on the mountain. He visits the area to take a look at the tea plants and the trees whenever he has some spare time.

Chung has observed that the local farmers are making great efforts to find a new path, both in their thinking and in their vocation. "It's not the path of selfishness and self-interest, but a path that extends the life of the community, industry and the land," he says. "They're taking concrete action to respond to the typhoon disaster, to protect the industry's image and the full integrity of each tea farmer."

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz