“The Meung District tea project was going well and contributes to the regular income of farmers. We were in a good stage, but when the pandemic happened everything has changed. We are concerned that with these economic hardship, the wild tea forest may again be at risk from encroachment for conventional banana farming,” Ms. Vansy Senyavong, the director of Maeying Houamjai Phathana (MHP), shares.
Bokeo is a mountainous province in Northern Laos with high population of ethnic minorities, including Hmong, Khmu, Akha and Lahu. Tea is grown by some households and many collects tea leaves from natural forest of very rare, old growth “1,000 years” variety of tea trees. However, not all of the farmers are aware of the potential of the high value wild tea species and often these naturally growing varieties are being destroyed during the rotational swidden rice farming cycles.
Due to its border location with China, there is intense agri-business investment in the area. These investment may have increased the earning potential of community labourers but it has also resulted in numerous social and environmental impacts and threats to local livelihoods. Chinese investors came to the villages with offers that seemed too good to refuse. They wanted to rent a large area of tea forest to establish monoculture banana plantations. The villagers would not only receive rent up-front, but they would have work on the plantations as well. The provincial government have great difficulty balancing between promoting local ownership of the wild tea area against the pressures from the investors and the potential income opportunities for villagers through agricultural investment.
The local NGO, Maeying Huamjai Phattana (MHP) which translate to Women Mobilizing for Development in English, is working in the area and recognised these threats to the ethnic people. MHP helped the local communities possible solutions to sustainably address their problems. MHP helped the villagers to form the tea cooperative and linking the products to domestic and international markets.
From October 2017 to June 2018, MRLG funded MHP to support 6 highland ethnic communities through the Quick Disbursement Fund. The goal was to help the villagers secure their rights to the wild tea trees forest, increase sustainable use of forest resources, minimise dependence on harmful agro-investment, and improve personal and family land management. The support included assisting the tea cooperative to develop their business plan.
With the technical assistance from Agro-Biodiversity Initiative Project (TABI) on land tenure, land use planning and land use management the ethnic communities in six (6) villages successfully worked with local authorities to secure government agreements that recognized communal land use rights including the rights to non-timber forest products (NTFP’s) and to protect the wild tea trees forest for their sustainable use.
The cooperative has started to contribute to reducing poverty among the ethnic farmers. They produce tea products ranging from green, black, red varieties to boutique products such as hairy tip, silver tip and mao-cha tea. The quality meets standards for international markets, attracting buyers from France, Canada, Switzerland, China and Sri Lanka.
However, since the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in most countries, the cooperative has been unable to ship the orders overseas. Potential buyers from France were planning to visit the cooperative and sign the contract in May 2020, but it was canceled. The cooperative had to temporarily close its tea factory and stop buying tea leaves from farmers. While some farmers are able to sell their tea to Chinese factories, the demand during the rainy season is low since summertime tea leaves is preferred for production of the mao-cha tea.