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03 Sep 2020

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The Bokeo Tea cooperative: The ongoing fight for the futures of ethnic communities

Posted03 Sep 2020

The Bokeo Tea cooperative: The ongoing fight for the futures of ethnic communities

The Bokeo Province in Lao PDR’s North-West, is predominantly populated by ethnic groups such as the Hmong, Khmu, Akha and Lahu. Despite having occupied the forest areas for generations, many communities face challenges of ownership to their ancestral lands today. The remote, mountainous location often leaves them disconnected from a modernizing world and the rural communities typically have a high rate of poverty. A lack of options for local, sustainable livelihoods lead the youth to migrate to urban environments for education and work.

The jungles of Bokeo are host to an exotic and diverse ecosystem. In the home of shrieking black-gibbons and exotic botany can be found some of the world’s most ancient tea trees. Tea trees which have stood tall for over 1000 years and have been harvested for their unique tea for generations. Owing exceptional taste and health benefits to its growth in the natural and undisturbed environment, Laos wild tea is an increasingly sought-after commodity. The tea has the potential to be marketed globally as a boutique product, particularly to bordering China, and more recently to France, Switzerland and Canada. While demand for craft tea continues to grow, the business potential for this product is only recently becoming known to Bokeo’s locals. This is a big change in livelihood practice from previously relied on slash and burn techniques of agricultural crop rotation, that, for many years, has been a contributor to deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

According to a 2014 World Bank Poverty Profile in Lao PDR[i] Bokeo has a poverty rate of 44.4 percent, the second highest in Laos, having increased by 12% from 2008. It is common for large scale land concessions to be awarded for foreign investment in agriculture in Laos, in 2019 there was nearly US$50 million foreign investment in agriculture across the nation[ii]. Phounyakha mountain, the location of the forests where native tea trees grow, came under threat from Chinese investors seeking to develop the community forest land into banana plantations, an emerging trend in the Bokeo province[iii] making up 95% of Bokeo’s exports[iv] following a crash in the value of rubber from 2010-2015[v]. A rent-up-front payment scheme and contract jobs on the banana plantation for the villagers was offered in return for access to develop the forest. For many impoverished villagers, offers such as this, are too attractive to refuse.

The location of Boeko Province and Meung district in North-West Laos.

Maeying Huamjai Phattana (MHP, Women Mobilising for Development) is a female-owned non-profit NGO that was established in Bokeo. They work to support ethnic women leaders, to protect the environment and to develop income generation. MHP director Ms Vansy has been coordinating an investment in a tea processing factory for a group of six upland villages in the Meung district. Despite creating jobs, it was failing to develop as a sustainable business which could support the broader community. The provincial authorities have the power to approve foreign investment and initially they favoured the banana plantation development plans. The prospect of guaranteed job creation for the poor communities was considered a low-risk option. MHP worked hard to convince villagers that the banana plantation offered only a short-sighted solution to community poverty. Deforesting the land in preparation for the banana farm is significantly detrimental to the area’s biodiversity and the ecology of the landscape. Furthermore, commercial banana farming by Chinese owned businesses in Laos, use strong pesticides which not only cause rapid soil degradation and river pollution[vi] but have been found to also cause severe medical consequences for workers without adequate protection[vii]. Through advocacy provided by MHP staff and volunteers in Mueng District, villages agreed that sourcing ancient tea leaves from the forests could not be taken for granted and the forests needed protecting.

With pressure mounting on provincial councils from foreign Chinese investors, the ultimatum was set: If the tea factory could not develop into a viable business, the community forest lands, including the ancient tea trees within the forests, would be forfeited to the Chinese investors. This would relinquish villages rights to a potential sustainable long-term source of income that remained in their control. At this critical juncture, the Mekong Region Land Governance project (MRLG) joined with MHP to support efforts in developing the local tea enterprise. However, attaining secure tenure required official recognition from the Laos government that the villager’s collection of the tea was part of a viable business and the provincial authorities were yet to be convinced. MRLG funded efforts to gain customary recognition of the forest area and support to the tea business development from October 2017 to June 2018. The initiative’s mission: to prove the value of the tea cooperative, gain recognition as a sustainable business from the local authority and secure the tenure of their land and the ancient tea forests. No small feat.

The Bokeo Tea logo and a village participatory planning session.

The development of the tea initiative started with planning sessions within each village. Another project working closely was The Agrobiodiversity project (TABI) who were engaged by MHP to help with village consultations and field assessments. Through a participatory mapping process, long-standing intra-community disputes were resolved, village boundaries were agreed upon and recorded to prevent future conflict over land.  In one instance, new maps were drafted to prevent one village’s shifting cultivation from encroaching on another villages protected area. Peace between the neighboring villages allows the community to move forward together to optimize their land. Surveys of the ancient tea forests established areas for each village to harvest. By documenting the quantity and size of the tea trees, productivity could be calculated and vitally, it provided the traceability needed for a rainforest alliance certification. Food safety certification training provided from Thai consultants prepared the way for the cooperative to meet ISO (International Standards Organisation), GMP (Good manufacturing Practice) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis And Critical Control Point) export standards as required in the EU, US and Australia for the import of tea.

A wild tea harvester scaling an ancient tea tree.

A tea expert, recruited from Sri Lanka, helped to identify exotic tea varieties including red, black and white and the valuable and rare strains hairy tip, silver tip and green matcha tea. Ms Vansy, described the tea expert’s first excursion into the ancient tea forest where he identified the scarce hairy tip tea, unknown to the locals. The hairy tip tea variety is now the cooperatives most valuable product, marketed as a rare and boutique tea with exclusive health-benefits. Tea production was then channeled into two main categories: wild tea and garden tea. The wild tea was harvested from the ancient tea forests outside of the village areas. No maintenance is performed for the wild tea. It is left to grow naturally, collected by daring pickers who scale the trees some standing more than 20m high.

The alternative, garden tea, is produced in tea gardens within each village on the side of mountains. Despite holding a lower value than wild tea, developing village tea gardens meant an increase in the quantity of produce and accessibility for tea pickers. Unlike wild tea, tea gardens require ongoing maintenance. The tea expert conducted training sessions to improve practices of pruning and clipping, removing dormant buds and promoting growth. Alongside training, awareness-raising workshops were conducted in the 6 villages, understanding the value of the tea was vital for getting support for the business model. The wild tea could be sold for a far higher profit margin than other varieties. Still, its value was not only in its rarity, the global market that sought this high-end tea was also buying it for the natural conditions in which it is harvested. If just one villager used a pesticide a whole harvest could be contaminated. It was, therefore, essential to show the value of the product was in its natural conditions of growth.

Accountable business practice, transparency, efficiencies and logistics all had to be learned by locals as the business grew. For a small remote community, marketing was essential and understanding what packaging would help to penetrate international markets requires expert assistance. In the early stages of production, Bokeo Tea was also introduced domestically in a retail shop opened by MHP in the nearby town of provincial capital of Houayxay.

As the business developed, it began to provide a reliable source of income for an increasing number of villagers. A final report of the MRLG funding found that across the 6 villages 573 households and 609 families will have benefited from the initiative. The provincial authorities found that the potential of foreign investment in the land no longer outweighed the value of the tea production enterprise. With this backing, the villages communal rights to harvest tea were officially recognised with certificates of NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Product) use issued from the PAFO (Provincial Agriculture and Forest Office) communally to the 6 villages. The certificates secure the rights for villagers to continue sustainably harvesting the wild tea. The forest area in which are the ancient tea trees are found was formally recognised as a National Production Forest preventing private companies from renting or being granted a land concession on the area. The Village tea gardens have also been recognised with collective agriculture land use certificates. The villager’s long-term futures were secured, and the ancient tea trees were saved.

In avoiding contract farm jobs offered by foreign investment, the villages established self-determination for their livelihoods. The autonomy from a steady income has been particularly beneficial for women who constitute a large proportion of the tea leaf harvesters. Women who work picking tea receive direct payment daily. Post-project research found that this allowed them much more control of spending, increasing spending on food, health and children’s education. Larger lump sum incomes such as those from seasonal cash crops or the sale of cattle typically put money into the pocket of the male of the household. A Further benefit for women is the flexible work the cooperative provides. The accessibility of tea gardens in every village reduces the cost of travelling for work and gives the option for women to work part of the day if they have families to care for.

Boutique ‘Hairy tip’ tea and workers processing tea leaves

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 Pandemic has been catastrophic for business. Ms Vansy shared with us some of the recent developments with Bokeo Tea. Due to travel restrictions, the cooperative missed out on a big deal with a French buyer who cancelled plans to visit the factory and sign an order. Restrictions on export mean the Bokeo Tea cooperative cannot receive or fill orders leaving no choice but to cease production. The ripple effect reaches out to the village workers who cannot be paid for their produce. With many of the workers now facing life with no income, the threat of foreign investment once again looms. Chinese businessmen have returned. They are re-visiting the villages to rally support to establish a banana plantation. It is feared by MHP colleagues that if the factory cannot become operational again soon, then the communities will turn to foreign investment as a desperate and risky solution.

The Bokeo tea cooperative puts all income into developing the factory or paying workers, so it is unsurprising that the new venture had no safety net to help the business survive a disaster like COVID-19. According to Ms Vansy, the cooperative is not receiving any help from the Laos Government to support their business, risking all the progress achieved so far.

The lack of government support for the upland communities contrasts efforts to boost Bokeo’s economy through the introduction of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) ‘The Golden Triangle’, a 3000 hectare duty-free area, which since its establishment in 2007 has attracted over USD86 million of investment[viii]. The SEZ is a microcosm of Chinese investment, employment and tourism, 80% owned by a private Chinese company and 20% the Government of Laos. However, despite massive investment, the benefits have not been widespread throughout the province[ix]and the area bordering Myanmar and China, has become notoriously known as a ‘Jungle Vegas’[x] conducive to human, drug and animal trafficking. Despite, the government policies promoting small and medium enterprises in Laos[xi], the discrepancy between the ‘Golden Triangle’ SEZ in Bokeo and the remote ethnic communities is stark and calls into question the ethics of Bokeo’s economic development.

Small businesses such as the Bokeo Tea cooperative will struggle to endure the pandemic especially against mounting pressure of foreign investors that have much deeper pockets, with far less socially and environmentally responsible investment practices. The big question is whether or not governments will protect the national interests, especially those of small domestic business owners that put poverty reduction and sustainability first.

 

References

[i] http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/868521467998508506/pdf/100120-WP-P146141-PUBLIC-Box393225B-Poverty-Profile-in-Lao-PDR-publication-version-12-19-14.pdf

[ii] http://investlaos.gov.la/images/Statistics/rpt_Invest_Summary_Sector1A_2019.pdf

[iii] https://chinadialogue.net/en/food/11572-chinese-banana-plantations-bring-work-and-pollution-to-laos-2/

[iv] https://plan-international.org/publications/rights-and-gender-justice-lao-workers-chinese-banana-plantations

[v] https://data.opendevelopmentmekong.net/dataset/0f57f662-5932-470c-8d9a-8b2dc2df947f/resource/ec25e158-2df4-4221-8de5-5013b0a8097f/download/FT-MRLG-Inception-Report—Annex-5a-Lao-Rubber-Study.pdf

[vi] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/laos/farms-05152020152519.html

[vii] https://www.mekongeye.com/2018/05/31/lao-banana-workers-sickened-by-chemicals-used-on-farms/

[viii] http://investlaos.gov.la/where-to-invest/special-economic-zone-sez/4/

[ix] http://www.mekongcommons.org/laos-vegas-rolling-dice-rural-development/

[x] https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/1846084/jungle-vegas-how-chinas-gamblers-are-pouring-casino-laos

[xi] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-06/28/c_137286506.htm

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