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Greening Vietnam’s tea industry

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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

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.

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.”

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!”

UN Environment

Green Planet

Global Warming And The Future Of Food

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Kelp, a type of seaweed, can be fed to animals and could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unsplash/Shane Stagner

While there may be uncertainty as to the level of global warming, there is little to none about its reality and its anthropological basis.  Even if the warming ceased today, the accumulated energy in the system will continue to raise the average global temperature 0.2C per annum or 2C in a decade.

Add this inexorable rise to another, that is the continued increase in population, and scientists have been exploring foods that may fare better in the new environment.  The six below were the focus of a recent article in Science News (May 21, 2022).

For animal protein, mussels and other bivalves could comprise about 40 percent of our seafood by 2050.  Super-nutritious, they are also easier to scale up in production for the simple reason they do need to be watered or fertilized, or even require land, a scarce resource.  And unlike land-based aquaculture, it is not handicapped by environmental issues.

All in all, edible food from the sea has the potential for an estimated 36-74 percent increase to help feed the 9.8 billion people expected to be living on earth by 2050.

The United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets following a proposal by India.  A staple in parts of Asia and Africa, it is a hardy crop that is more resilient than wheat to climate change and can grow in poor soil.  It does not require as much water and thrives in a warmer, drier environment.  It can also be turned into beer.  The UN hopes the focus on it in 2023 will raise awareness, encourage global production and increase research investment and extension services.

The Bambara groundnut is native to sub-Saharan Africa.  A drought tolerant legume, it grows well in poor soil without the need for fertilizers.  Bacteria on the plant convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia making it self-sufficient in crucial nitrogen.  Like all legumes, it is rich in protein and is also a source of fiber and the minerals, iron, magnesium and potassium.  It is more drought tolerant than soybeans but has less yield per acre.  However in a warming, harsher climate, it could, unlike soybeans, continue to yield a decent legume crop.

Enset is native to Ethiopia.  Dubbed the false banana because it resembles a banana tree, its starchy stems can be harvested at any time of the year making it a reliable buffer food between crops.  Its processing though is complex and an indigenous art, so any expansion would necessarily have to be led by communities possessing that knowledge.

Cassava is a starchy root vegetable from South America noted for its tolerance to drought and salt.  An added plus is that higher atmospheric CO2 enhances its ability to withstand stress and can result in greater yields. 

Kelp grows in water and is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly iodine, calcium and iron.  Also, by taking in CO2 it of course aids the environment, but it also lowers the acidity of the water which helps bivalves.  Thus farmers in Maine tend to grow them together.  Kelp is eaten widely in Asia and dried sheets are common in sushi rolls even in the US. 

The above has been a brief summary of what some scientists foresee as food staples of the future.  It is also something to ponder for the rest of us. 

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Healthy planet needs ‘ocean action’ from Asian and Pacific countries

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As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk , internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

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Green Planet

The Human Price of Tea

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There is nothing quite like that first cup of tea (or coffee) in the morning.  The aroma swirls about in the nostrils and a sip of the hot brew, then another, quickly readies body and mind for the day that awaits. 

Whoever gives a thought to the long journey of the tea leaf from its birthplace to a kitchen in the West.  The tea bush is unusual in that it requires an abundance of water but not in its roots.  So it is grown on the windward side on foothills as in Darjeeling and Assam. 

The workers picking tea are mostly women because men prefer the harder work in the fields for it pays more.  The wages paid to the tea pickers can be illegally low, that is below the minimum wage requirements, and the workers dare not file any complaints because the wealthy landowners and tea merchants are too powerful. 

Since they are not earning a living wage, workers usually forage to supplement their diet relying on mushrooms and other edibles.  So it was (BBC report, May 20, 2022) that Anjali Kharia sat down with her daughter to a meal of mushrooms — a special treat thanks to her father-in-law Rajesh Kharia, who had found a good-sized lot in a nearby forest.  They were enough for his family plus friends and neighbors to share with, as is their custom.  

Unfortunately growing among their batch was a particularly tasty — and poisonous — variety indistinguishable from the rest.  And Anjali’s daughter Sushmita and others soon began to feel sick.  Many went to hospital including Anjali’s son and father-in-law.  Sushmita seemed to improve so everyone assumed she was over the worst. 

It was only a temporary respite for she soon started vomiting again, grew steadily worse and died.  They have been eating mushrooms for years; it is a treat and fairly regular part of their diet, and no one suspected the cause.  

Local officials say warnings are not heeded for they do not reach the illiterate workers.  In 2008, more than 20 people died from poisonous mushrooms, the highest numbers recorded.  Most were tea workers or their family members.  The government set up a panel to study the problem.  And there have been campaigns to teach people to distinguish the poisonous types. 

As long as Ms. Kharia is paid 130 rupees ($1.67) a day, far below the unenforced minimum wage, it is unlikely such problems will recede.  She has to feed a family of six.  There are public welfare schemes for the poor but Ms. Kharia says she has never received any free food grain rations.  Meanwhile, prices of vegetables and essential commodities continue to rise. 

It is not just tea.  From the 1906 Upton Sinclair book, “The Jungle,” an expose of the meatpacking industry to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” published just two decades ago, the problem may be revisited but U.S. meatpacking continues to remain a dangerous place to be.  A 2018 Guardian article’s headline “Two Amputations a Week” illustrates the point.

And tea pickers will have to forage as long as their government does not enforce minimum wage laws.  Fighting against entrenched economic interests is not just India’s problem. 

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