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Feature Story

A better cup of Vietnamese tea, from bush to brew

September 17, 2019

Woman walking through tea fields in Vietnam
Persistent land degradation in the highlands of Vietnam and its impact on tea farmers prompted the launch of the GEF-funded Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes project, an initiative aimed at restoring soil health and boosting productivity around Asia. Photo: UNEP/Lisa Murray.

For Thanh, the six annual tea harvests form the rhythm of family life, having raised her two children among the waist-high tea bushes that carpet the steamy slopes near her home in northern Vietnam’s Yen Bai province.

Today, Thanh is proud of the thick, green leaves her tea bushes produce, stretching in straight rows across her two-hectare plantation. But it wasn’t always this way.

Thanh has been growing tea for more than 25 years, but decades of poor soil management landed her in hot water. Her tea bushes turned into ragged stumps with thin, red leaves that failed international trading standards.

It’s a pattern seen throughout the tea-growing highlands of Vietnam, a nation where more than 30 per cent of all land is either already degraded or at risk of degradation—much of it due to unsustainable farming practices like the overuse of chemical fertilizers.

In recent years, climate change has brought unpredictable, heavy downpours, flooding and landslides, while the overuse of agrochemicals has resulted in low-quality crops, poor yields, contamination of water supplies and a decline in the reputation of Vietnamese tea within the global export market.

From sterile soil to healthy harvests

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

Farmers like Thanh had been using more and more agrochemicals in a futile attempt to fix the problems the chemicals themselves were causing; stripping away a complex natural web that provides fertilization, drainage and ground cover, while failing to treat most of the noxious weeds. The result? Expensive, sterile soil that washed away, crippling efforts to cultivate both tea and subsistence crops.

The scale of this land degradation challenge and its impact on tea farmers prompted the launch of the Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes project, an initiative aimed at restoring soil health and boosting productivity around Asia. In Vietnam, training activities were organized through local enterprises, such as Nghia Lo Tea Joint Stock Company, to equip farmers with the tools to nurse their soil and tea bushes back to health.

For Thanh, the impact has been nothing short of revolutionary, with the new techniques helping to improve the quality and size of her crop and doubling the family income.

“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 learned 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.”

Spreading knowledge, sharing success

Thanh and 23 others have gone on to train more than 3,000 farmers across the country’s tea-producing highlands, bringing over 1,500 hectares under sustainable land management and boosting incomes by around 30 per cent.

Nguyen Dinh Vinh, the director of Nghia Lo Tea Joint Stock Company, the main buyer of Thanh’s tea, says that poor tea yields and quality are now a thing of the past in Yen Bai, allowing the company to increase sales and access new markets.

“Now, the company sells its products more easily, more buyers approach us to buy our tea and our tea is sold at higher prices,” Vinh enthuses.

From bush to brew, it’s a cup of success everyone is enjoying.

“This practice is not costly and productivity is high,” Thanh says with a grin. “Now, my tea bushes look healthy because they are getting what they need.”

With global demand for tea growing at more than 2 per cent per year, the pressures on land for cultivation is increasing, just as the effects of climate change become ever-more extreme. Under the Global Environment Facility-funded Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes project, the UN Environment Programme, the Rainforest Alliance and partners are empowering tea growers to mitigate and reverse land degradation across four of the world’s major tea-producing nations—China, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Sustainable land management practices have so far been scaled up over more than 10,000 hecatres across the four countries, with reduced use of herbicides and pesticides improving soil health, stabilizing tea production and improving livelihoods for close to 28,000 tea farmers.

Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes is just one of more than 80 projects the UN Environment Programme has implemented with the backing of the Global Environment Facility in support of the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification and other efforts to bring a halt to the threat of land degradation globally. Focusing on the theme “Investing in Land, Unlocking Opportunities”, the 14th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification is taking place in Delhi, India from 2 to 14 September 2019.

This story, originally posted by UN Environment, is part of a series featured in the publication "Voices from the land: Restoring soil and enriching lives."