Feature Story

Embracing the benefits of "green" tea: Farmers call time on unsustainable practices

June 12, 2017

Hapugastenne estate, tea farm in Sri Lanka
In the central mountains of Sri Lanka, years of pesticide and fertilizer use have degraded lands used for tea production. A UN Environment-implemented, GEF-funded project seeks to improve land management by changing mindsets and educating farmers whose livelihoods depend on the land.

Sri Lankan tea farmer Saman Udayakumara, a community leader in Sri Lanka’s Central Mountains, used to get rid of the weeds on his small tea farm by spraying them with herbicides. He also used a lot of chemical fertilizer. But he was puzzled. Despite his hard work and good rainfall, his tea yields were declining each year.

Then, a few years ago, the Rainforest Alliance introduced him to the idea that indiscriminately dousing weeds with expensive herbicide was good neither for his profits nor his tea crop.

“We have completely stopped using herbicides for the past two years, and reduced chemical fertilizers from 15,650 kg in 2013 to just 4,400 kg in 2016,” says Udayakumara. “This has benefited tea production and reduced my costs by 30 per cent. It has also been a strong incentive to start improving the quality of life in our village.” He and his fellow villagers now selectively destroy the most noxious weeds by hand or mechanically, and allow others to thrive.

“Poor farming and land management practices started in colonial times, when the soils of tea estates were initially healthy and productive. But the practice of removing all weeds and natural vegetation to make the plantations clean and sterile had a serious downside,” says UN Environment expert Max Zieren.

The excessive use of herbicides by tea farmers has led to a drop in tea production in the region due to soil degradation, soil compaction and soil erosion: When you remove benign weeds that provide a natural layer of soil protection you also lose an organic fertilizer, as well as beneficial fungi, bacteria and worms. The situation is made worse by the toxic effect of herbicides on soil organisms.

“What we have learned is that, all over Sri Lanka, tea farms and large tea estates with degraded soils appear to be more susceptible to natural and climate change-induced drought, such as we saw in the dry seasons of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017,” says Giri Kadurugamuwa, Director of the Alliance for Sustainable Landscapes Management in Sri Lanka.

“In the days we used chemicals, these tea bushes used to wilt during the drought and there were times we stopped work due to the lack of crop,” says Udayakumara, who has been managing his tea farm for 19 years. “However, our group of farms was able to continue plucking this year during the drought when all in the vicinity had stopped plucking, and amazingly we see [wilting] much less now. This, I believe, is due to the ground cover, healthier soils and productive tea bushes with deep root systems.”

Learn more about Sri Lankan tea farming in this slideshow.

A tea plucker works on Saman Udayakumara's tea farm. Udayakumara is a small farm owner & community leader who has seen firsthand the benefits in reducing the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

Where’s the money coming from?

Attempting to change mindsets and educate people on sustainable tea production, and land management more generally, costs money.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is helping to fund the Sustainable Tea Landscapes project in China, India, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam to bring about such change. The Rainforest Alliance is leading the $14-million project; other key partners include Tea Technologies Outsourcing (India), the Alliance for Sustainable Landscapes Management (Sri Lanka), Good Wood in Rainforest Consultancy (China), and VECO, an international non-governmental organization in Viet Nam. Key support comes from governments, as well as corporate and civil society partners such as the Sri Lankan Tea Smallholding Development Authority, Unilever, and Kirin Holdings (a Japanese beverage company).

UN Environment’s role is to supervise the project and assist in communicating project results. Following a recent media trip to Sri Lanka, 19 national and international media outlets reported on sustainable tea practices.

The GEF project takes a twin-track approach. First, it aims to reduce land degradation in tea landscapes by building the capacity of 30,000 farmers and catalysing industry and government leaders to adopt or support better farming practices. These include “herbicide-free weed management”, maintaining adequate natural vegetation in and around farms, and protecting water sources.

Second, the project is bringing together local government, villages, tea farmers, estate firms and others to discuss and plan for better land management in a wider landscape context beyond individual tea farms.  This “landscape approach” is being introduced in Darjeeling, India and Sri Lanka.

Thanks to the project, trained farmers in Sri Lanka now keep records of their tea crop, fertilizer use, costs and wildlife observed. Over 90 per cent of the 14,000 farmers trained under the project keep good records, says Kadurugamuwa.

All photos © Max Zieren/UN Environment

This story was originally published by UN Environment