A cup of tea from the forest

Organic and more

For centuries ‘Ceylon tea’ has enchanted tea drinkers all over the world. Sri Lanka was the world number one tea producer. But as soils get increasingly exhausted, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides keeps going up, causing water pollution and soil erosion in the plantation areas. Growing tea within a system of analog forestry is a promising solution – and when targeting the organic markets a lucrative one too.

Endless rolling hills with bright green, neatly trimmed shrubs - the tea plantations in the central highlands of Sri Lanka offer a beautiful scenery. They are also a money-maker. The moderate temperatures throughout the year, the ample annual rainfall and the solid humidity levels make the country uniquely suitable for growing tea. Sri Lanka became the world's leading tea exporter in 1995 with a 23% share in global export. The black, green and white varieties of Ceylon tea are known all over the world. They contribute to 65% of the revenue of the agricultural sector.

The development of today’s billion-dollar industry, however, came at a massive price. Large patches of forest were burned and cleared to give way to tea plantations. Biodiversity suffered. Decades of intensive production have exhausted the soils. Estate owners are forced to use increasing amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, but it is to no effect: the lush green tea region of Sri Lanka is increasingly interspaced with barren plots as yields are becoming too low to make production profitable. India, China and Kenya have taken over Sri Lanka’s leading position as tea producer – a major blow for all those Sri Lankans whose livelihoods depend on tea.

Greenfield Bio Estate

The Greenfield Bio Estate has succeeded in reversing this negative trend. In the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea region, 110 workers grow tea in a forested area. They have created a setting where the cultivation of tea is sustained by the properties of a forest. Greenfields Bio enjoys growing yields with better quality tea. The NGO Rainforest Rescue International (RRI) introduced the principle of analog forestry to the tea producers of the Greenfield Bio Estate. The idea was to convert tea growing areas into a sustainable forest-tea mix. A design was made that included both the 85 hectares of tea plantation and the small garden plots owned by individual plantation workers. Native and exotic tree species are integrated with the tea bushes: macadamia nut, orange, citrus and avocado trees, Andean cherry trees, erythrina Edulis (a highly nutritious grain replacement), stevia (a natural sweetener) and ice-cream beans (an ingredient of curries). These trees provide shadow, fix the nitrogen balance in the soil and also provide fruits, nuts, fodder and proteins for plantation workers and local consumers. Along the edges of the tea plots artimesea is planted for compost and insect repellent, and brugmantias (from South America) for attracting night moths. A team of estate workers produces the compost needed by the estate. All estate residents are moreover encouraged to produce their own compost for sale to the Greenfield and neighbouring estates. All families within the estate were given a cow. They now supply the estate and surrounding villages with manure and milk sold through the estate milk shop. It has earned the residents some considerable extra income. Satellite pictures of the area were used to analyse water streams and vegetation patterns and to determine new land use patterns. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are banned from Greenfield estate.

Certification ‘beyond organic’

The Greenfield Bio Estate is following an international trend. Its forest tea is sold in supermarkets in Colombo and other cities in Sri Lanka, and also exported to Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. Consumer awareness has led to the establishment of various environmental and social market standards. Going by current trends and commitments, it is expected that certified tea will constitute around 75% of the British tea market by 2015. The Forest Garden Products (FGP), a certification system for products grown in an analog forestry system, is one of Sri Lanka’s responses to the growing demand for organic tea. FGP goes beyond attention to organic practices and fair trade by incorporating standards for biodiversity, social equity and environmental care. An internal control system was set up that monitors production and provides full transparency to the consumer. As FGP includes standards for biodiversity and water quality, some consider it the only truly sustainable certification system.

The FGP standards were set up by the International Analog Forestry Network (IAFN), which also trained an international group of certified inspectors. FGP inspectors require complementary skills to monitor organic production methods and regulations, administration, labelling requirements etc. They must be experts in soil types, social conditions, carbon capture and landscape types. They must be able to identify species: soil macro organisms, invertebrates, birds, fish, insects, aquatic organisms, amphibians, palms and plants etc. Forest Garden Products are inspected in Sri Lanka, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Thailand and Vietnam. The Greenfields tea estate is inspected annually by certification bureau Control Union from the Netherlands.

The Forest Garden approach is proving to have clear benefits. A recent study shows that about 50% of the FGP sites investigated in Sri Lanka saw increased yields during the study period. In conventional plantations, on the contrary, yields continued to decrease. The FGP certification has helped to improve local incomes in three ways. Firstly, certified farmers and plantations can brand their produce as ‘organic’ and thus command a premium market price. The extra income is collected by the Social Committee at Greenfield Estate, made up of representatives of the estate workers. Decisions on how to spend the funds are taken collectively. Secondly, FGP is applied to the farm as a whole and is thus more than just a standard for tea. FGP farms are designed to cultivate multiple crops, which helps to diversify the farmer’s income. And finally, substituting chemical fertilisers and pesticides with organic compost and natural sprays considerably reduces production costs.

Sustainablilty considerations in Forest Garden Product certification

       1.   Ecological Sustainability

       2.  Social sustainability

       3.  Economic sustainability

·       Promote biological diversity

·       Sufficient production for secure subsistence

·       Satisfactory and reliable yields

·       Improve soil fertility and build humus

·       Safe nutrition for the family, healthy food, free of toxins

·       Low external costs for inputs and investments

·       Prevent soil erosion and compaction

·       Healthy and fair working conditions for both men and women

·       Crop diversification to improve income safety

·       Animal-friendly husbandry

·       System building on local knowledge and tradition

·       Value addition through quality improvement and farm processing

·       Using renewable energies

·       High efficiency to improve competitiveness

·       Clean natural environment

·       Promote ecological maturity

Small tea farmers take over the organic market

While large estates dominate the landscape in Sri Lanka’s tea producing region, 70% of the country’s tea is actually produced by small farmers. In the southwest of Sri Lanka, a cooperative of smallholder tea growers has converted its farms to forest gardens and this proved to be a profitable alternative to conventional tea farming. Before the conversion, their farms with an average size of 0.33 hectares experienced the same decline in productivity as the big estates. But not anymore. Rainforest Rescue International trained the cooperative members in analog forestry and they now produce a range of Forest Garden ‘hand-rolled’ tea that captures a specific segment of the tea market, with a high demand. Forest Garden Tea revives the great taste and aroma that Ceylon tea has been famous for centuries. Value is added by hand-rolling and packaging the tea leaves for a connoisseurs’ market. A processing plant was established in the village that produces around 75 kg of hand-rolled tea per month, increasing the income of small farmers with 30%. The cooperative also produces turmeric, ginger, cardamom and pepper. Organic fruits and medicinal plants are sold in the local market at premium prices. Increasingly, consumers are happy to know that the tea they are drinking has not only contributed to biodiversity but also to sustainable livelihoods of farmers.