Tuesday, May 3, 2016

So what is up with these Dayuling tea farms?

I'm sure a lot of you have read the Vice article on the destruction of the Dayuling high mountain oolong tea farms, which, despite having tea as something of a theme in my blog, I have refrained from commenting on as I felt as though there was probably more to the story.

Just to summarize, Clarissa Wei (the writer of the original Vice article) writes about how the government has begun enforcing high-mountain reforestation regulations, destroying agriculture at those elevations so as to prevent erosion - which is a real problem, I have to say. How much of a problem depends on the type, age and quality of the agriculture cultivated. She notes that while there are typical tea farms with younger bushes that don't secure soil against erosion, which use harmful fertilizers and pesticides to boot, that sustainable farms whose tea plants are better at preventing erosion than the saplings the government is planting, and which use organic, chemical-free growing methods, are also being destroyed. This is a problem not only because tea farming is the livelihood of the farmers affected, mostly ROC veterans given land as their pension, but also because high mountain oolong is a Taiwanese specialty commanding market presence, good international branding for Taiwan and, yes, high prices. Destroying it affects a lot of people - not just the farmers but the entire Taiwanese tea industry and international recognition Taiwan gets for its high-quality high mountain oolong tea.

That's basically the point - it's all very clear, but it does read as if Wei talked to the farmers affected but never asked anyone from the government for comment.

Then this article came out on Eco-Cha detailing the other side of the argument.

I'm not sure I buy this side of the story either.

Here are some questions I have about that rebuttal:

In recent decades, designated sections of this land can be rented from the government for tree growing and harvesting only, but not for agricultural use. 

Wait - what?

I had been under the impression that that land was given to veterans as a pension, not that it was rented. And if you give (or even rent - I suppose with eminent domain all land is "rented" to an extent? Maybe?) land to someone as a pension, how is it OK to change the rules governing that land on them and expect that everything is going to go smoothly?

I'm not saying the new regulations are "wrong" - they're probably not. Sustainability is in everyone's best interests in the long term. But I was under the impression that that land was owned by the veterans occupying it, and therefore eradicating their sources of income should be far more problematic as it's a lot harder to change the laws pertaining to the use of such land than it is for 'rented' land. How could it even be rented if it was the veterans' pensions? Renting implies paying money to occupy a place and that doesn't seem to be the case here. Am I wrong?

Since the farmers did not comply with the demand to eradicate their violations of forest land use, the government implemented the removal of farm crops and any buildings that were constructed on forest land.
Next question - what good is land given to veterans if the law then states they can't do anything with it, even have buildings? "Here's some land. You can do jack all with it except look at trees, but...here it is." I don't quite see the point of that.

And remember, the farmers interviewed for the Vice article pointed out that the government itself told them to grow tea - I mean the KMT was the government then, that's what brutal dictatorship is, and Chiang Kai-shek basically was the KMT. So I can understand a farmer being upset that in the 1950s he's told to grow tea by the government of the ROC and in the 2000s he's then told he has to give up his business by that same government (in name, at least). How would you feel if an economic development director from the government encouraged you to open a store on your first floor, you did so, it was doing well, and then that director's successor said "sorry, you'll have to close the store and personally bear any losses from doing so." You'd be pissed too, and "it's unfortunate that..." really doesn't cut it.

So my question would be, what compensation for the loss of their business and livelihood is the government going to give to these farmers after changing the regulations on them decades after giving (giving? I thought giving) them this land as their 'pension'? 

The farm that was highlighted in the recent story by Munchies was not spared because it was evidently subject to the same stipulations as other nearby farms that have already been removed in recent years. The government claimed that there was no way to preserve it without demonstrating a bias that discriminated against the farms already affected.

Again - what?

First, is it not possible to craft regulations so that every farm has to undergo an inspection to determine if they are using sustainable practices, and allow the ones that are to continue to exist while shutting down the ones that aren't? Surely this is not such a difficult thing for a successful developed country to accomplish? The whole point of regulations is that they should suit the situation in order to improve the country for everyone. It is challenging but not impossible to write more sensitively and intelligently implementable regulations. Not doing so isn't 'avoiding bias', it's straight-up laziness.

Second, Ec0-Cha says below  that their sources of high mountain oolong are unaffected because they 
embody sustainable practice that involves responsible use of resources and long-term profit gains.

But that's the whole point - the farmers Wei interviewed also embodied sustainable practices and responsible use of resources. So how come you are fine with your sources being unaffected, but any other source affected, even if it is just as sustainable and responsibly managed, is fair game because to do otherwise would demonstrate "bias"? This doesn't make sense.

If the regulations are applied in a blanket fashion (which is obviously not what I would advocate), Eco-Cha's sources should be affected too. If not, the Chen farm should also have been spared.

Can't have your tea and drink it too. At least own up to the double standard of that line of reasoning, Eco-Cha.

Plus, as far as I know other high-mountain oolong growing regions such as Fushoushan are unaffected. Fushoushan is a fairly popular mountain tourist destination with government ties.

And finally, this article doesn't address the point made in Vice that plenty of homestays and other land uses aren't affected, although they technically should be.
So what's this about "not demonstrating bias"?

Give me a damn break.

This basically was bound to happen sooner or later, and it turned out to be later — after the local private sector made a massive profit from producing High Mountain Tea at a price that far exceeded anywhere else in Taiwan. Simply put, they capitalized on being the highest elevation tea farms in Taiwan. Tea from this area sold for anywhere from double to ten times the amount of other sources that classify as High Mountain Tea — just because it boasted the status of tea grown at the highest elevation.

Sure. But you are implying that that elevation doesn't affect the tea - that it is only more expensive because it is grown at a high elevation. You do not address whether it actually is better.

I am far from a tea expert but as a tea-loving amateur, I'd go out on a tea-bush branch and say that yes, it is in fact better. The elevation plays a part but the tea farms being destroyed aren't necessarily producing mediocre tea at high prices just because they command high prices due to elevation. I find that tea to be excellent, though I'm also a fan of lower-elevation Pinglin tea.

In addition to the fact that it was against regulations, it is an ironic outcome of the marketing strategy that popularized this new tea type simply referred to as "Gao Shan Cha" or High Mountain Tea. The value of High Mountain Tea has been promoted for the last 30 years as being "the higher the elevation, the better" in terms of quality. This of course is not necessarily true. Quality tea production depends on knowledgeable and responsible farm management combined with skill and care in processing the harvested leaves. Elevation is definitely a significant, but hardly the decisive factor in determining the quality of tea produced.

OK but is the tea actually better? Not necessarily, but Eco-Cha is implying it's not, generally. I'd say it is.
Yet this is not an anomaly in our modern age where populations and subsequent developments of land have rapidly advanced without proper implementation of sustainable planning.

Again the farmer interviewed in the article is using sustainable practices and planning - at least according to Wei - so you can't lay that at the feet of "it wasn't sustainable" if it actually is. You really can't have it both ways.

All said and done, we are happy to say that none our sources of High Mountain Tea have been affected by these recent regulatory actions by the government. This is because our sources embody sustainable practice that involves responsible use of resources and long-term profit gains. 

Just like the Chen farm at least according to Wei. So why are yours safe again and his not? If it's to "avoid bias" shouldn't your sources be eradicated too regardless of their sustainability? So...?

Perhaps what you  mean is "our sources are farmed on land not subject to these stipulations", but if it's high mountain oolong I'd be curious about why not. Also, if this is true, to say "our sources are spared because they are sustainable" when in fact they are spared because they just happen to fall outside of regulated zones is lazy writing. Reeks of an excuse rather than a true explanation. Which is it? Be clear. 

We hope that this information has been helpful in clarifying the issue.

Not in the slightest.

Anyone else care to try?


Pierre said...

Hi Jenna,

Have you seen this article? It provides some info from a purely legal perspective.


Jenna Cody said...

That's very interesting, thanks!

It doesn't answer all of my questions - e.g. whether or not the Chens were as innocent as the article leads one to believe, if the problem is sustainability and they ARE growing sustainably (are they really? Nobody's proven or disproven it) then that doesn't really answer the question of how Eco-Cha's sources are unaffected because they are "sustainable" but other sustainable farms are affected if "no farm can be spared to avoid demonstrating bias".

I had kind of suspected that there was more to that family story but am more interested in the process as a whole irrespective of the Chen family.

Xiao Bai said...

Hi Jenna,

I think anybody with a little experience in the tea industry would tell you that it is impossible to grow tea sustainably at that
altitude because the land lacks the necessary nutrients to sustain an economically productive tea tree. The trees like those of the Chen family have to be grown using fertilizers at least, and therefore are not sustainable (if we understand the latter as something that does not require the use of either fertilizers or pesticides, and grows wildly). By the way, I have drunk Chen's family gaoshan in tea class, and our teacher (who happens to be very closely related to David Tsay, the tea master also featured in Wei's article) stressed from be beginning that it is a very nice tea but not organically grown.

What kind and what amount of fertilizers are used is for the Chen family (and other concerned Gaoshan farmers) to clarify. It is also not clear to me whether they would not use of pesticides when required, not for the bugs (animals), which are really scarce at those altitudes, but in order to avoid diseases caused by fungi/algae, etc. See e.g.


for more info.