The high tree with larges leaves
In Nyot Ou, the northernmost district of Laos, tea trees grow in the wilds of the tropical forest covering the slopes of the mountains bordering the Chinese province of Yunnan. The wild tea stems from the variety Assamica, one of the two main varieties of tea. In China, this variety is called “the high tree with larges leaves”.
Growing tea has a long history in the Yunnan region: large tea leaves were used as medicine for at least three millenniums and seem to have already been a popular drink around the second century B.C.
Wild tea trees in Nyot Ou can grow as high as fifteen meters. Old pruning marks observed on some of them suggest that they could have be planted hundreds of years ago. In this case, they can be considered as “Ancient tea”, namely a tea tree resulting from a selection of wild tea varieties.
For the smallholder farmers settled today in this part of the country, tea farming represents not only a traditional occupation but also a new commercial activity. Farmers started to pick wild tea leaves for sale rather than own consumption when traders from Yunnan came across the border and showed interest for it.
Before, people just picked tea leaves from the forest to exchange it for salt with the Leu people (living in the plain of Outaï, capital of Nyot Ou). We had no tea garden at all. I remember that I used to exchange a full bag of tea for a chicken.
– Ms. Kuay, Ban Sehopene village
THE YAO VILLAGES
Ban Sehopene and Ban Nammanoy, two Yao villages, are located in the western part of Nyot Ou district. The villages are linked to the district by a feeder road crossing the deep valley surrounded by forest and bush fallows. During the rainy season from June to September, regular rainfalls prevent people from travelling on the clay road, rugged by deep gullies. Leaving the village towards, the winding road climbs up to the mountain ridge, the border between China and Laos.
Yao families cultivate rice at the bottom of the valley as well as on the steep mountain slopes through a slash and burn system, consisting in alternating, in a same plot, a cultivation phase following a multi-years fallow phase; the number of plots required depending of the number of rotation necessary to restore fertility and soil structure. Other livelihood activities include gathering of forest products, hunting and fishing. This diversity of food sources allows farming families to meet food needs in a context where food security is still a challenge due to the vulnerability of upland rice production to climate hazards and pests. Annual harvest can vary regularly by as much as 50 to 70%.
Growing rice is difficult; it requires good land for planting rice. We could not plant rice in the same land the year after we harvest there; we need to leave that land for several years before replanting again. Before tea production, we still had rice shortage some years when our rice fields were destroyed by insects. Sometimes we were hungry, we had to find more food from the forest. We worked hard to support families and ourselves.
– Ms. Kuay, Ban Sehopene
Tungkualin Noy village is located north of Ban Nammanoy, along the Nam Deng River in the valley of Naluang. The Yao families that compose the village moved down from their former location in the mountain around ten years ago, following the national policy of relocation of upland villages. Objective was notably to halt shifting cultivation, presented as a main factor of deforestation by development institutions and governement. However where density of population stay low, slash and burn system seems to remain sustainable as demonstrated by some academic researchers. In Tungkualin Noy, like many villages resetled in the valleys, farmers are forced to go back to their upland former village for growing rice due to the lack of suitable paddy areas in the valley.