Tea growers around Pindaya in the Danu Self-Administered Zone are going organic as more foreign buyers show interest in the area’s chemical-free green tea.
The small tea plantations that hug the slopes of Mount Yasagi near Pindaya in southern Shan State are undergoing a transformation, as growers cash in on the international market potential for organic products.
The plantation owners hope that the area will be totally devoted to organic farming within three years as they strive to satisfy rising demand for chemical-free green tea.
As the transformation continues, they are becoming increasingly vigilant about chemical pollution and that means they keep an eye on trekkers in the area, which is famous for its limestone caves and the placid Bote Talote lake.
In the early hours of a misty December morning, we saw dozens of people ambling through villages and tea plantations at Pindaya during the one-hour trek to the famous Shwe Oo Min Pagoda limestone caves in the Danu Self-Administered Zone.
“We ask the travellers to refrain from littering and smoking while passing through the farm,” said U San Maung, who owns a two-acre (0.8 hectare) tea plantation in Pindaya Township.
“We explain to them this is important for us because we are changing to organic farming,” he said, as he pruned tea bushes.
San Maung previously grew cash crops between his tea bushes, known as space farming. He had used chemical fertiliser and insecticides on the cash crops, which he stopped growing when organic farming methods were introduced in the area two years ago.
Although most farmers had not used insecticides on their tea bushes, he said tests had detected chemicals in the leaves.
“It is because of the use of chemicals in space farming,” said San Maung, who turned to organic farming after learning that he could earn more from selling tea leaves that were untainted by chemicals.
“The market is stable now because German companies are buying dried tea leaves from us,” he said, with a big smile.
Community-based Pindaya Tea Cluster, which is affiliated with the Myanmar Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Producers and Exporters Association, began exporting dried tea leaves to Germany last year.
“It was the first time Myanmar exported organic green tea,” said U Myo Lwin, an accountant with Pindaya Tea Cluster, who has a three-acre tea plantation.
TeeGschwendner, a Germany-based international chain of shops that sell loose-leaf tea and tea accessories, bought 1.5 tonnes of green tea from the growers at Pindaya.
The sale was arranged with assistance from the Myanmar-Germany Private Sector Development arm of GIZ, the German agency for international development.
The farmers reaped a handsome return for going organic.
Myo Lwin said the farmers were paid about K15,000 a viss (1.6kg or 3.6lb) for the export shipment.
“That is about three times more than the domestic market price of K6,000 a viss,” he said.
Pindaya Tea Cluster was yet to sign a contract with TeeGschwendner this year, but Myo Lwin said the company had already committed to importing at least three tonnes of green tea from the area.
“The company is happy with the quality and price [and] said it will increase the purchase amount year by year,” he told Frontier.
Burma began exporting tea during British colonial rule. In 1937, the British-owned Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation established a tea processing factory at Namhsan in northern Shan.
However, the country’s tea industry is best known for its tea leaf salad, or lahpet thoke, said U Kyaw Thiha, vice-chair of the Mandalay-based Myanmar Tea Association.
“Some people don’t know Myanmar’s green tea, but most know lahpet thoke,” he said.
“Lahpet thoke is a unique Myanmar dish, and it already has a place in the international market,” said Kyaw Thiha, managing director of Nara Organic Green Tea Industry, a company based in Pinlaung Township in Shan’s Pa-O Self-Administered Zone.
Budding foreign interest in Shan’s green tea
Kyaw Thiha said Myanmar green tea had only recently begun to attract foreign buyers because processing methods had improved, a development for which he can claim some credit. In the past, farmers had produced dried tea leaves using processing methods that resulted in poor product quality, he said.
The MTA says there are more than 800,000 acres (323,748ha) of tea plantations in Myanmar, of which more than 600,000 acres are in Shan.
Kyay Thiha has been working with officials and farmers to improve the quality of tea grown in Kachin and Chin states since 2007, when the country was under junta rule.
For the past three years, he has focused attention on the Pindaya area, where there are more than 8,000 acres of tea plantations.
Kyaw Thiha’s contribution to the industry has included inventing the processing machine that enables growers to maintain consistent high-quality tea leaves.
The invention earned Nara Organic Green Tea Industry the first prize in awards presented by the Myanmar SME Development Agency last year.
“The machine works well and costs about K10 million,” Kyaw Thiha said, adding that it is much cheaper than machines imported from China, which cost about K40 million.
“I am happy to see farmers now producing quality tea leaves because of the machine,” he said.
He welcomes the expansion in the industry spurred by increasing foreign interest in buying organic green tea.
He said Chado Tea, a company based in Los Angeles in the United States that sells tea online, had expressed interest in buying up to 50 tonnes of organic dried tea leaves from his company this year, but that they had been unable to meet the demand.
“We are still struggling with internationally-recognised organic certificates,” Kyaw Thiha said, referring to documentation aimed at protecting consumers and the reputation of organic products. “We will be ready for it next year.”
Photo by Ann Wang Frontier