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In our last blogpost you could join the team of Conflictfood on shaky rails through the green jungle of Shan-State. Today we continue our journey to the origin of the teas:
It is the rural regions which are fiercely disputed. Precisely those remote areas in which the tea plants are thriving. Only with the permission of the state are foreigners allowed to enter deeper into this region. With the Jeep Edward is guiding us towards our destination. There are still two hours to go to reach the 1400 meter high Kutkai, the heart of the tea cultivation. The path, made out of stone and debris, is getting steeper and narrower. Unexpectedly the fog is lifting and enables a view onto the wide landscapes of the North-Shan. A jungle consisting of a rich green in hundreds of nuances, huge macadamia trees, lofty teak giants and in between the wild and original tea plants grow. The agrarian experts call this sustainable plant symbiosis intercropping and celebrate it as a new trend. In the mountains of the Shan region this trend is already hundreds of years old!
These lush green hills are the work place of Aye Hla. Her bright red sarong and the silver hoop around her hips tell that she also belongs to the people of the Ta’ang. At 29 years old she ranks as one of the most experienced and well paid tea pickers in the village. The unique character of the tea lies literally in her hands. After meticulous inspection and careful touching she decides which tea leaf she will pick. ‘Two leaves and a bud’, meaning just the terminal bud from a tea branch covered with a soft fluff as well as both of the corresponding leaves are picked for the qualitatively high tea.
In a routine way Aye Hla plucks the young and delicate sprouts of the tea bushes with her hands and puts them into the basket. With very few but fast grips one bush is harvested and the next one is following immediately.
The spring harvest, Shwe Phi Oo, as Aye Hla calls it, is the most precious. The first, fresh sprouts of the plant are shooting in April and have to be harvested and processed quickly. This only works with a big and skilled team of pickers.
Many of her colleagues from the last harvesting year are not there anymore, she tells us. At best they are seeking their fortune voluntarily in nearby China as better paid harvest workers. At worst the young Ta’ang women are being married off against their will to Chinese men. Chinas ‘one child policy’ and the wish for a male son and heir has, especially in the Chinese borderland of Yunnan, disbalanced the gender ratio. For roughly 3,000 Euro the prospective wives are being sold over the border by human traffickers.
Also the harvest workers from the south stay away more and more. It simply became too dangerous, Aye Hla says and points towards the next hill. Hidden behind dense leaves one can recognize an unremarkable tin shack- a base from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. It is one of the 15 armed rebel groups in the country which have been active for more than 60 years, fighting for more autonomy for their ethnic minority.
Compared to them there is a 350,000 men strong army of the government, the so called Tatmadaw.
Even if this conflict escapes from the international attention almost entirely, some observers call it the longest standing civil war of the world. This war has cost hundreds of thousands of people their homes and in parts also their lives. The people find refuge in the hills, live in camps or built up a new existence in other parts of the country.
Spanning many generations the cultivation of tea has become an integral part of the identity of the people in North-Shan. But because of the conflict the farmers have become refugees. With their migration this identity starts to vanish and the knowledge gets lost. Edward from the Palaung Tea Growers & Sellers Association knows about the danger and gives training and classes for the remaining farmers. Organic composting, hygienic sun drying, he even offers courses in accounting to the association members. The course for tomorrow has been booked out for weeks: tea exports. For now there are still many things to be set in place to surpass being a rarity on the European market. But the course is set.
Not only is it Edward’s big dream to be able to sell Myanmar tea over the borders, all the families of the North-Shan are enthusiastic about the idea that people all around the world enjoy Myanmar teas!
Here in the mountains of the Shan region our long journey to the origin of the teas comes to an end. “I brought us the perfect refreshment“, Edward says, taking out his thermos and pouring in a hot drink into our cups. „Coffee?!“, we ask surprised as Edward laughs out loud: „ Sure, what did you expect!”
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