Tea farmers increase income by 30% thanks to sustainable land management in Northern Vietnam

Tea farmers increase income by 30% thanks to sustainable land management in Northern Vietnam

in News

Since 2016, over 3,180 Vietnamese tea farmers have been trained by Rikolto (previously VECO) in sustainable land management practices as part of The Rainforest Alliance’s project “Mainstreaming Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes”. Initial results show that farmers’ income has increased by an average of 30% due to a reduction in chemical use and higher prices for quality tea leaves.

Tea is one of Vietnam’s national drinks and the second most popular beverage in the world. However, less and less Vietnamese farmers are willing to invest in tea due to a regular decline in prices in the past decades. Tea production in Vietnam is concentrated in the Central and Northern Highlands, two areas that are particularly at risk of food insecurity and land degradation. The current problem of soil erosion is expected to intensify due to climate change and a growing global demand for tea which will likely increase pressures on already nutrient-deprived farmland. The high use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides has resulted in poor soil health and undermined Vietnamese tea’s reputation on international markets, contributing to low prices for farmers. Improved soil conservation measures can help reduce the pressure on tea farming landscapes but have not yet been widely applied in Vietnam.

Rikolto and The Rainforest Alliance partner up to reduce land degradation

With the hope of addressing these issues, The Rainforest Alliance with the financial support of the Global Environment Facility (UNEP) launched a 4-year project titled “Mainstreaming Sustainable Management of Tea Production Landscapes”. Spanning across Darjeeling (India), Assam (India), Sri Lanka, Yunnan (China), and Vietnam’s Northern Highlands, the project aims to reduce land degradation associated with tea production in Asia by supporting farmers and tea estates to adopt sustainable land management practices and by catalysing the tea industry and government leaders to mainstream these practices in their business operations and policies. Following a successful collaboration on preparing tea companies, farmers and factories for Rainforest Alliance certification in 2013-2015, Rikolto took up the role of national coordinator for Vietnam as of December 2015.

In addition to reducing farmers’ vulnerability and enhancing their sustainable livelihoods, the project aimed to achieve a large number of environmental protection objectives such as restoring soil fertility, conserving water and soil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing carbon sequestration, preserving biodiversity and increasing the flow of ecosystem services in tea production landscapes.

Building local capacity for sustainable tea production

In order to ensure farmers' buy-in and practices' suitability to the local context, the project relied on farmers’ traditional knowledge on sustainable land management. Local practices to fight erosion and preserve soils’ fertility were investigated and 8 key practices were documented and integrated in the project’s training curriculum.

Adopting a Training of Trainers (ToT) approach, Rikolto created a pool of 23 qualified trainers, including young staff from local tea factories, a cooperative and a government department to train tea farmers in Yen Bai, Lai Chau and Thai Nguyen provinces. Closely coached and monitored by Rikolto, they went on to train 3,182 farmers on sustainable tea production, using a Farmer Field School methodology (FFS). This approach is highly regarded for its ability to foster experiential learning and to empower farmers to take action towards improved agro-ecosystem management. Rikolto set up a demonstration site for training purposes and designed a poster that was distributed to approximately 4,000 farmers to remind them of good soil management practices.

The training curriculum focused on 8 key practices:

  1. Designing tea fields to prevent soil erosion,
  2. Intercropping young tea bushes with nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil fertility and generating additional income opportunities for farmers,
  3. Establishing hedgerows to maintain soil moisture and provide habitats for tea pests’ natural enemies,
  4. Using live ground cover to reduce top soil loss and the need for chemical fertilizers,
  5. Making green manure to increase humus content in soil,
  6. Planting shade trees to keep temperature and moisture level constant,
  7. Composting to increase soil nutrients, and
  8. Mulching.

During the training period, Rikolto conducted 12 monitoring visits to assess trainers’ performance in building farmers’ capacity for sustainable tea production. The assessment was based on a monitoring tool compiling a series of performance indicators. In case an indicator was assessed as poor by Rikolto’s coaching team, immediate corrective actions were discussed with the trainers to improve training quality and delivery.

Key results and lessons learned: sustainable production leads to higher income for farmers

The project’s evaluation has shown that the adoption of sustainable land management practices has led to a reduction in the amount of chemicals applied and in an increase in the quality of fresh tea leaves, leading to higher prices. This resulted in an average increase of income of 30% for farmers in Lai Chau, Yen Bai and Thai Nguyen provinces.

Some challenges prevent the more widespread adoption of the project’s good practices such as the lack of available labour while the recommended practices are labour-intensive, the short-term thinking of some farmers who prefer using herbicides over natural methods, the lack of provincial policies to support improvements in tea landscapes, the difficulty of applying compost on very steep land, and the fact that old habits die hard.

Nevertheless, some key factors contributed to making this projects an overall success:

  • The use of practices compiled mostly from local knowledge ensured the suitability of the practices to farmers’ local context;
  • The selected practices were not difficult to apply from a technical standpoint. Although labour intensive, they are low-cost and easy to adopt.
  • The existing trade relationship between the project’s 3 partner tea companies and the farmers, as well as companies’ commitment to the project, made it easy to engage farmers and maintain their motivation;
  • The involvement of stakeholders (government, tea companies, and farmers) from the planning phase of the project and respect for farmers’ local knowledge facilitated their commitment and buy-in;
  • Farmers’ knowledge of markets’ demand for better quality tea made them more aware of the need to change their practices to meet that demand.

The project was also beneficial for tea companies who could secure higher quality tea for their markets in Europe, China, Taiwan, and Russia, among others.

Thanks to mulching, I have had one more harvest because the quality of the soil is improving and moisture is kept in the soil.

Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh Tea farmer in Nghia Lo town, Yen Bai province

Upscaling results

In addition to encouraging the adoption of sustainable land management practices by farmers, the project also advocated national and provincial governments to integrate those practices in their policies and decision-making. For that purpose, on 26 and 27 December 2017, Rikolto organised a workshop to share experiences and plan for the expansion of sustainable land management practices. Organised in Lai Chau province, the event brought together representatives from Vietnam Tea Association (VITAS), Rainforest Alliance, the Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development of Thai Nguyen and Lai Chau provinces, and tea companies. After a trip to farmers’ fields to learn about the project’s main achievements, participants planned for the replication of the practices in their province. In Thai Nguyen province, the government will provide 1 billion VND (approx. 44,000 USD) to the Crop Production and Plant Protection Sub-department for the upscaling of specific land conservation practices. A policy brief recommending the upscaling of these practices at the national level was also presented to Vietnam’s Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development via the National Sustainable Tea Development Steering Committee.

The project is coming to an end in March 2018 but hopes are high that its impact will be felt for many more years to come. As Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh, a tea farmer from Nghia Lo town in Yen Bai province said: “Thanks to mulching, I have had one more harvest because the quality of the soil is improving and moisture is kept in the soil.”

Any questions?

Hoang Thanh Hai
Hoang Thanh Hai
Vegetable and Tea Programme Coordinator
+84-24 6258 3640/41 - ext. 32