HOW GREEN IS YOUR TEA

Green tea landscape is to protect all natural ecosystems that remain, within and around plantations. Tea estate maps detail tea fields, roads, factories and housing, but often leave gaps marked as ‘blanks’ or ‘estate jungle’. These spaces, along with the streams and rivers (sometimes merely considered ‘drains’), are the most interesting and valuable parts of the landscape. It is in these spaces that one finds evergreen forests, regenerating forest and scrub, grasslands, bamboo patches, swamps and water bodies that support diverse wildlife species.

To place these forested areas firmly on estate maps and protect them, and not clear and convert them into a monoculture area, is the first need of conservation. In addition, planters can retain or regenerate strips of native vegetation as buffers along rivers or as windbreaks on slopes, which help protect water and crop while creating habitat corridors for wildlife. Planters can also connect with local conservation groups to carry out wildlife inventories and ecological restoration of degraded areas.

In some plantation districts, although habitats remain, wildlife is scarce because of snaring and shooting. Besides poachers, some estate managers too, in a throwback to the British colonial period, still sport guns and shoot unsuspecting wildlife, especially where the Forest Department patrolling and protection are lax. Still, support for wildlife conservation is increasing with the rise of a new breed of planters who have moved on to enjoy the more rewarding pastimes of trekking, wildlife watching and nature photography.

Instead of merely seeing tea plantations as ‘green desert’ ecologists who have studied the land-use practices find that small changes in conventional tea cultivation can make a big difference to conservation. Tea estates can avoid using the most toxic agrochemicals, and should ensure that the chemicals are applied judiciously by trained people wearing protective gear only on crop affected by pests without the chemical drift entering adjoining natural ecosystems and water bodies.

Tea plantations can also do much better on the kind of shade trees used for tea bushes. For instance, in over one lakh hectares of tea plantations in south India, planters mostly use a single Australian tree species: silver oak. If shade tree species native to adjoining areas in the Western Ghats were used, more wildlife would thrive in the landscape as the trees would provide food and foraging and nesting spaces. Bringing greater diversity into the landscape may also help improve the soil and control pests, thereby benefiting tea cultivation itself. Tea research institutes and planters have hundreds of native species to choose from, and they only need the will and foresight to begin trials.

Even a cup of tea reveals our enduring connections to nature, shows how conservation can be effective outside the boundaries of wildlife sanctuaries and requires efforts that involve all.