A Tea Miracle: Small Chinese city of Zunyi transforms tea industry
The small southern Chinese city of Zunyi, an emblematic place where Mao Zedong took the reins of the Communist Party, is now a pioneer in implementing a new system of land distribution that has transformed the tea industry, an economic engine of this area.
It was in 1935 when Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, who was then a guerrilla leader, attended an important meeting in Zunyi, from which he became the highest authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC), holding the reins of the Red Army until his death in 1976.
This milestone made the place a pilgrimage point as well as a symbol of the communist revolution, although it eclipsed the potential of these fertile tea lands, whose deficit distribution barely allowed the peasants to survive and slowed the development of the industry.
The tea industry, according to Zhuo Guo Fu, president of the International Tea Research Institute,is “fundamental to an elimination of poverty,” as he spoke during the opening ceremony of the third annual International Tea Expo in Meitan County, in Zunyi Municipality.
In front of more than 4,000 professionals in the tea sector, Zhuo emphasized that “last year 284,000 tons of tea were processed in all the province of Guizhou, generating a revenue of 29,900 million yuan ($4.328 billion)” and that “we hope to double that number in 2017”.
But what makes this place more special than other prosperous southern provinces that have been leading the way in the production and international exports of tea?
The answer is that a decade ago Meitan became the first municipality in China to implement a new land-sharing system based on cooperative, which has since served as a pilot project for other municipalities that wish to follow.
Previously, tea workers worked in small plots of state-owned land and barely earned enough income to survive, but in 2007 a group of workers set up a “revolutionary cooperative that changed their life forever,” Chen Tingmin, one of the managers of the association, told EFE.
“There are three fundamental aspects that have been changed: land rent, day employee’ salaries and the fact that they can become the shareholders on the benefits of what they produce,” he explained.
According to Chen, each member of the community contributes the amount of capital that they can and they will gain benefits according to such contribution, which can reach up to 9,000 yuan per month (about $1,300), although the average is about 1,500 yuan ($217).
Just a few kilometers from the town is the so-called “Sea of Tea”, a name that former Chinese President Hu Jintao gave to this place during a visit in 1987.
As far as the eye can see, a green ocean of leaves covers about 16,000 hectares, where more than 1,200 workers carefully extract the small tea leaves which, once collected, take three days to grow again, allowing a continuous harvest.
However, April is considered the best season for collection, with day shifts being doubled and night shifts added for the workers to be able to quickly process the tea.
The colorful bamboo hats were visible through rows of tea bush as men and women were plucking as many tea leaves as possible, while their children played in the nearby fields or watched their parents work from the large wicker baskets on their backs.
“In our case, we worked as a bridge between workers and tea companies,” Zheng, manager of the Lianbanglincha Cooperative, which includes 57 companies and 21 workers, told EFE.
“For us the most important thing is to meet quality standards,” she added, noting that this year the association managed to enter into the export standards of the European Union.
Zhen said that the cooperative is recognized as being “ecological and 100 percent committed to the environment”, because they do not use pesticides and avoid pests via natural methods, such as using light bulbs or brightly-colored posters to repel insects.
In a country where 18 million people work in the tea industry, Meitan wishes to put Guizhou province “at the height” of other major producers, such as the provinces of Yunnan or Sichuan, the traditional leaders of the sector, Zhen added.