THE ROUTE TO Li Fa Rong’s teagardens in the tropical montane forests of Yunnan begins with several long bus rides, including a seventeen hour ride in a sleeper car, and a full day trek along paths that have become inundated because of the rainy season. These forests in Southwest China are the epicenter of diversity for the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and the home of Li Fa Rong, whom I call Lao Da or ‘big boss’, the chief of an Akha village.

On this journey, I bring Lao Da some tea from a famous tea mountain. He inquisitively observes the tealeaves. He has never been to this mountain and does not know where I brought the tealeaves from, yet he can describe with great certainty the conditions in which the tea was grown. “It is from old tall tea trees growing on red soil with other trees that provide shade and block the wind, including some fruit trees. Some of the tealeaves are from a tea plant variety whose flowers bloom late. This tea is very sweet. There must be a stream nearby. It tastes good,” amazingly, his description is remarkably accurate.

Lao Da has developed his sharp perception and knowledge of tea through his daily management of teagardens and from a knowledge base that has been transmitted through generations of people. Like Lao Daand other Akha, several cultural groups in Yunnan have a long history of managing tea in traditional forest gardens. While wandering through these spaces it is sometimes difficult to decipher the managed teagarden from the forests that surround them. But ancient tea plants flourish in these tea agro-forestry systems. In these gardens, tea-producing trees are dripping with stunning orchids and covered in moss. Deep in the shady forests, the tea trees may grow up to fifteen metres tall. Lao Da especially values the tea plants where orchids grow, as he believes these epiphytes delicately aromatise tea.

I have been privileged to drink tea from Lao Da’s garden on many occasions during my research on the biocultural diversity of tea production systems. These experiences and investigations have provided insight on how human interactions with tea systems have altered processes in diverse ways, including enhancement and conservation on the one hand and loss of biological diversity on the other. Originating from forests in and around southwestern China, tea is the most consumed beverage globally after water. Today the use of tea is integrated with diverse ritualistic, social and health practices of numerous cultures. However, as a consequence of tea’s popularity, the intensification of its production in tea-growing countries has resulted in negative impacts to ecosystems. To satisfy global demand, most of the tea consumed around the world grows in monoculture plantations designed for high-productivity and uniformity of product. Typically, clones of selected tea plants are cultivated in compact rows and pruned to tabletop shrubs for ease of harvesting. In many instances, these systems require significant chemical input and were created by clear-cutting natural forests that sustain biodiversity.

THE DESIRE FOR efficiency has distanced us from the sources of so many foods we consume, and tea is no different. We need to reflect on the tealeaves in our cups and how they are grown. One promising solution to the ecosystem threats posed by intensive monoculture lies in the traditional tea management practices of farmers in Yunnan in Southwestern China.

In the tea production systems and villages of Yunnan, there is a significant overlap found between biological and cultural diversity. Communities that have greater knowledge of tea resources and related diverse practices also have teagardens that support greater ecological and genetic diversity. Some of Yunnan’s forest teagardens are particularly notable for the creation of biodiversity at the genetic level. Farmers such as Lao Da recognise individual tea plants and classify them along multiple dimensions. They enhance the genetic composition of tea in their gardens through intimate management and selection practices, introducing seedlings with desired properties from wild tea populations and other areas. This variation has served to buffer stress factors without the need for chemical inputs.

Unfortunately, forest teagardens are not isolated from the forces undermining traditional forms of resource management. There continues to be a need to build local capacity through collaborative efforts with tea-growing communities in order to promote traditional tea management. One such initiative in Lao Da’s village is the development of an illustrated manual and video on ‘best-practices’ of tea growing that foster biodiversity and reinforce traditional management practices. These materials will be distributed to tea-growing communities through outreach workshops and to regional land management organisations.

There is a lot to learn from farmers of traditional forest teagardens. Lao Da tells me, “The perfect cup of tea comes from the dance between tealeaves sourced from different tea plants that each have distinct characteristics.” This is a cup steeped in diversity.

Selena Ahmed is a doctoral candidate at the New York Botanical Garden / City University of New York. Her research is supported by the USA National Science Foundation, Botany in Action and the Garden Club of America.