Taiwan Is Destroying Its High Mountain Oolong Tea Farms
High mountain oolong tea is one of Taiwan’s most beloved products, yet the government is destroying tea farms at high elevation in the name of environmentalism.
Photo by the author.
High mountain oolong tea is one of Taiwan's most beloved products. In comparison to its lower-altitude counterparts, it gives off extremely floral notes and has a distinctive milky aftertaste. It's a Taiwanese national treasure, and yet the government is destroying it.
Today, virtually all high mountain oolong tea farms that are located 2,500 meters or more above sea level have been demolished.
The crop was first sown here in 1969 by Jindi Chen—the first in Taiwan to successfully plant tea at a high elevation. Chen was a peach farmer who won presidential recognition for his fruit; he was given a piece of land on Da Yu Ling, a region on Li mountain with an elevation of 2,700 meters. It was designated as an experimental place for fruit farming.
"In 1967, President Chiang Kai-Shek came over to our peach farm to pay his respects to my father. That's how well-known our peaches were. They quickly began talking about alternative crops to plant because of Taiwan's typhoon season, and Chiang Kai-Shek recommended that my father look into tea," says Limei Chen, the daughter of Jindi. "It felt like an emperor giving a decree, and so my father took that suggestion wholeheartedly." For the next three years, he experimented with high-elevation tea tree farming.
"We had a 75 percent failure rate," she says. Of the 800 tea trees the Chen family planted, only 200 survived. "But my father kept on going. He wanted to impress Chiang Kai-Shek."
Eventually Chen succeeded, which set off a national trend. Today in Taiwan, high mountain oolong tea, which is classified as tea grown more than 1,000 meters above sea level, is one of the most prized brews on the market. "Because of limited sun exposure and the difference in temperature and the clouds, high mountain tea is especially fragrant," says David Tsay, a tea teacher in Taiwan who specializes in organic farming.
Tea from Chen's farm, formerly known as Song Lu Tea Garden, became one of the most valued teas in Taiwan. Its altitude meant that the farm was the highest oolong tea plantation in the world. It produced a superb product called Snow Tea, which retailed for the equivalent of $370 USD for 1.3 pounds of tea. In a year, Snow Tea alone could generate more than $3 million USD in sales.
The farm was destroyed last November. The government sent 50 men to cut it down.
"I want to buy back the land but they won't let me," Limei says, her voice quavering. We are sitting at Tsay's Taipei tea studio and flipping through a magazine feature on her former tea plantation and its destruction. This is her first time reading this particular article and she looks visibly disturbed.
"I don't know how to keep on going," she says.
Nothing from the original plantation remains.
"A decade ago, the Taiwanese government began a campaign to curb high mountain agriculture," Tsay tells me. "Their intentions were correct, but it's been executed in a horrible way."
High mountain agriculture can be quite destructive; it erodes the landscape and causes harmful pesticides and fertilizers to contaminate water sources and the land. The additives also strip the soil of moisture, rendering it completely useless in a matter of decades. It's a toxic industry; for every one pound of tea, roughly $9 USD is spent on pesticides and fertilizers. To discourage high mountain farming, in 2014, Taiwan tea researchers engineered a low-altitude tea—known as Taiwan Tea Number 22—that replicates high mountain tea aromas.
In response to the environmental lobbyists and influenced by voter interests, the government set off to reforest high-elevation tea farms and restore them to their pre-agricultural state. Most farmland was seized and reclaimed.
"It's a very black-and-white matter to the government," Limei says. "They see high mountain tea trees and they want to cut it down. What about high mountain cabbage farms and hotels? Those are more destructive than tea. We didn't even use pesticides."
In an article by Taiwanese publication Rhythms Monthly, the Dongshi Forest District Department, which was responsible for tearing down the Chen family farm, summed up its reasoning in four Chinese characters: zu di zao lin. The meaning: to rent the land, you must create a forest.
Therefore, anyone who wasn't planting a "forest" had to give back their land to the government. Having trees is critical to high mountain land security; it means that there are strong roots to combat erosion. And on an island like Taiwan, where typhoons are a plenty, erosion is a huge problem. Because of irresponsible mountain farming techniques, landslides are a recurring hazard in Taiwan's mountain roads.
The problem is that the definition of "forest" is constantly changing.
To understand the government's logic, we need to go back to Taiwanese land laws. After the Republic of China reclaimed the island from Japan in the mid-1940s and early 1950s, all the land that was originally owned by the Japanese was given to the local government. This included most of Da Yu Ling. The authorities gave veterans two choices: a retirement paycheck or land. The Chen family chose land. The condition was that they had to promise to develop the property and create "forests." Back then, that meant fruit trees and tea. The priority in Taiwan during those days was economic development.
"The government changed their minds in the last decade," Limei says, "To them, tea and fruit trees aren't trees anymore." The irony is that it was Chiang Kai-Shek who had told her father to start a tea plantation.
"We wouldn't have done it otherwise," she says. "Nearly 50 years of hard labor, erased!"
Another great irony: Tea trees that are planted without pesticides and harmful fertilizers actually have very strong roots—strong enough to withstand erosion. In fact, at elevation above 2,600 meters, tea trees without strong roots will wither and die.
"They don't take these factors into consideration," Tsay says. "They have a one-track mind."
Tsay himself used to be a strongly against high mountain tea farms, until he met the Chen family. He says that because the Chen family only used organic fertilizers and rarely watered their plantation, the roots of the trees were visibly resilient.
"For every three meters of tree, there was one meter of root. Those trees had very thick branches as well. It held together the land really well, and unlike other farms, the Chen family didn't strip the dirt of its nutrients," he says.
But the forestry department didn't care. They confiscated all rented lands.
"They say didn't want to play favorites and so they eliminated all individually operated tea farms," Limei says. Ownership of the tea farms, especially in mountainous areas like Da Yu Ling, is extremely controversial.
"Back then, people didn't write things down," Limei explains. "Farmers weren't sure if they owned the land or if they had rented it from the government. It was chaos."
Tsay explains: "The government's solution has been to cut down all individually rented tea farms that grow above an elevation of 2,500 meters. Farms with connection to politicians, aboriginal protected lands, and people who could prove that they owned their land were spared. Ironically, farms like Chen's, who abided by organic standards, were not. I had proposed that we turn the Chen family farm into a cultural and research destination. Instead they tore down decade-old trees and replanted them with saplings to curb erosion. That doesn't make any sense."
Limei starts laughing, and pulls up videos of her devastated plantation on her phone.
"Look at these saplings," she says, pointing at her screen. "They're tiny. You're telling me that these are better at combating erosion than decade-old tea and fruit trees?"
According to the forestry department, however, if a tree has economic value, it does not qualify as a tree with reforesting potential.
"I spent a lot of time at Chen's farm. They were an environmentally conscious operation and planted organically," contends Tsay, who has spent 12 years touring China and Taiwan's organic tea farms as an educator and advocate. "Now, are high mountain farms ultimately good for the environment? No. But the solution isn't to tear preexisting ones down. The solution is to integrate tea farms with nature."
Unfortunately, it's too late. The plantation, all 13 acres of it, is gone—a chunk of Taiwanese history erased in a matter of hours. All the peach trees have been uprooted as well.
At Da Yu Ling alone, nearly 80 percent of individual farms have been destroyed. War veterans, who had opted to help develop the land, have been kicked out of their homes. The land is now barren.
"It's a shame. Da Yu Ling had the best high mountain oolong tea farms in Taiwan," Tsay says. "They're all gone."
Of course, there are still many high mountain tea farms, but all of them are at an elevation of 2,400 meters or lower. The region from Chayi to Alishan alone has 2,300 hectares worth of tea plantations. The term "high mountain" applies to any tea grown at an elevation of 1,000 meters of higher.
But Tsay maintains the quality of tea that these farms produce isn't spectacular, and that many of them are, in fact, eroding the landscape and using heavy pesticides. But because of different zoning laws, a lot of them are still in operation.
"Wait," I ask. "Where is all the high mountain tea coming from? Is it all just bad tea?"
I think about the slew of tea shops in Taipei City alone. High mountain oolong tea is on every tea menu in town. Annual domestic production of tea in Taiwan adds up to 15,000 tons, while demand is about 45,000 tons. The math doesn't add up.
"A lot of it is imported now from Vietnam, India, and Thailand, and then branded as Taiwan tea," Tsay says. He says that in a load of commercially marketed Taiwanese oolong tea leaves, only 70 percent of that is real Taiwan oolong. The rest is imported and then mixed in with the batch.
According to the Taiwan Tea Manufacturers' Association, Taiwan's tea industry is reliant on imports from Vietnam, from which roughly 20,000 tons of tea are brought in annually.
And yet, from a marketing standpoint, Taiwan oolong has as much clout as California milk or Wisconsin cheese. It's an important brand to the island nation; 5,000 hectares of Taiwanese land is dedicated to high mountain oolong.
"Have you ever encountered anyone in Taiwan selling imported oolong tea?" Tsay says. "Of course not. They won't tell you the truth. People want to sell for high prices but at a low cost. Consumers don't know. They're more into the packaging. The general public is very uninformed about quality."
Because of that, Tsay has dedicated his career to educating people about quality tea. He regularly gives lectures at Chinese and Taiwanese colleges and is considered Taiwan's leading authority on organic tea.
The brews that he pours in his private studio are consistently appealing. They have clear aftertastes and are unlike anything I've tasted in tea shops throughout Taiwan. Tsay is able to break down the history of each tea, how it was made, who made it, and when it was made—a skill that few people that I have met have been able to demonstrate. He has a working relationship with organic tea farmers throughout Asia.
"People in the city think they can sit in their ivory towers and demand organic products. But they don't consider the perspective of the farmer. They're not willing to pay the price and understand what quality is," Tsay says. "That is why it's so easy for the government to tear down a national treasure like the Chen tea farm … We as a society need to go into the fields and kneel down on the ground with the farmer and understand our land and how it works. It should be a collective effort between the consumer and the grower."
Limei, sitting beside me, nods fervently in agreement.
Tsay adds: "Instead, we just have people in the office with their feet up in the air demanding things. It's people who have no understanding of what sustainability actually means."