Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rampant agribusiness malpractices- Part 2: Mossy forest and tea plantations

Figure 1: View from Gunung Brinchang (2,031m) in Cameron Highlands

Cameron mossy forest- Another carnivorous plant 

The Mossy Forest in Gunung  Brinchang, Cameron Highlands is an amazingly rich 200,000 year old forest. Old-growth forest patches are found mostly on the highest hilly areas (see the mossy forest).

Montane rain forests are named “cloud forests” due to their persistent low-level cloud cover. The “evapo-transpiration” process from their low cloud condition dwarfs trees, and gives trunks and branches a twisted look. 

Figure 2 : The mossy or cloud forest in Cameron Highlands 

The permanent moisture and reduced sunlight produce rich moss, epiphytes (plant growing on another plant), fern covering, peat humus and swampy ground. 

Cloud forests will be strongly affected by climate change: simulation suggest that low-altitude cloudiness might be reduced; the hydrological cycle will change, so the system will dry out.

The mossy forest is also home to the Nepenthes, better known locally as Pitcher Plant or Monkey Cup.  This plant is carnivorous with a liquid filled deep cavity attracting small insects that drown in it (see the carnivorious plants in Malaysia).

Figure 3 : A Pitcher plant in the Mossy Forest 

As in the case of the enigmatic Rafflesia (see my post dated 20 March), montane and secondary forests, wetlands where Nepenthes grow are being cleared or burned for agriculture or for development, destroying their entire habitat. 

Carnivorous plants are very sensitive to fertilizers and chemicals. Pollution from farming, artificial fertilizers and pesticides, poisons the soil or water and kills the plants.

Another problem that contributes to the dwindling of Nepenthes plant populations is the lack of public knowledge and awareness on these plants. Many still do not know what Nepenthes are and if they do it is clouded by misconception and misinformation. 

The first agribusiness: BOH tea plantations success story

No trip to Cameron Highlands is complete without a visit to the tea plantations. But why are tea plantations so beautiful, serene and peaceful?

Maybe is it because of the lush greenery, the cool temperature and the scare population? Or – as for vineyards in France- is it due to the delicate balance established between an ancient culture and a soil (“terroir” in French) shaped by the nature and men? 

Figure 4 : Heritage tea plantation in uphill Cameron Highlands 

Tea is the most popular beverage in the world, second only to water. Tea plants are mostly cropped in Asia with China, India, Sri lanka, Vietnam & Indonesia being the top players with more than 70% of worldwide production.

The 3 biggest producing countries in the world are all in Asia: China, India and Sri Lanka and together are around 63% of production. Malaysia is a small player with only 2,500ha -70% being BOH tea- but with a high yield and high quality tea (see FAO-UN statistics)

After Wall Street crashed in 1927, the world entered into a recession. John Archibald Russell– an English business man who had invested in Malaya rubber, coal, construction and plywood – decided to invest into tea planting (see the Russell family).

In 1929, he obtained a grant for 1,600ha of land in Cameron Highlands for tea cultivation.  

BOH plantation was its last venture, and proved to be the best one. As the Great Depression set in around the world, the premium teas grown at high elevations managed to maintain their prices (see a walk down memory lane with Tristan Russell). 

After 85 years, production capacity is around 3,000kg per hectare and the BOH tea- in a niche high-quality tea market- represents about 70% of all tea produced in Malaysia (see BOH tea plantation guide).

In addition to a climate not too cool, tea plants require at least 1,300 mm of rainfall a year and prefer acidic soils. Many high-quality teas are cultivated at elevations of up to 1,500 m above sea level, the plants growing more slowly which produces better-flavored teas.

Only the top 3 to 5 cm of the mature plant is plucked. These buds and leaves are called flush or shoot. A plant will grow a new flush every 7 to 15 days during the growing season.

A tea plant will grow into a tree of up to 16 m if left undisturbed, but cultivated plants- as for Japan bonsai- are pruned to waist height in order to ease the plucking.

Agribusiness management is a key factors in tea plantation

Tea plantation in Cameron Highlands has extended to more than 50 years. 

Under normal conditions, tea plant removes the nutrients from the soil- mainly N, P and K- through the plucking of young shoots. The fertilizers addition are aiming to restore these soil nutrients. There is a risk that long term usage of fertilizers might enrich the cultivated area with nutrients in soil.

Non-point pollutions in the environment are caused by runoff on the slope surface. Being located on hill with slope gradients up to 20 degrees, the runoffs are greater than on flat areas.  

By 2005, tea plantations were occupying 40% fraction of the total agriculture land in Cameron Highlands. But since that period this ratio might have decreased owing to fruit and vegetable agribusinesses’ development.

Over the period 1995-2005, for overall Malaysia, the production of tea has been more or less stabilized, while the production of both fruits and vegetables has increased by 94% (see FOA-UN: Fertilizer use  in Malaysia PDF), with certainly a much higher rate in Cameron.

Tea is the most environmentally friendly croppy systems in the Cameron Highlands. An evergreen shrub, grown on slopes of up to 60 degrees, it provides groundcover (dense enough to protect the soil from raindrop impact and low enough to avoid intercepted moisture falling as droplets to cause sub-canopy erosion). (see Barrow CJ & al.).

So there are strong reasons to think that tea plantations in Cameron Highlands are not the main culprits of increased pollution during the last period.  

Moreover, studies have shown that tea yield is affected by age of the plants. For older plantations the application of N should be restricted to low levels (about 50kg /ha/y) to maintain quality and prevent pest during stress periods (see TeaPlantation practices PDF).

Planting of improved genotypes and implementing appropriate N management strategies are key factors to avoid a decline of productivity associated with ageing and bush degradation.

Pruning is also seen as a key practice to strenghten the bush architecture and the production of leaves. In South India pruning before the harvest are practiced with a cycle of 4 years in order to improve plants productivity

Figure 5 : Tamil workers in Cameron Highlands