Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Story of the "Ylang-ylang Village"

A few days before I left Xishuangbanna, I visited a village close to Jinghong where up until last year ylang-ylang essential oil was produced. I'm writing about this visit because the story of this village is an extremely good example of the completely unsustainable management of a project involving essential oils that was initially meant for the development of the local economy. On all three aspects of sustainability- social, economic and ecological- the ylang ylang oil business just outside of Jinghong proved a complete failure.

Ten years ago an entrepreneur arrives in Jinghong and decides to plant around 50 hectares of ylang ylang trees. The climate is ideal for growing ylang ylang, the world market demand for ylang oil is very high, so this business promises to be very prosperous. So in 1995, the trees from the rainforest on a few hills around Jinghong are cut down. Thirty six families (who anyway had lost their land) are displaced from the Simao prefecture (another prefecture in Xishuangbanna, about 8 hour-drive from Xishuangbanna, where labor costs are much lower than in Xishuangbanna). These families are placed in a newly constructed village at the foot of the hills where ylang trees are to be planted. This is the village I visited. That's why it is called "ylang-ylang village," because before the start of the production, no village existed in this area.

Everything in the village was built towards the production of the ylang ylang oil: the distillery, close to an attic where the freshly picked flowers could be placed while waiting to be distilled.

To plant the trees, harvest the flowers and then distill them, the farmers were paid around 300 yuan a month. As soon as the trees were tall enough for the flowers to be harvested and the oil to be produced (around four years ago), the entrepreneur stopped to pay them. He was facing financial difficulties as, even though the oil was of good quality, none of the international fragrance houses wanted to buy it. As a result, he could not pay back his loan to the bank. Soon, the land was sold to another entrepreneur. The farmers that had first been displaced, and who then planted the ylang trees had to cut them down. These farmers had nowhere to go, no means of subsistence and were left to the mercy of the first entrepreneur that came up.

Where the rudimentary distills used to be.

This time, the entrepreneur wanted to plant rubber trees. So the hill just outside of Jinghong, which was once covered with a lush rainforest is now covered with rubber tree seedlings.... The industry might go on for another 30 maybe 40 years, after which, the entrepreneur may face the same problems the ylang entrepreneur faced. And once again, the farmers may have to cut down the rubber trees and probably leave the "ylang soon to become rubber village" because the soil will have been completely depleted of its nutrients from the rubber tree monoculture.

The new entrepreneur with the leader of the village planning the new rubber plantation.

Rubber tree seedlings in a corn field, where the ylang ylang trees once stood.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Rubber Tree Plantations in Xishuangbanna

As soon as I left Da Sha Ba, Yinshi Qi and Wu Kai, I hopped on a bus towards Jinghong- the capital of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. Xishuangbanna shares borders with Laos and Burma and his home to 27 ethnic minorities including the Dai, the Hakka, the Hani, the Bulan. Because of its unique location at the meeting point of temperate and tropical climates, Xishuangbanna has an extremely diverse flora and fauna. After being in the mountains close to Tibet, Xishuangbanna felt so irreal with its heat, humidity and tropical forest.

The forest in Xishuangbanna

A Bulan village at dawn

Drying rubber seeds and rice in a Dai village.

In Jinghong I visited the Tianzi Biodiversity Research and Development Center lead by a German ecologist, Josef. Josef runs the center with his Chinese wife, Minguo. I initially contacted them because their website mentioned that they were making essential oils from plants native to Xishuangbanna. In fact the essential oils are just a small part of their research. But on a Friday morning, I show up at the Center, which turned out to be Josef and Minguo's home. We chatted for a while about their research and about my project. This conversation went pretty well as later this afternoon, they offered me to take my stuff from the hostel in Jinghong so that I could stay with them for a while. During my stay with them, I learned a lot, mainly about the rubber industry and its negative effects on the tropical forest in Xishuangbanna but also about sustainable agriculture. I took the opportunity to question my project and in the end decided to slightly change its directive line.

Life in the Chinese countryside is tough. Now that people need cash money to buy clothes and other commodities, farmers can no longer rely on a subsistence-style of farming, where farmers could survive solely from the crops they grew. To address this problem, the government provided the farmers with a very attractive solution: rubber. Once the rubber is planted, the sap can be collected once the trees are 7 years old and every year for 30-40 years. We calculated that every year, depending on the size of the farmer's allocated land, the rubber harvest represents an income of over 1,000 Euros and may reach 3,000 Euros. This is a lot and up until now is the most lucrative source of income for the farmers in Xishuangbanna.

A house in the rice fields

A teenager collecting the rubber sap

However, rubber poses a number of ecological problems. In order to plant the seedlings, thousands of hectares of rainforest are decimated and replaced by monocultures of rubber trees. Furthermore, rubber sap is toxic for a number of insects and plants, and so the rubber plantations are a serious threat to the biodiversity of the Xishuangbanna rainforest. So the researcher's idea is to find new economic uses for native species: using banana flowers as ornamental plants or selling essential oils of rare plant species... Then the production of a variety of plants could potentially be as lucrative as rubber, and a mini forest composed of these diverse species could replace the monocultures, hence increasing the biodiversity.

The forest (right upper corner) is threatened by deforestation

During my stay with Josef and Minguo, we went on many trips to the forest, smelling different plants. We tried to distill the leaves of a very peculiar ginger- but the yield was extremely low.... We also visited local villages that had been producing ylang ylang oil, the botanical garden, the tropical plants institute...

The distillation apparatus we built from what we could find to extract the oil from the rare ginger species

I ended up staying with Josef and Minguo much longer than what I had originally planned. It was hard to leave this homely and conducive-to-learning environment... but I have to move on, and so I left, a few days before the Chinese National Day, October 1st.

A collection of pictures from the forest:

We took the picture VERY quietly...

What I call a "bubble gum" caterpillar.

Another weird guy.

I almost walked in its web... ahhh...

A rare orchid species. Josef, who collects them to cross them, was in heaven.

A very fragrant flower from Josef and Minguo's tropical garden.

A banana flower from the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden.

Da Sha Ba: Citronella Distilleries Taking a Break

It's been a long long time since I last updated the blog and so, as you can imagine, a LOT has happened since then. I am now in Hong Kong, waiting for my Indian visa. This means that my adventure in China has come to an end. I can't believe it!! time is really flying by!

More than a month ago, after spending a few days in Kunming, I left for DaShaBa, accompanied by Wu Kai, an entomology Masters student at the Yunnan Agricultural University who had accepted to be my interpretor. We reached DaShaBa after a 4 hours bumpy bus ride from the city of Mojiang, known as the capital of tea in Yunnan. DaShaBa is a small village (not more than 1,000 families) perched on the hillside next to the Black river which flows down to Vietnam. My main interest in visiting DaShaBa was to observe and participate in the production of citronella essential oil. I was expecting to arrive in a village surrounded by rice paddies and occasional distillation units placed in the middle of citronella fields as in Binchuan where the geranium essential oil was produced. So I was surprised when the bus dropped us off somewhere along the dirt road on a hillside covered with trees. On each side of the road, there were small concrete houses with tin roofs, but absolutely nothing around the houses resembled a rice paddy or a citronella field. On the contrary, it seemed that the houses had been crammed on the hillside, in an area that I could guess had earlier been covered by jungle. Later, as I was strolling around the village, I realized that trees that were now covering the hillside were no longer strangler fig trees or giant oaks but they were all rubber trees.

What I thought would be an active stay in DaShaBa, helping the farmers with the citronella harvest turned into a two-day observation of the villagers' seemingly laid back life. Around DaShaBa, the citronella gives an extremely good oil, but it is in direct competition with the rubber harvest, which is far more lucrative. When the international market price of citronella oil is below 60 Yuan/ kg, the farmers prefer to concentrate all their efforts on the collection of rubber. And so, when I visited DaShaBa, the few distillation units in the mountain were inactive.

Yinshi Qi, the head of the family that hosted me, holds a small convenience store in DaShaBa. He also buys citronella and anise seed essential oil from the farmers of DaShaBa and of the neighbouring villages. Hence, when he is not travelling back to Kunming to sell the oils to a larger company that refine them and then trade them with international customers, he spends his day in his shop (a room in his house, just in front of the kitchen) waiting for the occasional customer to buy a pack of cigarette or a pound of noodles. So he ends up playing Chinese chess all day in front of his shop. His wife, apart from doing house chores, spends time on the front porch chatting with the other women of the village, nibbling on sunflower seeds or watching the latest Chinese soap opera featuring love and of course martial arts. The store and the oil trade brings the family enough revenue to have plenty of food and to send the children to school. It seems that Yinshi Qi and his wife's only ambition is that their children do well in school. The children are under a lot of pressure because competition to attend university in China is fierce, and Yinshi Qi realized that the only way to secure a future is by attending university.

Eventhough my stay in Da Sha Ba was completely different than what I had imagined, it was extremely enriching. It gave me a better idea of the different layers in the Chinese society. I was also able to "talk" about Chinese politics with a veteran of the Vietnam war who is now a member of the Chinese Communist Party. To "answer" my questions, he kept on telling me how great France is, because for him, France is synonymous with "beginning of Communism". I guess he is referring to the events of the Commune in Paris in 1871.

The day before I left Da Sha Ba, I was excited to go to the rubber tree plantation to see more closely how fresh and unprocessed natural rubber looks. At that time, I didn't realize that these neatly arranged rows of rubber trees that seemed to blend in so well with the landscape, are actually one of South-East Asia's most important environmental threat.