17 January 2022

How agroecology supports biodiversity conservation in tea plantations


The adoption of good agricultural practices in tea plantations is crucial to the conservation of biodiversity. Indian researchers send a message to the market involving 25 countries

by Matteo Cavallito


The agro-ecological management of tea cultivations can help the conservation of biodiversity by counteracting the negative effects of monocultures, said scientists from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a basic research center in Bangalore, India,

“Tea itself doesn’t help in biodiversity growth; however, there are narratives from around the world which can serve as evidence that when tea is managed to be part of the larger landscape and preserve biodiversity, it becomes a complimentary space for biodiversity conservation in addition to existing protected areas,” Annesha Chowdhury, ATREE researcher and co-author of the survey told the US environmental NGO portal Mongabay.

Agroecology makes tea farming sustainable

Food production is known to play a primary role in biodiversity loss. And plantations, in general, are no exception. “Tea grows in 26 different ways across 25 countries – from ancient tea forests to tea monocultures,” the research says. By comparing the different crop models and their impact on the ecosystem, the survey shows clear findings.

“Tea plantations expansion and conventional management have been the main threats to biodiversity,” the scientists report. “However tea agroecosystems can become complimentary spaces for conservation outside protected areas via adoption of traditional practices or incorporating organic farming, native shade trees, and maintaining habitat diversity within monocultures – standards that multiple certifications often endorse and enforce serving as a helpful ‘nudge’.”

A bridge between traditional knowledge and modern science

The strategies identified are practical examples of agroecology, the discipline that studies the application of ecological principles to agriculture. The goal of its promoters, is to create a resilient system capable of reconciling the needs of production with ecosystem conservation.

According to UC Berkeley professor Miguel Altieri, the Chilean agronomist and entomologist who is regarded as one of the leading experts of the discipline, agroecology is a bridge between traditional knowledge and modern science. As well as a “holistic discipline”, based on the correlation between soil health, healty agriculture and human health.

Crops do not interfere with the environment

However, how can we design an ecosystem-friendly agriculture? Managing the space allocated to crops in a way that does not disturb the elephants’ migratory routes, the researchers say, recalling the case of two farms in the Indian district of Darjeeling. Moreover, in Thailand, “Wild tea forests support old-growth endemic species such as Schima wallichii, Castanopsis tribuloides and magnolia and multiple varieties of tea, imitating forest-like conditions,” Annesha Chowdhury explains.

Scientists have revealed a wide variety of practices in many different areas. In Japan, in particular, tea is cultivated in 300 different grasslands. In the forests of Sri Lanka, moreover, crops are designed not to threat the survival of different species of mammals.

We better bet on certified products

According to the authors, certification is a useful strategy to encourage the use of good practices. In fact, the growing consumer demand for sustainable products is also a crucial factor for the implementation of biodiversity protection systems.

“With most tea getting certified, and focus on landscapes rather than just the product,” the research says, “one can convert monocultures into a mosaic of landscapes that support biodiversity along with the livelihoods of people dependent on them.”