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Increased Market Integration, Value, and Ecological Knowledge of Tea Agroforests in the Akha Highlands of Southwest China

Selena Ahmed, New York Botanical Garden
John R Stepp, University of Florida
Robban A. J. Toleno, University of British Columbia
Charles M Peters, New York Botanical Garden

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Abstract

This study assesses the persistence and change of traditional land use patterns and ecological knowledge in response to expanded commercialization of tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica (L.) Kuntze Theaceae in an indigenous Akha (Hani) community in the midlevel montane forests of southwest Yunnan, China. Surveys were conducted in 2005 and 2008, over a period corresponding to a regional tea market boom and bust cycle, to compare the valuation smallholders attribute to land use types and to determine the role that value systems play in shaping environmental behavior and knowledge. At the community level, increased market integration of tea agroforests is associated with reconfiguration of land use, intensified management, reorganization of labor structures, and generation of knowledge on tea resources. Akha have tapped into customary resources and forged new social networks with tea industry agents to take advantage of emerging market opportunities. They have resisted state reforms calling for the cultivation of high-intensity plantations and introduced cultivars. Consequently, they have benefited from price premiums through niche market networks for tea sourced from agroforests and proprietary landraces not available to other communities disempowered by market cycles. Subsistence agriculture, home gardening, and foraging persist for food security despite tea wealth. However, as traditional values are reoriented toward market-based ideologies, the community may risk a breakdown of the social institutions that support sustainability.

Key words

ecological knowledge; land use; natural resource commercialization; social networks; tea (Camellia sinensis)
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087