Old Version
Cover Story

It Takes a Village

China’s newly created national park system is balancing conservation and development efforts by empowering local communities to make on-the-ground changes

By Wang Yan Updated Jan.1

View of Huanggang Mountain, the highest point in Wuyishan National Park, July 21, 2022

On a drizzly night in late September 2022, Xu Shanwei brewed me some of his personal stash.  

Using an electric kettle, the 60-yearold tea farmer steeped some wild Lapsang Souchong, a black tea native to the hills of his home in Tongmu Village, South China’s Fujian Province.  

He instructed me on how to fully appreciate it from across the table of his elegantly-decorated tea room in his four-story farm house: “You need to first smell the fragrance, then observe its color and limpidity before tasting its unique flavor.”  

I took my first sip of the amber liquid, and was hit with the tea’s signature smoky flavor, followed by malty and floral notes and a lingering sweet aftertaste. 
The tea’s subtleties made for a complete sensory experience, and I immediately felt refreshed and revitalized.  

Like wine grapes, terroirs give teas their distinct flavor profiles. “Tea trees absorb aromas from their surroundings. The reason for our tea’s consistent quality is our healthy and unpolluted natural environment,” Xu said. “The tea that you just tasted was picked from centuries-old trees growing close to virgin forests, so you should have picked up on the aromas of its mixed vegetation.”  

Nestled in the immense mountain forests of Wuyishan National Park, Tongmu is home to over 3,404 plants and 8,700 wild animal species.  

Villagers have farmed tea there for centuries, as Tongmu was a major producer of tea exports to Europe. Lapsang Souchong was first sold to Dutch traders in the 1600s, but eventually found popularity in Scotland and the British Isles. In his 1974 historical novel Centennial, author James A. Michener makes it the preferred beverage of Scottish fur trapper Alexander McKeag, who calls it “a man’s tea, deep and subtle and blended in some rugged place... better even than whisky.”  

Tea bushes grow throughout the village of some 2,000 residents. Near the neatly built houses along the paved mountain road, bamboo groves and pristine forests line the river bank and mountain slopes. Xu’s neighborhood is full of gingko, fir and Chinese yew trees, some more than 1,000 years old. 

Getting Parked 
The Wuyishan Mountains, also known as the Bohea Hills, were the starting point for the 17th century 10,000-mile Tea Road which stretched across the Asian and European continents. Wuyishan is celebrated as the birthplace of Oolong and black tea.  

In his book A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, who infamously absconded with the seeds and secrets of Wuyishan’s black tea in the mid-19th century, describes a landscape that has not changed since: ravines rich in bamboo, hills carpeted with thistle and oak, and shrub-covered mountains. “Never in my life had I seen such a view as this, so grand, so sublime,” he wrote.  

Wuyishan National Park spans Fujian and Jiangxi provinces with more than 210 square kilometers of untouched native forests, the world’s largest midsubtropical forest ecosystem on that same latitude. It has over 270 species of rare protected plants including gingko, southern Chinese yew and Chinese cypress.  

It is home to 163 species of protected animals, such as the black fronted muntjac and yellow-billed tragopan. Several holotypes of species have been discovered within the reserve’s core zone, such as the short-tailed crowtit.  

Wuyishan was established as a nature reserve in 1979, with Tongmu Village just outside the core zone. In June 2016, Wuyishan was among the first 10 pilot areas for China’s national park system. It became official on October 12, 2021, when China announced its first five national parks during the United Nations COP15 biodiversity conference held in Kunming, Yunnan Province.  

After decades of protection, Wuyishan’s forest coverage rate is 96.7 percent. It is celebrated for its rare birds and reptiles. Over the past three years, experts have discovered 16 new species in Wuyishan, such as the Rana wuyiensis.  

Unique from the other four national parks, such as the remote Sanjiangyuan and sprawling Giant Panda national parks of China’s west, Wuyishan is in the developed and populated southeastern coastal region.  

More than 3,000 people live inside the park and over 30,000 live in the surrounding area on the Fujian side alone, most of whom subsist on tea farming. In 2021, the total output value of the tea industry in Wuyishan reached 7.5 billion yuan (US$1b), while per capita disposable income of rural residents was 22,430 yuan (US$3,068), according to local government data. 

Growing Incentives 
In the 1970s, Tongmu’s government set up a lumber and a bamboo mill, which caused deforestation and soil erosion. When they closed in the 1980s, the environment improved and villagers were more empowered to apply their local knowledge in protection initiatives. “When they set up the nature reserve in 1979, it gave us agency in managing and protecting our natural resources to a certain extent,” Xu Shanwei said.  

As domestic tea prices increased in the 1990s, tea farmers cleared forest to expand their plantations. “In the 1990s and 2000s, the local government encouraged people to expand their farms to boost GDP,” Luo Xianhua, a 55-yearold Tongmu tea farmer, told NewsChina.  

However, that changed after Wuyishan became a national park. “Now everyone is aware that tea plantation expansion is strictly banned inside the park. We realized that without regulation and restrictions, there would be more destruction to our forests,” Luo Xianhua added.  

Xu Zikun, head of the Wuyishan National Park team in charge of forest protection in Tongmu, said the park has employed 13 villagers as rangers since 2019 to patrol for signs of deforestation or farming, as well as poaching, barbecuing or littering.  

“We hired villagers as forest rangers, which not only creates jobs but also takes advantage of their knowledge of the forests to monitor the natural environment and act quickly when they spot problems,” Xu said.  

Luo Xianhua has worked part-time as a forest ranger since the program began. On September 14, 2022, he patrolled Tongmu with another ranger-tea farmer, 56-year-old Luo Hui. “We can stop any activities that damage the forest or the environment, like collecting herbs, logging or clearing forest for tea,” Luo Hui said.  

The men said they regularly encounter animals like venomous snakes, wild boar and black bear. “Once I came across a wild boar. It was squealing and running at me. I was so scared that I climbed a tree to escape it. That’s why we often patrol in pairs,” Luo Xianhua told NewsChina: “We geolocate and log issues like felled trees or wildlife sightings.”  

Forest rangers must conduct 12 patrols every month in return for 2,300 yuan (US$317). “Now destructive activities have dwindled significantly since the national park was established with the help of these community-based forest rangers,” said Xiao Fangyi from the Wuyishan National Park Management Bureau. “The tea quality has improved along with the natural environment, which also benefits locals,” Xiao said.  

Other incentives have similar positive effects. Since its ban on firewood collection in the 1980s, the local government has provided villagers 2,000 yuan (US$276) each annually in fuel subsidies for cooking, and electric kitchen appliances for free.  

The park also subsidizes villagers 1,700 yuan (US$234) per mu annually for lost income from restrictions on harvesting wild bamboo. According to official data, Tongmu Village’s 19,193 mu (12.8 square kilometers) of bamboo groves were included in the scheme. “The bamboo easement management is very favorable for local villagers since some bamboo groves are remote and hard to reach, and the cost for harvesting there is pretty high, not to mention dangerous, possibly resulting in accidents or death,” said Chen Wei, deputy director of Wuyishan National Park Management Bureau.  

“Every year, my wife and I are eligible for compensation and subsidies totaling 12,000 yuan (US$1,655),” Liang Junde, a well-known tea maker in Tongmu, told our reporter in late September. “Though far from enough to cover our daily expenses, it makes up for some of our lost income from ecological protection measures.”  

Luo Hui said the restrictions have other benefits. “Bamboo won’t be falling down everywhere and blocking the road anymore,” he said. Villagers also report more wildlife sightings since the restrictions, including wild boar, Chinese muntjak, silver pheasant, monkeys and various native songbirds.  

Before 2018, illegal construction and land use was common in some parts of the park. “Now the public acknowledges the importance of protection and they won’t destroy a single plant or catch a bird inside the park,” Chen Wei said. 

Going Organic 
Every April and May, tea farmers in Wuyishan harvest and process black tea. The rest of the year is spent managing their tea plantations. During my visit to Wuyishan in mid-September, 2022, I saw many farmers pulling weeds from their fields, particularly those producing organic tea.  

Farmers said this generations-old tradition in Wuyishan is called “digging for gold in early autumn and digging for silver in late autumn,” as early autumn is the ideal time for weeding and tea tree roots grow fastest in winter.  

Though labor intensive, it greatly reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. The pulled weeds are left in the fields to dry in the sun, then decay in the rain and fertilize tea plants. According to Fang Zhou, deputy general manager of Wuyishan Yongsheng Tea, an organic tea company in Xingcun Town inside the park, weeding by hand is a natural form of pest control, as it exposes insect eggs under the soil to sunlight, which destroys them.  

Tongmu grows a variety of species, many of which are local hybrids. “The diversity also makes them resilient to harsh climate conditions, or outbreaks of diseases or pests,” Liang Junde said.  

According to Luo Hui, pests have been minimal in Tongmu’s long history of tea planting. “I think it’s because the sufficiency and diversity of plants in the forests, which provide habitats for birds, counterbalance the insects,” he said. “But on large-scale tea plantations outside the village, the situation is not as ideal, and most farmers have to resort to pesticides as far as I know.”  

Many tea plantations in the park have adopted organic farming methods in recent years. Among them is Wuyishan Yongsheng Tea, which occupies 5,000 mu (3.33 square kilometers).  

On some organic tea farms, there is rapeseed and Chinese milkvetch planted among the tea rows to help nitrate the soil. The park’s management bureau invested millions of yuan to transition farms to organic methods by providing plants that aid nitrogen fixation. They supplied trees like Chinese yew, cherry, gingko and sweet osmanthus to increase biodiversity and attract birds, which feed on unwanted insects.  

“I remember we had widespread outbreaks of weevils and tea moths in the early 2000s, both disastrous for tea plants, ” Fang Zhou told NewsChina. While Fang said he has noticed more insect species on his tea plantation than previously, their numbers are too low to cause damage. “When we stopped using pesticides and allowed the natural revival of flora and fauna diversity, nature resumed its balance and surprised us by allowing our tea to grow in a much healthier environment,” Fang said.  

Fang spots more birds on his farm nowadays, including the rare red-billed blue magpie with its beautiful light-blue feathers. “A few days ago, I saw an eagle hovering low over our tea farm, and then I learned there was a king cobra around,” Fang said.  

While organic farming methods increased expenses in the first few years due to higher labor costs, farmers saved on pesticides in the long run. Also, the better quality yields fetch higher prices. “We calculated that so far, profits per mu have increased by 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (US$275-413),” Fang Zhou with Wuyishan Yongsheng Tea said.  

Yang Wenchun, owner of mid-sized organic tea farm Shouxi Rock Tea in Xingcun Town, reports similar gains.  

Local farmers at first resisted the park’s imposed rules, especially when illegally expanded tea farms were shut down and reforested. However, the overall environment and water and soil resources have significantly improved, he said. “Hares and pheasants can be seen in our neighborhood, and eagles often circle above our tea farms. Also, more local tea farmers are adopting organic farming such as planting soybean and rapeseed,” Yang said. “My tea yields are 30 percent higher per mu.”  

“This year, Fujian has received much less rain than average because of La Niña. In many other places, tea plants died due to drought. But inside the park, with better vegetation to conserve water resources, most tea plants have managed to survive,” Yang said.  

Zhou Zhenghua with the park’s management bureau said that communities inside Wuyishan National Park generally earn higher incomes than those around it. “The surrounding mountains and rivers have nourished the forests, so prices for fresh tea leaves from inside the national park are at least two or three times higher than from places nearby.”  

There are 8,000 mu (5.33 square kilometers) of tea farms in Tongmu, where nearly all of its 430 households work in the tea industry. In 2017, per capita income of Tongmu villagers reached 20,810 yuan (US$2,870), and in 2020 per capita income was 24,000 yuan (US$3,310). Average household incomes earned from making and selling black tea can reach 200,000 yuan (US$27,580) per year, with some big brands raking in millions.  

Increased quality and a growing market are behind the changes, Fang Zhou said. “When China’s economy was weaker, tea was a subsidiary agricultural product. As living standards improved and Chinese people’s spiritual pursuits broadened, tea drinking came to embody an artistic sensibility and a highbrow lifestyle. The value of tea has enhanced despite the cost increases, so our profit margins have improved a lot.”  

Xu Shanwei said that educating local communities about the benefits of environmental protection was essential to them forgoing immediate profits for sustainability. “There is a difference between self-motivated and compulsory protection,” Xu said. 

Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), a national first-class protected animal in Wuyishan (Photo by Huang Hai)

Stejneger’s bamboo pit viper (Trimeresurus stejnegeri) (Photo courtesy of Wuyishan National Park Management Bureau)

A new species of horned toad, Megophrys ombrophila, discovered in Wuyishan in 2019 (Photo by Kevin R. Messenger)

Parasitic plant Mitrastemon yamamotoi, a vulnerable species (Photo by Xu Zikun)

Chong’an moustache toad (Leptobrachium liui), a holotype species from Wuyishan (Photo by Zheng Youyu)

Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana var. mairei), a national first-class protected plant (Photo by Xu Zikun)

Elliot’s pheasant (Syrmaticus ellioti), a national first-class protected animal (Photo by Huang Hai)

Bretschneidera sinensis, a national second-class protected plant (Photo by Xu Zikun)

Golden kaiserihind (Teinopalpus aureus), a national firstclass protected animal (Photo by Xu Zikun)

Drupeus guadunensis, new species discovered in Wuyishan in 2020 (Photo courtesy of Wuyishan National Park Management Bureau)

Brewing Balance 
Drastic changes in policy are bound to generate conflict. For example, a widespread outbreak of pine wood nematode, a worm-like plant parasite, in late 2019 posed new challenges.  

The National Forestry and Grassland Administration warned in mid-2019 that the outbreak threatened 900 million mu (600,000 square kilometers) of pine trees across China. In parts of Wuyishan, there were withered pine trees afflicted with nematodes during my visit in September.  

As a countermeasure, the park banned the import of pine to Tongmu Village. This hindered the production of Lapsang Souchong, which is traditionally smoked over a pinewood fire.  

“Initially each household was allowed to cut down one or two pine trees to process tea. Then it was gradually prohibited. Before early 2020, we could still buy pine from outside the reserve for tea-making. Now we don’t have a way to smoke tea. We have to resort to electric tea driers instead,” Luo Xianhua said.  

“Though complaints in Tongmu Village about the complete ban on pine imports remain, villagers are seeing more dying and dead pine trees in other regions and they are starting to realize the potential dangers if we don’t take strict measures,” Chen Wei told NewsChina.  

The park’s management bureau has cooperated with Fujian Agriculture and Forest University to develop a fuel brick substitute made of compressed pine sawdust and pulverized charcoal. But for tea-makers, this is far from the real thing. “The flavor it imparts is completely different compared to our traditional way. To our palate, the new method is more like artificial flavoring than natural pinewood flavor, which may not go over with our customers,” Liang Junde said.  

With their stockpile of pine running thin, Liang said his company uses a mixture of wood and fuel brick. “So far, our customers haven’t complained, and we can only pray that the nematode outbreak ends soon,” Liang said.  

“There will always be conflicts between conservation and development. At least we’ve seen more positive changes and locals in the park are recognizing the benefits of conservation initiatives. This has helped strike a balance,”said Huang Zongwei from the Wuyishan National Park team in charge of forest protection.  

Farmers said their market hinges on product consistency. “No matter what variety is trending, as far as quality is ensured and the environment is wellpreserved, our tea will find its market,” said Ling Junde, adding that despite the economic slump due to ongoing Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the tea farmers are optimistic about the future of black tea.  

Occasionally, Xu Shanwei hikes in the virgin forests to pick wild tea leaves, which he heats and rolls to make topshelf black tea for his customers and friends.  

This was the tea he shared with me, which even after 10 steepings still retained its flavor. “The tea from virgin forests lingers on my palate, its sweet aftertaste long-lasting. For me, tea from centuries-old tea plants should be strong and sophisticated, but also miraculously fresh and clear, like an infant’s purity,” Xu said.  

“Now we know that environment can directly cause differences in tea quality, and villagers know that protecting the environment results in high-quality tea. I firmly believe that based on our close ties with and traditional local knowledge of nature, we can coexist in harmony with it,” Xu said.

Xu Shanwei brews some local Lapsang Souchong in his tea room, September 15, 2022. The inscription behind him reads: “good tea is grown by lazy farmers,” meaning tea grown in the wild in a well-preserved environment is of the best quality (Photo by Wang Yan)