Forest Friendly Tea from Lanna Tradition: Kenneth Rimdahl at TEDxChiangMai (Transcript)

Well, this is fermented tea leaves that people in Northern Thailand use for eating. Yes, this is the same leaf, and it’s from the same plant as the tea we normally use for drinking.

This, you know what it is, no? The drinking tea, I guess. So, please remember this because this is an ancient heritage from Northern Thailand that can provide to save the forest here in this region. I’ve been working with tea since 1994, when a good friend of mine, and my tea mentor, convinced me to open up a tea shop in Madrid, in Spain. And about 15 years ago, I came to Thailand to source ceramic teapots. At that time, I didn’t have a clue that Thailand was growing tea.

Not until a friend of mine – who today is also my business partner, Mr Vorakan Wongfu – he told me so. But I was not sure, because I’d never heard about tea from Thailand. I’d heard about tea from India, from Sri Lanka, from China, even from Russia, but never about tea from Thailand. So he wanted to show me, so he took me to the local market here in Chiang Mai, Worarot Market, and he shows me this.

Doesn’t look like tea, does it? So, still I was not very sure. So he told me, “Okay, I’ll take you up to the mountain; I’ll show you the plant.” So he took me up to the mountain, and it was the tea plant, but this was growing in the forest. I was amazed because it was so different from all the other tea plantations I’ve seen around the world. You know, these kind of small, green, beautiful bushes, grows nice fields.

But this tea was growing in its natural habitat, together with all the other trees. Well, we continue our journey in Northern Thailand, traveling around, and I saw these kind of bare mountains without so many trees, some completely without any trees. And I started thinking about this deforestation and also about this tea that my friend just had shown me inside the forest. So, I thought, this was my profession, so I thought, wow, it’d be cool to make tea for drinking from this tea plantation and forest. But I went back to Spain, and it took many years.

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And about five years ago, I met a very important tea professional here in Chiang Mai, and she introduced me to other tea professionals and tea farmers. And they said, “Yeah, it’s okay, you can do that. We do it already.” So then I got the idea of being able to produce tea only from Thailand, but forest-friendly.

So, why is the deforestation so bad? This is an example from Nan Province here in Thailand. Probably people who live in Thailand probably have read about it or seen it on television – this problem in Nan here. Luckily, this is not how most of the mountains look up here in Northern Thailand. But if we don’t take care, maybe this is how they will look in the future, and this is not the future we want, is it? We all have seen this in our school books. I think everybody saw it in their school books – we learned this.

But did we learn from it? Even if you live in a condo in the center of Bangkok, you need the forest because the forest, it provides the oxygen for you to breathe, it cleans the air of all the pollution that we are throwing out, it gives us biodiversity, and it gives us the rain and keeps the water that we need to survive.

So, what can tea do to save forests, or to help the forest? No, I’m not coming to that yet. First, I have to tell you a little bit about the deforestation. The deforestation is not new; it’s been going on for a long time. In colonial times, the Europeans came here and took a lot of teak woods from these forests. And they came here to get teak wood for building ships, or make furniture for their homes and so on.

The Thai government had tried to do many things to stop this, but still, illegal logging is going on. On top of that, in the 50s and 60s, due to instability and wars in neighboring countries, there was a massive immigration coming here. The population tripled within 50 years. So this, of course, caused a lot of cutting trees and building houses. And they also need food, so a lot more agriculture.

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These mountains are also – They also started industrial farming in these mountains, for crops such as rubber, corn and fruit production. All this has put the forest in Northern Thailand in a little bit of danger.

So now I come to what tea can do to save this forest. But first, to answer that question, I have to first show you a little bit about the history of the tea plant. Today, as I’ve said before, the tea grows in these beautiful tea plantations. They are very efficient; you can pick a lot of tea very quickly, and at some plantations, you can also pick with machine. And also produce fantastic tea. These efficient plantations are very important because tea is the second most-consumed drink in the world, after water. So we have to pick a lot of tea to give everybody their teacup.

And now, take a look at this: this is also tea, but in its original form. This is wild tea. This has been growing for thousands of years in the mountains, in Thailand as well. And before the Chinese, who had this brilliant idea to invent the tea as we know it today – the tea for drinking – the tea was growing wild like this, in the forest, in only one area in the world. In the mountain chain between Assam, in India, into Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan, in China.

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