Monday, 7 April 2008

Storms In the Tea-Pot

When people think about tea in Burma, one community springs to mind: the Palaung. Palaung tea can be found in every household and every restaurant - and it is also popular in China. For nearly a thousand years, Palaung people have depended on the small green leaves for their livelihood.

But the current economic crisis is badly affecting local tea-growers: “these days a kilo of tea won’t buy you a kilo of rice in our community,” says Lway Moe Hlaing (23) a Palaung woman who works on a tea plantation. Some people blame fluctuating Chinese currency rates for the economic slump. Others say climate changes have also had a negative impact. But Mai Aik Phone, General Secretary of Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), believes it is a political issue, relating to ownership of resources.

He points to the government seizure of a locally-owned factory ten years ago. The government claimed the factory was a health-hazard because it was adding other ingredients to the tealeaves. But Mai Aik Phone denies this, and says the government was simply looking for an excuse to fix prices without consulting the community.

“Now the government is not allowing people to build new tea-processing factories or companies in their community. But in a democratic Burma, things will be different. When the Palaung people have their own local government, they can use their own knowledge to improve the quality of their tea and export it,” he said. In theory it is already possible for local growers to sell their product directly to big tea companies, and so avoid the traders in the middle. But in practice it isn’t so simple.

Most growers can’t afford to get involved in a long buying and selling process. And they also lack the resources to transport their product. So they just deal with the tea merchants and accept whatever price is offered.
Lway Moe Hlaing hopes it won’t always be like this: “When Burma gains democracy, we will have the right to decide the price of our tea product because we own it and we process it. When this happens, Palaung tea will be a way of developing the country - but only if the government also accepts responsibility for subsidising tea-growers.”

Jeff Rutherford, a Social Research Associate based at Chiang Mai University, says experiences from other Asian countries may prove helpful – but he cautions against being over-optimistic: ” According to the developmental state model that emerged from Japan and Korea the state could play a big role in research and development, low-interest lending, tax credits and investment in training.

But subsidies would be less likely in a marginal commodity like tea. In any case, state involvement would be limited to large, well-connected players, not small producers. According to any model employed by governments – neo liberal, developmental state or Marxist – big is beautiful.”

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