BEIJING, Sept. 19, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — The Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list on Sunday during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, becoming the first World Heritage site for tea culture and bringing the total number of China’s sites on the list to 57. Over the past 12 years, the local administration and villagers have cooperated closely in the ecological development of traditional villages, old tea plantations and forests. By incorporating advanced and scientific methods into traditional tea processing, the local community has shaken off poverty and created a better life for residents. Experts told the Global Times that the world heritage site demonstrates ecological ethics and wisdom that features harmony between man and nature and establishes itself as a key inspiration for sustainable development.
Located in the city of Pu’er, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, the Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of Jingmai Mountain covers nine traditional villages, three old tea plantations operated and managed by villagers for generations and three protective and partition forests.
Here, the mountain nurtures tea, and tea nurtures people. The local villagers are grateful for nature’s gifts, cherish every inch of land and consider the ancient tea forests as a part of their lives.
Treasure inherited from ancestors
The property was jointly created by the ancestors of the Blang people who migrated to Jingmai Mountain in the 10th century and discovered and domesticated wild tea trees as well as the ancestors of the Dai people, who later settled there.
As a multi-ethnic settlement, Jingmai Mountain still preserves the languages, music, customs and festivals of different ethnic groups, adding more unique charm to the ancient tea forests.
Driven by their reverence for their ancestors and nature, local villagers have a unique "tea ancestor belief," which deepens their conscious behavior and collective identity in protecting the ancient tea forests. Whether it’s the Blang ethnic group’s Shankang Festival, the festival of tea ancestors among the Blang people, or the Dai ethnic group’s Water Splashing Festival, people express gratitude to the tea trees and seek blessings for the tea forests and villages on important days.
It is said that the Blang people believe every tea tree has a spirit. For this reason, a secret ritual ceremony, passed down for generations, is carried out before people of the ethnic minority group begin picking tea leaves.
On the basis of longstanding exploration and practices, the aboriginal people developed a smart understory growing technique, that is, to create ideal light conditions for the growing of tea trees through limited understory cultivation while preventing insect hazards through a well-preserved forest ecosystem, so as to produce quality organic tea leaves without application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
This smart cultivation technique has been practiced and carried on through local religious beliefs and cultural traditions.
Chen Yaohua, director of Peking University’s World Heritage Research Center, told the Global Times that as the first tea culture heritage site in the world, the successful inscription of the Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er is of great significance for tea culture since beverages such as wine and coffee have long been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Additionally, a property with such an ancient history enriches the diversity of world heritage and promotes the global exchange and trade of tea culture.
According to Chen, this project combines government management with grassroots autonomy based on traditional beliefs. It has formed a unique conservation and management system for protecting cultural and biological diversity while ensuring the sustainable utilization of natural resources.
He explained that the understanding and support of local villagers was crucial to the success of this inscription. Due to their Buddhist beliefs, each village has a "Buddha Master" who recites scripture. The content of these recitations often integrates Buddhist teachings with specific local matters.
"The local Buddha masters strongly supported the inscription project and even created music videos to share their recordings with the villagers. The villagers were convinced by their efforts, making it easier for us to carry out cultural landscape projects related to ancient tea forests and ancient villages," said Chen, adding that the harmonious social atmosphere of these ethnic minority communities contributed to the smooth preparation of the inscription.
A ‘self-sufficient’ eco-zone
The new World Heritage Site is home to more than 900 kinds of plants and 340 types of animal species, including insects and terrestrial vertebrates. Besides its iconic "tea tree" label, the site is also a "self-sufficient" zone for rich biodiversity.
Tang Lixin, an expert at the local development center for tea and biological industry of Pu’er city’s Lancang county, told the Global Times that the unique climate and environment of the region has made it an independent ecological zone within which plants and animals can "mutually nurture" each other.
As the site is encircled by two rivers, there is adequate moisture for plants as well as balanced air humidity, which is considered the best environment for trees, particular tea trees.
Tang revealed to the Global Times that aside from ancient tea plants, the "phoenix tree" is also known as a popular plant in the area. More than 100 honeycombs can be made by the "rock bees" that tend to dwell on the tree, making it the perfect example of plant-animal coexistence.
The expert also noted that such a reciprocal relationship shed lights on how to expand the local industry by developing the honey trade as a new sector that can exist along with the traditional tea industry.
Xiang Kangzuo, a wild animal researcher, told the Global Times he saw the area’s rich animal life, particularly the leopard cat and birds of the mountain area, when he once visited for research.
Xiang said that the bird-tree connection keeps the tea trees free from vermin.
"The value of the biodiversity of the Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain combines two factors. The first is the number and importance of the area’s natural resources. The second is the autonomous and self-sufficient exchange between such animals and plants," Xiang noted.
Both Xiang and Tang emphasized to the Global Times that human beings have hardly interfered with the natural order of the region. Tang, however, added that the ecology of the Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain would not be complete without human beings’ contributions.
Local people, especially tea farmers, have had a tacit consensus to not overly exploit their tea tree resources since their father’s and grandfather’s generations.
"Selective use and protection are two rules that have never changed," Tang remarked.
Rules such as banning livestock such as sheep from entering the Old Tea Forests was only one regulation that villagers set to protect the area. Other than that, locals have avoided bringing potential harm to the area from chemical fuels by avoiding mechanical tools and instead insisting on hand-picking tea even though manual labor reduces production efficiency.
"Calling it ‘traditional tea wisdom’ is not about avoiding new machines or technology but continuing our ancestors’ respect, love and the pride of being a ‘tea person’ that can be carried for generations," Tang noted.
So far, there are 108 plant species that are unique to Yunnan in the region, of which five are endangered species and 11 are national protected species. Aside from birds, the region is also home to 13 kinds of snakes such as Elaphe taeniura, also known as the "black eyebrow snake," and cobras.
A better life
People here often say, "A leaf enriches a community." Jingmai Mountain has persisted in its tradition of sustainable development, painting a new picture of ecological prosperity in the modern era. It is worth noting that more than 90 percent of the labor force in the region rely on tea for their livelihood. Encouragingly, an increasing number of young people are choosing to stay in their hometowns and safeguard the tea forests left by their ancestors.
"We practice moderate and reasonable harvesting and utilization of ancient tea trees. Currently, we mainly harvest tea leaves in spring and autumn, while leaving the trees undisturbed during the summer to allow them to accumulate nutrients. The picking is still done manually, and we are careful to leave tender buds on the new shoots," Xiangong, a Dai woman, told the Global Times.
Ten years ago, Xiangong took the lead in establishing a tea cooperative, which now has 229 households taking part. The cooperative’s establishment has enabled more centralized and standardized marketing of the tea from Jingmai Mountain.
Chen mentioned that an increasing number of young people are choosing to stay in their hometown or return after graduating from universities to contribute to the development of the tea industry in the region. Tea income accounts for more than 90 percent of local villagers’ income. As a result, the residents’ income surpasses regional and national averages. This has driven sustainable economic and social development at the heritage site and promoted the conservation of ancient tea forests.
"With the cultural influence and poverty alleviation efforts provided by the tea industry and the rich cultural background of the ‘tea ancestors,’ it is certain that more young people will choose to contribute to their hometowns. Besides harvesting and selling tea, they will inject new vitality into Pu’er through activities such as opening homestays and designing cultural and creative products," said Chen.
Hu Jianrong, a deputy mayor of Pu’er, stated that inspired by the millennium-old tea planting model of Jingmai Mountain, more than 1.36 million acres of tea gardens in the city have been managed ecologically since 2010. Projects such as the Pu’er Tea Processing and Storage Logistics Park and the Tea Horse Ancient Cellar have been established near Jingmai Mountain. This has attracted more businesses and tourists to the area, with the number of visitors reaching 6.15 million in 2022 and generating tourism revenue of 6.24 billion yuan ($855.2 million).
With the successful inscription of Jingmai Mountain’s ancient tea forests, this "hidden paradise" has gained more attention but also faces challenges brought by flourishing tourism. Local culture and tourism management authorities are now tasked with finding a balance between effective preservation and sustainable utilization.
"We hope to develop tourism service facilities at the foot of the mountain, including building a tourist town, to reduce the pressure of tourism," said Chen.