The growing Tibetan wine industry raises concerns about local food supplies and pesticide use.
Many familiar with China and Tibet, may have heard about China’s “Shangri-La,” a region in the northwest of China’s Yunnan Province bordering Tibet and Sichuan that was officially renamed in 2001 after the location of a mystical Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The goal of this naming campaign was to heavily promote and extend tourism throughout the region, a strategy that has proved highly effective for the local government with the number of both Chinese and foreign visitors continuing to grow annually and with the increasing expansion of a tourism industry catering to the desires of travelers wanting to experience both Tibetan culture and local natural wonders.
Grapes on vine in a village near the Yunnan Tibet border
Over the last decade, a significant corporate and agricultural development project in the region has involved the growth of a Tibetan wine industry among rural villages on the upper Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers. About nine years ago, the provincial government approached villagers across the region’s warm and dry rivers valleys and encouraged them to begin growing grapes to annually sell to the newly established Shangri-La Red Wine Company, a new corporation with close government ties that markets its wine as being distinctly Tibetan and coming from “Shangri-La.” As part of this program, villagers were given grape seedlings and concrete trellises to support their new vineyards. Slowly, more and more villages have caught on to this practice and pattern of agriculture to the point that in several areas, fields have been transformed into monocrops, though this is not the case is all locations. Indeed in some of the region’s villages, a diversity of crops including wheat, barley, buckwheat, corn, and in the southernmost areas rice, are all grown.
The government introduced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards to the
village along the Upper Lancang in Yunnan close to Tibet.
Though I had been traveling and studying in this region for seven years and had indeed witnessed grape growing, it was not until 2011 when I arrived to conduct research on the potential impacts of hydropower resettlement in the region for my master’s degree that I began to realize what a large undertaking has occurred with grape agriculture and the major impacts that this has had on local livelihoods. Discovering these issues, I began to explore them more deeply, writing a chapter in my MA thesis focused on the topic (which is soon to be published as an academic article), and now looking at this grape agriculture, its history, and the changes associated with it in great depth for my doctoral research.
Original Rose Honey vines in the church yard at Cizhong in the
south of Yunnan’s Tibetan region
Despite their recent expansion across the region, grapes and wine actually have a long and interesting history in the region in isolated areas. In the late 1800’s, French Catholic missionaries established a strong presence in the region, primarily in the neighboring Nu (Salween) river valley but with a few successful churches and Tibetan converts in the Lancang as well. While establishing their churches, the French also began to plant grapes and to produce wine, a practice which is still carried on to this day by villagers in Yunnan’s southern most Tibetan villages in Cizhong. Unique to Cizhong on the upper Lancang is also a variety of grapes known as Rose Honey, a strain that was thought to have been completely wiped out by a blight in France but was found preserved within the church walls at Cizhong.
Township government Cabernet vineyards planted outside of Cizhong’
Based on my own interviews and ethnographic work in the region, the Rose Honey grapes are in fact only grown by a limited number of villagers and today are primarily unique to Cizhong alone. When the prefectural government and Shangri-La Red Wine Company introduced and encouraged grape growing throughout the region approximately eight years ago, they provided a new variety of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which is the only variety that this company will purchase. Therefore the majority of the communities in the region grow and sell these grapes, though in some cases around Cizhong they also produce some wine to sell to tourists themselves, though this is not the case everywhere, especially in the most upstream areas closest to Tibet where some villages have no knowledge of wine making. Unlike the Rose Honey grapes, the Cabernet variety also requires significant chemical inputs by way of fertilizers and pesticides.
From a sustainability standpoint, this increasing reliance on chemicals is one of two major areas of concern and interest – the second is food security. Villagers themselves are not unaware that they are becoming increasingly reliant on chemicals and that this may be causing problems either. In one village where I work, only two years ago it was a very common practice among households to intercrop vegetables for personal consumption among grape vines. However starting this year I both noticed that the practice has decreased and was informed that this was due to villagers own worries about eating foods exposed to too many chemicals and possibly now toxic soils. Similarly, one of my informants in Cizhong prides himself on two features of his grapes: they are completely organic, and he only grows the Rose Honey variety he obtained from the church yards. This man has pointed out that most people in Cizhong use many chemicals because the Cabernet grapes introduced by the government won’t grow without them, while the Rose Honey grapes can be grown without any inputs. Using these characteristics he markets the wine he makes as being both organic and of the historically significant Rose Honey variety, and has managed to develop a very good income for himself by selling wine to local government officials for banquets and to a restaurant in the famous tourism city of Lijiang to the south.
Cizhong villager tending his organic Rose Honey vines. He makes and sells wine
himself rather than selling grapes to a company.
Food security and changes in traditional cropping patterns and ways of life are also a major issue created by grape growing. In the downstream regions around Cizhong, the majority of villagers still grow large amounts of grain including rice (the northernmost rice in the Mekong and the only rice grown by Tibetans), wheat, barley, corn, and buckwheat to fulfill their own subsistence and livestock needs. This is not the case upstream however where villagers now grow little to no grain in exchange for grapes as a monocrop; by doing so they then rely on the profits from grape sales to purchase grain for subsistence and also fertilizers and pesticides. This has brought about two issues. The first is major changes in diet, as people who traditionally subsisted on wheat and barley are now purchasing rice and in a sense becoming “Hanified” by their diets as they move away from eating traditional Tibetan foods. Second, there is now a great reliance on the government and the Shangri-La Red Wine Company to purchase grapes, which are the number one income source and thus hugely important in securing funds to purchase adequate amounts of food to eat. However from year to year, selling grapes is a major issue of concern, particularly being able to sell them at the ideal time when they are first ready to be harvested because if one waits too long they begin to rot on the vines and lose weight which is how they are measured for sales.
Interview with an 85 year old Cizhong villager who learned to make wine from French Catholics in the 1930s (photo by Sun Fei).
Since the harvest season of 2011 when I first began studying these issues, the company purchases have consistently arrived late every year, which has created serious worries among villagers about their ability to sell the crop. Despite government assurances that the company is guaranteed to arrive by a certain date each year, this has not appeared to actually be the case, and securing maximum prices and value from grapes from year to year is a constant struggle for villagers as well as the new reliance on outside food purchase which are well captured in the following quotes from interviews:
“Before we planted grapes we didn’t have to buy corn and pesticides, but now we do. However our income is still better growing grapes. If you plant grapes your income will increase, but you also have to spend more money to buy food.”
More or less, villages fully recognize the vulnerabilities involved in switching their cropping to grapes, but have still chosen to do and have invested much time and energy in doing so because of the high monetary returns that they provide.
An abbreviated version was posted here earlier this week on thethirdpole.net