CPEC – a hope for boosting tea plantation – The Express Tribune

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Pak-China collaboration will help reduce huge spending on tea imports
Pakistanis have proved to be real tea lovers not only in drinking it regularly two to three times a day, but also offer it to the visiting guests as the best source of hospitality.
Pakistan is now ranked among the top tea importing and consuming countries with total tea imports valuing at $590 million.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) reported that Pakistan was among the top seven countries where tea consumption had increased significantly and estimated a rise in per capita consumption of 35.8% from 2007 to 2016.
Tea has emerged as a major import commodity and is draining huge foreign exchange every year, therefore, the government has proposed a tea cluster in the agricultural transformation report published by the Planning Commission in 2020.
Tea plantation and processing have already proved successful in northern Pakistan, however, its commercialisation under the market mechanism needs the attention of decision-makers.
Though the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) has established a tea estate over an area of 50 acres along with green and black tea processing units, with the technical and financial assistance of China, at Shinkiari in Mansehra, it is yet to be adopted by the private sector on a sustainable basis.
During the soil survey from 1986 to 1989, a team of tea experts from Pakistan and China tested 64 sites in Hazara and Swat, and identified an area of around 64,000 hectares for tea planting in Mansehra.
Under the Chinese technical assistance, experts from the Tea Research Institute, Hangzhou, China worked during 1986-89 in Shinkiari and established the National Tea Research Institute (NTRI).
Mandated for research only, NTRI is well equipped and staffed for managing a small tea estate spread over 50 acres as well as green and black tea processing units. NTRI is now serving as a research base for tea culture in Pakistan.
The federal government has also engaged private sector companies for experimentation and commercialisation of tea, however, the pace and quantum of commercialisation has been very slow.
Therefore, unlike other tea-growing countries, Pakistan could not see the commodity’s production on a commercial scale in the past over 35 years since the establishment of NTRI and tea research stations in Shinkiari.
Commercialisation of tea is highly sustainable as it has social, economic and environmental benefits. Major social benefits include job creation for millions of unemployed youth and provision of a healthy drink loaded with antioxidants.
The economic impact includes self-sufficiency in tea production, which will not only help in resource mobilisation at the domestic level but will also reduce the import bill, thereby saving foreign currency.
Environmental benefits are increased oxygen production, controlling soil erosion in the hilly terrain suited for tea plantation, landscape and aesthetic impact on the soil surface, which will attract tourists.
Pakistan did try to commercialise tea in Mansehra, Swat and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) where suitable land was available and a project was also approved by Ecnec in 2007-08.
Under the project, the then government agreed to provide state land on lease to the interested private tea companies on a long-term lease but in the middle of project implementation, the subject of agriculture was devolved to provinces and since then the project has remained shelved.
Availability of a large piece of land spread over hundreds of acres at one place is a real challenge that the government must address as due to land fragmentation such large pieces of land are rarely available with private land owners in the hilly areas.
The options left are either to acquire a large piece of land or lease forest waste lands to the private tea growers.
Another option is cooperative tea farming, which is done in many countries, but that too requires huge support for establishing an industrial base for tea processing.
Pak-China cooperation
Now that China is fully engaged with Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan can easily benefit from the expertise and resources that Beijing possesses as all potential tea growing areas lie on both sides of CPEC route, providing an easy access to markets.
In addition, China has already established NTRI in Shinkiari and it will love to adopt it for a B2B venture in the agriculture sector. The expert, who led the Chinese team during 1986-1989, has expressed his willingness to visit Pakistan again.
At a Zoom seminar, organised by the China-Pakistan Agricultural and Industrial Cooperation Information Platform on June 23, 2021, the participants from Pakistan and China emphasised the need for cooperation in the commercialisation of tea in Pakistan.
The discussion sparks hope that China is willing to support Pakistan in this area too.
The major issue in the way is not the ecological suitability of land for tea production, but the availability of required privately owned land at one place.
Land fragmentation due to successive shares in inheritance has reduced the private ownership of land to a bare minimum, which is not sufficient for establishing a commercial tea estate.
In addition, the storage of water upstream and land development require spending of a huge amount of resources that no one is ready to bear for a crop that may need investment for five years to produce leaves for plucking on a commercial scale.
Latest technology including the tea processing and blending units will also have to be imported to initiate tea processing on a commercial scale.
The way forward is that the governments of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and AJK should identify suitable pieces of waste land of the forest department for long-term lease to the potential tea-growing companies, as that arrangement had already been made under a PSDP project from 2007-08 to 2012-13.
CPEC may provide technical and financial support under B2B or any other suitable mode while the tea cluster approach proposed by the agricultural transformation plan can also be implemented.
The government of Pakistan, K-P and AJK should provide all the required support to the private tea growers, offer at least 10-year tax-free regime for the promotion of tea industry and duty-free import of raw tea for blending, tea machinery, raw material for tea blending and promote exports, which will help the industry to take off.
This way Pakistan may enjoy its home-grown tea on a commercial basis and reduce or even eliminate foreign exchange spending on tea imports.
It is quite possible, given a huge area suitable for tea plantation, to increase production to a level where Pakistan can not only meet its own requirements but can also export tea of high quality.
The writer is a PhD in natural resources management and masters in forestry besides serving as divisional forest officer in K-P
 
 
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2022.
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