February 08, 2016
Although the name ‘Tibet’ has many associations for people, the production of wine is probably not high among them. But over the past decade a significant wine industry has developed in Tibetan villages along the upper Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers, which is having a profound impact on local culture and agriculture.
Over the past ten years, the government has encouraged villagers across the region’s warm and dry river valleys to grow grapes. They gave farmers seedlings and concrete trellises, taught them about cultivation and put them in touch with buyers from the newly established Shangri-La Red Wine Company. In several areas fields have been transformed into grape monocrops. The majority of the communities sell these grapes but have no knowledge of wine making.
Wine production has a long, if mostly limited, history in the region. In the late 1800s, French Catholic missionaries established a strong presence in the neighbouring Nu (Salween) river valley and set up churches along the Lancang River as well. When they arrived at the southernmost Tibetan village of Cizhong they planted seedlings and made wine. Cizhong has grown the grapes continuously since then. The grapes are a varietal called Rose Honey. They used to be grown in France but were wiped out by a blight and thought to be extinct – yet were preserved within the church walls at Cizhong.
Yet the Rose Honey strain is grown by few villagers – the Shangri-La Red Wine Company will only buy a new variety of Cabernet Sauvignon grape which it introduced to the area. Unlike the Rose Honey grapes, the new variety requires significant chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which has become a major concern among villagers. One sign of this is that villagers are growing reluctant to intercrop vegetables among grape vines.
Food security is also now an issue. Tibetans living along the Lancang have traditionally grown wheat and barley for themselves and corn for their livestock. Some villages now grow little to no grain having completely shifted to grapes. People have to rely on the profits from grapes to buy enough food, fertilisers and pesticides. It has also led to major changes in diets, as people who traditionally subsisted on wheat and barley are now buying rice.
People who used to be known for herding dzos — or cows crossed with yaks — are limiting the number of livestock they keep so they can use farming land for vineyards rather than growing grains for animal feed. As a result products such as milk and butter are becoming scarce.
Every year villagers become very anxious about selling the grapes when they first ripen for harvest otherwise the grapes rot and shrivel on the vines. But every year, despite government assurances, the company buyers arrive late and so securing the maximum price from grapes is a constant struggle for villagers.
Villagers recognise the vulnerabilities involved in switching their crops to grapes, but still chose to because of the high profits. “If you plant grapes your income will increase, but you also have to spend more money to buy food,” said one villager.
Brendan A. Galipeau is studying for a PhD in anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi