An Eye-Opening Tour through the Amazon’s Only Black Tea FarmApril 13, 2012
Back from an incredible trip to Ecuador, Maya Albanese – a coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable value chains team in North America – talks about her experience touring the Amazon region’s only black tea farm.
“How do I get to Palora, Ecuador?” I asked of an Ecuadorian friend during a recent trip to to visit Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms.
Her perplexed response: “What is Palora?”
As it turns out, she wasn’t the only one who had not heard of this tiny jungle town at the cusp of the Amazon in an area of Ecuador known as “El Oriente.” Even my trusty Lonely Planet guide made no mention of Palora.
Why was I looking for this seemingly nonexistent town? Palora is the site of Hacienda Sangay, a 50-year-old tea farm growing the only black tea in the Amazon region. Certified in 2008, the farm – which has long been committed to responsible production — has been the lifeline of the area for decades. In fact, the town of Palora emerged after the tea farm was established in 1964.
Before I headed off to Palora, I decided to stop by the capital city of Quito for a rest, advice and to locate a driver who could take me to this mysterious place. I was fortunate to find Carlos, a great driver and soon-to-be new friend, who had passed Palora on drives to Macas, a larger city located nearby.
Carlos and I drove along the famous ‘Ruta de los Volcanes,’ passing towering ice-capped mountains and waterfalls, and the famous hot springs of Baños*. We moved from one ecosystem to another, until finally the deciduous flora faded away and the forest became greener, the birds more symphonic, the air heavier and hotter, and the road rockier.
When we arrived in Palora six hours later, the streets were completely empty and the restaurants closed, but the one hotel in town took me in for the night. It was the end of Carnaval, and no one had returned to work yet. I used a local phone to call the tea farm. ‘I’m here!’ I exclaimed.
The next morning, I finally saw Hacienda Sangay and it took my breath away. Driving past undulating rows of lush green tea plants, I could not help but be distracted by the backdrop of volcanoes, palm trees, vines and tropical flowers. The farm is impeccably maintained under the direction of Pedro Veintimilla, who has been working and living at Hacienda Sangay for 30 years and is deeply committed to its success and the health and happiness of its workers.
Pedro gave me an outstanding tour of the farm and its processing facilities. We visited the farm’s hydroelectric plant, which supplies almost all of Hacienda Sangay’s power. The farm maintains several forests of native trees, which are selectively cultivated to provide all the wood necessary for the tea farm’s operations. Hacienda Sangay has also eliminated combustible chemicals as part of the certification process, and has replaced the petroleum that runs its harvest machines with oil from local palms. When I asked Pedro about other changes implemented as a result of certification, he mentioned a reduction in the overall use of agrochemicals, better and safer agrochemical storage, and an emphasis on worker safety when handling these chemicals. He also mentioned that, since earning Rainforest Alliance certification, Hacienda Sangay has seen the return of many native bird and animal species that had almost disappeared.
The farm is owned by “La Compania Ecuatoriana del Te,” which sells infused and flavored black teas under the Sangay and Horniman’s brands. It is the largest seller of tea in Ecuador, in addition to being the only black tea producer in the region.
My journey to Hacienda Sangay concluded with a memorable tour around the surrounding area. Pedro and I visited one of the popular local “playas,” or river banks, where locals gather to swim and picnic. We watched a pink mother-of-pearl sunset over the volcanoes of Parque Nacional Sangay and talked about the incomparable beauty of the farm and its surroundings.
The farm was a shining example of the benefits of Rainforest Alliance certification in a region with rich biodiversity and precious natural resources.
*Banos is home to two great, green hotels that have earned Rainforest Alliance verification. Check them out at SustainableTrip.org