Dreamlining my way to the UK on my first trip abroad

EXCHANGE VISIT #2: SUKANYA SEEKS OUT SOUTHAMPTON

By Sukanya Saikia
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Being from Assam, I have seen tea gardens from my childhood when I used to visit my paternal house. I would be astonished by the scenic beauty of the tea growing regions; lush green in all directions. I used to be in awe that such huge estates could be managed so well. Tea is such an extremely important commodity for trade in India. Recently (a few months back), while I visited the tea-growing region of Upper Assam, I saw the saddening truth of the impact of climate change on tea. Although I am aware of climate change, I did not notice its impacts so closely until then. It sparked my interest in the subject; I felt a sense of duty towards the region where I have been born and brought up. So, when I came across a newspaper advertisement regarding a position of a research fellow at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, a century old institute dedicated to R&D in tea, I applied for the position, got through the screening process and here I am!

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

I am Sukanya, a newly appointed research fellow and a proud member of our energetic and amazing research team. The brilliant collaborative project I get to work on is being undertaken jointly between the Tea Research Association and the University of Southampton (funded by UKIERI). I consider myself highly honoured to be able to work with such an eminent group of people. Since starting my position in May this year, I’ve had fantastic exposure to an elite group of people working on climate change and many other diverse fields, and as part of the project I get to exchange knowledge through visiting the UK. 26th July was the day of my first trip abroad. Of course, being my first international trip, it helped in adding to the excitement! On my journey I was accompanied by the Indian project coordinator, Dr. Niladri Gupta. He’s an excellent guide and knows so many facts about so many places! Before visiting a foreign land, I was a bit apprehensive for a few reasons: I was conscious of the accent difference between the two countries; I was wondering whether they would be welcoming enough; whether they would understand me; whether I would be able to understand them; would they be patient listeners. These fears dissolved instantly when I visited the University of Southampton and met the new people.

Ellie gave me a warm welcome at the University and Niladri showed me around the University campus. I was awestruck to see the huge library and all its facilities. Almost each and every leading journal is accessible; which is a big constraint in most of the R&D institutes in India. This is really helpful for the students and all the researchers. I have realised that life in UK is highly technical; yet very simple. Back in India, life still is more complex, even with tremendous manpower. I’m not saying that India is lacking in opportunities; India is full of doors waiting to be opened with various directions waiting to be explored. I feel it’s the attitude of certain individuals which need to be changed. The work culture in UK is very different – time is not a factor for them; they are dedicated to work. I respect their work culture. I feel sometimes it becomes a bit difficult here to achieve such a productive work ethic.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it's currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it’s currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

Anyway, the UK research team provided an enthusiastic welcome and a thoroughly engaging environment for me to share their knowledge and experience. During our meetings we discussed climate change issues and how we can identify potential solutions to mitigate its impact on tea production and assist the transition of the tea gardens to adopt climate-smart agriculture. It was a highly productive two weeks and I learnt a great deal. Apart from this project, other prospects of future work were also discussed. It’s superb to see how minds work and come up with such brilliant ideas. How these ideas could be executed and transformed to reality is just a few steps away. After all, small steps lead to big milestones!

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Besides the enlightenment of knowledge, I saw some English countryside as well as historic and beautiful places during my stay; Winchester, wild horses in New Forest, the Red Arrows on the Isle of Wight, cruise liners at Southampton docks, and many sites around the historic city of Southampton and some of London during the weekends. Even when we visited these places the subject of tea and climate still managed to creep in; we stopped in a Whittard tea shop in Winchester and interacted with the shop owner about her views on the tea trade; we reflected upon the warm weather the UK was currently experiencing and the science behind why this might be; we discussed about the newly developed English tea estate at Tregothnan in Cornwall. This was all impromptu relative to the situation and quite fun!

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen in Winchester

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen (a chalk stream) in Winchester

Exchange programs such as UKIERI provide much essential opportunities to enhance and broaden the thinking, understanding and seeing the world with different perspectives. This two-week trip has been a life-changing experience for me. Thanks a lot to Ellie, John, Jenny, Andy, Emma, Pete and Niladri for showing me around this intoxicatingly beautiful country of the United Kingdom; and thank you so much for the marvellous food which my taste buds got to experience. For now, we are progressing with the research and having frequent discussions over Skype, but I cannot wait to return next year to see everyone again, meet new people, carry on with our excellent work and come up with many new ideas for how science can help my home state of Assam cope with the climate impacts of the future.

The next steps… As part of my position as a research fellow, I have the opportunity to enhance my skills through undertaking training. I have already completed an online course on An Introduction to the Science of Climate and Climate Change conducted by the University of Oxford, Met Office Hadley Centre and Natural Environment Research Council in UK. Next, I am preparing to undergo training in MATLAB which will further my skills in coding to enhance the development of models to analyse climate and tea yield data.

From the tea estates of Malawi… to those of North-East India

EXCHANGE VISIT #1: JENNY GOES TO JORHAT

By Jenny Willbourn
MSc Applied GIS and Remote Sensing
2013-2014 University of Southampton

In 2008 I wanted an adventure, I ended up in the middle of nowhere, forty minutes walk from a road. I was on my gap year in Mulanje, southern Malawi where I lived on a tea plantation and taught at the local school for 8 months. Little did I know at the time that tea would shape my time in academia. Three years later I jumped at an opportunity to go back to Malawi and secured my place as Lujeri Tea Estates summer GIS consultant  – a job that ultimately lead me to the University of Southampton to study GIS and RS.

Figure 1 – A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

I extended my stay in Mulanje to collect data for my dissertation which questioned to what extent people’s personal accounts can be combined with climatic change data and to what extent the datasets are looking at the same thing. I concluded that the local Mulanje people, whose lives were intricately tied to the wellbeing of the tea estates and to success of local subsistence agricultural, were certain that climate change was occurring and negatively affecting their livelihoods. However, the climatic data, in general, did not support the views of the local people and hence many of the increasing struggles they were facing were as a result of socio-economic changes, not exclusively climate.

Two years later I was invited to participate in UKIERI exchange programme for a project on climate-smarting tea in Assam, India. This was rather serendipitous as no one was aware of my tea background. I again jumped at the opportunity and assisted in the collection of GPS ground control points across several tea plantations in Assam.

Figure 2 – Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

It was my first trip to India and needless to say it was fascinating – not only from a socio-cultural point of view, but being able to compare the tea management systems between Mulanje and Assam. The tea grown in Mulanje has a smaller leaf and plucking table (the height the bush is pruned to), it also tended to be very well maintained and very closely planted. Importantly much of it is irrigated. In contrast, the tea in Assam is slightly larger, higher and not all the tea estates have the resources to maintain the bushes so well. There is no irrigation. It is important to note, however, that the scale of production in Assam is vast compared to Mulanje. The other visible difference is that the majority of tea in Assam is grown in shade under trees to reduce the ambient temperature, but not in Mulanje. Both regions rely on low-skilled low-paid workers for plucking the tea but both are now looking at mechanisation, although in very different ways. If (or when) mechanisation takes off this will significantly alter the socio-economic relationships between tea plantations and the local people.

The climate setting is also vastly different. Tea, actually a tree not a bush, originated from the Assam region where it is now grown on the huge flat flood plain of the Brahmaputra river, whereas tea was introduced to Mulanje in the colonial period and is able to grow due to Mount Mulanje, a 3000m granite inselberg, that increases the rainfall and lowers the temperature of the local area. It is currently unclear how tea will respond to future climatic changes and how this will affect the people who rely on it.

Figure 3 – An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

During my time in India I stayed in the Tea Research Institute of India and having also met with the Tea Research Association in Malawi in 2012, I was quite surprised to learn that there is not greater collaboration between the various tea research institutions across the world. Sadly, some of these institutions do not have the funding and resources they need, which highlights the importance of cross-country/cross-institutional research such as the UKIERI project.

I also needed to tie in my time in Assam with my MSc research project. Aware of the sensitivity of tea to climate and keen to keep my project quantitative I was drawn towards to the emerging concept of physical water productivity – the amount of yield produced per unit of water consumed. In the context of a changing climate, this concept allows us to assess:

  • Where tea is grown with the least water consumption;
  • What the management practises in high water productivity areas are;
  • What locations have scope for improvements;
  • What locations are most at risk in the future.

This is particularly important as water resources are likely to be under increasing strain as the global temperature rises, precipitation patterns and quantities change, and the world population continues to expand therefore increasing demand.

Based on the work of Zwart et al, 2010 I utilised and adapted the WATPRO model which negates the need for a vast number of agro-climatic variables normally needed for water productivity modelling and replaces them with inputs available from satellite remote sensing data. The aim was to create an average water productivity baseline from which changes can be measured in the future in Mulanje and Assam.

Figure 4 – Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity baseline 2002-2012.

Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity (WP) baseline 2002-2012.

I am currently in the stage of processing the results and it is clear that the model has produced sensible results for Mulanje, although it has most likely a slight underestimation. It is also clear that the management of tea in Assam (the use of shade trees in particular) has significantly reduced the viability of the model in Assam. Although there is not yet full validation data for model work such as this, such models are likely to play an increasingly important role in agri-management especially in locations where money, time, knowledge and facilities limit what is known about the tea crop. In the long-term this increases the potential for precision agricultural to ultimately produce higher yields with less inputs.

I’m not sure where my next adventure will take me, but the betting is definitely on somewhere that grows tea!