A grape story: From France to the Upper Mekong Valley in China


Ci Zhong, a Tibetan-Naxi village nestled in the Upper Mekong Valley, is renowned for its Catholic Church, which was built by French missionaries in 1914 AD. The French brought the first grape vine to the valley at about the same time. Ci Zhong locals inherited the techniques of vineyard cultivation and wine making from the French and do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides in their fields. Today, they are still growing the grape variety, Rose Honey, brought by the French a century ago. This grape variety has already died out in the rest of the world, due to a disease that wiped out almost all grape plantations in Europe at the time. About 160 kilometres north along the valley, the Naxi people of Bamei village have also starting cultivating a variety of grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon. 

As part of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP), the Asian International River Center (AIRC), a research centre based out of Yunnan University, is conducting a household survey under its food security component. From 30 March to 7 April, I accompanied a team from AIRC to five villages in Deqin County, Yunnan Province, to conduct a household survey and collect samples for soil productivity studies. Bamei was the first village we visited.

In Bamei village, which is situated by the Mekong River at 2,500 metres above sea level, the villagers started grape cultivation in 2009. Grapes cultivation was part of a poverty-alleviation programme backed by the Chinese government, based on a feasibility study, wherein experts deduced that the arid climate in Bamei was favourable for grape and walnut cultivation. Since then, more experts have arrived with grape vines, concrete posts and wires, teaching the farmers about how to start and maintain vineyards. All materials and technical costs are paid for by the Chinese government. 

Two years into the programme, the vineyards have yielded grapes and, during the harvest season, government-owned companies from nearby towns buy grapes by the truckload. This particular case presents vineyards as an effective adaptation strategy for mountain farmers in arid zones. A typical vineyard requires less water than traditional highland barley, maize, or wheat, and the income from grapes is higher per hectare. The highest income per mu (0.07 hectares) of grapes was about 6,800 RMB (1,097 USD). 

Tsering Tsomu, an indigenous Tibetan woman in Bamei, recalls the time when locals relied on highland crops and stall-fed animals. She says that, after changing to grape cultivation, the villagers observed a significant increase in income, but also a decrease in available fodder for their stall-fed animals. Like many other villagers, Tsering now grows wheat in between the grape trellises for fodder. Contrary to the grape variety grown in Ci Zhong, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, requires synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, Tsering says that the soil is quite hard and difficult to till. The HICAP supported research team is looking into the relationship between soil productivity and grape cultivation, as well as drivers of change and impacts on food security along the Upper Mekong River.