Geographical indication, a type of trademark commonly used in global food and wine markets, is now helping farmers in Central China stay out of poverty.
Sangzhi county, in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, is known for its distinctive pillar-like peaks and precipitous cliffs featured in the movie Avatar. With a population of 470,000 and 28 ethnic groups, it was once home to some of the poorest people in China.
In past decades, many people left their rural homes to find work in big cities. Only a few stayed in the villages to grow corn or potatoes for a living.
Since 1995, the National Intellectual Property Administration has helped to fund poverty alleviation projects in the county.
One of the highlights was using GI to raise locals' incomes.
A GI is a sign to show a product has a specific geographical origin and possesses qualities or a reputation due to that origin. It can be seen as a quality guarantee, distinguishing it from competitors.
Benefits include standardized processes, increased production and more employment for locals.
Research found the poverty-stricken region had rich GI resources, such as tea.
Abundant water and mild temperatures make the county suitable for growing white tea. A tradition among the Bai ethnic group, white tea has a history dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
Faintly sweet, the tea was found to have anti-inflammatory properties, but it did not attract much market attention.
Before 2012, tea plantations in the county covered around 1,333 hectares. Poor sales disappointed many local enterprises and farmers.
In 2017, the administration began assisting local tea companies to obtain a GI. Two years later, Sangzhi white tea was listed as a protected product under China's national geographical trademarks.
Since then, the tea industry has developed rapidly, with more factories and tea plantations now covering more than 5,200 hectares. The tea leaves are processed by 46 enterprises and the output value last year was 228 million yuan ($34.9 million).
More farmers are involved in tea production and marketing. The standardized production process provides guidance for farmers and reduces production costs. About 35,000 people working in the county's tea industry have been lifted out of poverty, said county head Zhao Yunhai.
Li Yanping is among them. In 2010, a car accident left her husband paralyzed and her family one of the most impoverished in her village, relying on government aid.
Li has worked for a tea company since March, selecting tea leaves, and she can earn up to 4,000 yuan a month. It also allows her to have time with her 16-year-old child and bedridden husband.
"I can support the family by my own labor, rather than by handouts," she said.
The success of the GI-based approach in Sangzhi is also clear in zongzi leaves, a raw material for Chinese glutinous rice dumplings as well as sushi.
With the administration's assistance, Kanghua Reed Leaves obtained a trademark for the leaves in August. The industry now employs 40,000 farmers, including some with disabilities, and has helped 12,000 people cast off poverty, county authorities said. Some large factories are exporting their products.
The administration has launched 21 projects to promote GI industries in poverty-stricken regions since last year, benefiting more than 600,000 people, Gan Shaoning, deputy head of the administration, told a news conference in November.
Shi Peng, a poverty-alleviation official sent by the administration to Sangzhi's Cangguanyu village in 2017, said GI industries will make further contributions to the revitalization of China's countryside.
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