tea for trees: an interview with BOH tea on corporate social responsibility & replanting 18,000 rainforest trees

BOH Tea is located in the beautiful Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, where they are the countries largest producer of black tea and have been a household name since the 1920’s (much like Lipton or Tetley are in other parts of the world).   I have covered them briefly in the past, through photo posts, mainly because I think their tea plantations and the Cameron Highlands in general are so very beautiful.

I had a chat to the guys at BOH about a couple of topics I’m particularly interested in – conservation and corporate social responsibility (CSR), and how BOH have partnered the WWF-Malaysia to create the Tea for Trees restoration project.

As you may know from previous posts on this site; I’m a firmly believer in Fair Trade principles and in doing your best to support people and companies that deal with tea and tea growers in an ethical and positive manner.  BOH is a large company and I think getting some insight into how a big company can affect change is a really interesting one, especially when they direct these efforts into their own community.  Actually if you’re interested in CSR and ethical practices you might want to pop over to Triple Pundit: people planet profit, it’s a great blog.

BOH Cameron Highlands - photo via theplanetd.com

BOH Sg Palas Boh Plantation - Cameron Highlands. Photo by Carsem

First a bit of history:

Back in 2003, WWF-Malaysia began working on a reforestation initiative in the Lower Kinabatangan area of Sabah with the aim of improving orang-utan habitat and generating greater food sources for them in this region.

This initiative, known as the Habitat Restoration Project (HABITAT), involved the local community and entailed the planting of food trees in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. It begins with a tree nursery where fruit tree saplings are nurtured to a certain height and then transferred to a degraded land patch for replanting work.

Then in 2005, BOH came on board as one of the supporters by providing funding for the Habitat project to thrive on. Between the period of 2005 and July 2006, over 14,000 trees were replanted, restoring an area measuring about 5 hectares.  Aside from the Habitat project, BOH felt it was equally important to reach out to the public with the message of conservation of this endangered species.

In terms of creating awareness, BOH ran an on-train public education campaign involving the wrapping of an entire LRT train in prints to resemble the leafy habitat of orang-utan. This train programme reached thousands of commuters every day, stressing the importance of orang-utan conservation. BOH also spearheaded other public initiatives to drive the message of orang-utan across to the public.

Then, for two years from 2008 to 2009, BOH & WWF-Malaysia organised a public awareness campaign called Tea for Trees to raise awareness among the Malaysian public about the plight of the orang-utans. Through Tea for Trees, Malaysians had the chance to symbolically adopt a tree in exchange for the purchase of BOH tea and other goodies. Funds generated from Tea for Trees were channeled to the Habitat project for continuity of the reforestation efforts in Lower Kinabatangan. To-date, a total of 1,200 trees have been adopted through Tea for Trees alone; and more than 17,000 trees have been planted in the sanctuary and the adjacent forest gaps along the river.

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Tell me about BOH’s philosophy when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Being in the plantation industry, BOH Plantations is acutely aware of the environment that it operates in and is thus committed towards its preservation through sustainable practices and conservation efforts.   Leveraging on its status as a successful household brand, BOH has taken certain initiatives to contribute to the environment by being proactive in its conservation and enhancement efforts. This is in line with the company’s mission to help preserve and conserve the environment for a better tomorrow.

Moreover, as a consumer-oriented organisation, much of the company’s CSR projects are aimed at raising public awareness on issues that do not yet receive full grass roots support from the Malaysian public.  With that, two of BOH’s key areas of focus for CR are on wildlife and environmental conservation as well as creating a greater appreciation for the performing arts industry through the former BOH Cameronian Arts Awards.

The orang-utan is Malaysia’s natural heritage. It is an endemic species which means that they are unique to one bio-geographical region and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Malaysia is also one of the only two places in the world that remains home to these primates. Hence, it can be said that orang-utan is our iconic wildlife heritage.

In a similar vein, BOH Plantations is Malaysia’s pioneer tea cultivator and has always remained synonymous to the Malaysian identity and culture. As a born and bred Malaysian brand, BOH believes that it is crucial to preserve this national icon from diminishing in numbers. Therefore, BOH focused much of its environmental efforts towards the conservation of orang-utan.

I’ve seen that beginning in February this year (2010), you’ve been involved in the reforestation of 20 hectares of degraded forests under the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life Project – can you tell me more about this project.

The Kinabatangan floodplain is the largest and most important wetland in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo and is home to many endemic wildlife species such as the Borneo Pygmy elephants, orang-utans and the Proboscis monkey. However, this unique area has become fragmented due to the opening up of land for agriculture (primarily oil palm plantation).

For this reason, WWF-Malaysia established the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life project with the aim of creating ‘corridors’ to link fragmented pockets of forests in the area. This will in turn enable the orang-utan to traverse in search of food and to mate.

What size of area has been rehabilitated, or is on the road to rehabilitation thanks to the BOH Tea – WWF-Malaysia partnership.

Reforestation work under the Habitat Project started in late 2004. From then until July 2010, a total of 18,466 trees have been planted. The survival rate of trees planted varies among sites, but on average, 40% to 45% survive.

Most of the planting sites are located within protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries) and riparian reserves along the main river of Kinabatangan.  In 2008, a roadmap on priority areas for restoration in lower Kinabatangan was developed and WWF-Malaysia has since been promoting future restoration within these areas.

Kinabatangan Floodplain

In other parts of the world, Munnar in India for example, much of the native plants of the area have been destroyed to make room for tea plantations.  Has this been the case in Malaysia also.

It is true that when the tea plantations were planted in Cameron Highlands in the 1920s and 1930s, forests were cleared. Unlike India, tea is a minor crop in Malaysia but overall agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation. At BOH, we recognise our part and this is one of the key reasons we are so passionate about doing what we can to preserve the environment going forward. In addition, we have a policy of retaining forest pockets on our estates as preserves of biodiversity and a habitat for wildlife.

What advise would you give to another tea company who is thinking about developing a CSR programme or philosophy, what have you learnt along the way that you’d like to pass on to younger tea companies.

When developing a notable yet credible CSR programme, we believe it is important to have a clear distinction in mind of the direction that the company wishes to take and its outcome. This direction will vary from company to company, depending on their business principles / corporate values, vision and mission, as well as the industry they are operating in.

BOH Tea Plantation. Photo by Kiumo

For example, some companies may want to consider supporting programmes or causes that are close to their line of industries. We, for instance, have taken on environmental and wildlife conservation as one of our focus areas as we are in the agriculture / plantation industry. On the other hand, other companies may wish to focus their CSR efforts on areas that are unrelated to their core business operations.

Regardless of the cause selected, we believe that the most important thing is to ensure the ongoing commitment and sustainability of the programme undertaken. There must be sincerity in driving the cause towards the betterment of environment and social well-being.

Moreover, transparency and best corporate governance practices will go a long way in creating excellent CSR programmes.

 

If you’d like to make a donation to Tea for Trees you can do so here.

A donation of RM 100 (roughly $31 USD / $24 Euro) is enough for five trees and gives hope for a new home for the orang-utans of Malaysia.

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  1. […] great tea companies that are doing some neat things in the CSR space, such as Rishi Tea, Runa and BOH Tea and now I’m so pleased to be able to add Canada’s nourishtea to this group. Avi Markus […]



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