Development with identity

Forest conservation projects in China transformed livelihoods but also brought an end to traditional agriculture, threatening crop and animal species and, Andreas Wilkes explains, culture too.

A township government in Gongshan county, in south-west China’s Yunnan province, appointed Bingdang (a pseudonym) to represent his hamlet in the 1970s, a post he held until two years ago. During Bingdang’s period in office, he witnessed numerous government-backed development projects come and go. “They taught us to construct rice terraces and grow rice, but now the terraces are used for growing corn for the pigs,” he said. “Then they encouraged us to raise goats, but because of the wild animals, our herds never flourished. The same happened with the cattle. I’ve seen so many projects fail, that I cannot count on this one. Yes, you could say I’m growing that plot of finger millet in case we return to the hungry days of before.”

Bingdang is a member of one of China’s least populous ethnic minorities, the Dulong. Just over 4,000 Dulong people live along the Dulong River valley, an upstream tributary of the Irrawaddy River that runs from Tibet, through Gongshan county and into Myanmar (Burma). This is a unique area of extremely high natural biodiversity. The new project Bingdang refers to is the Sloping Land Conversion Programme (SLCP). By 2003, this nationwide soil and forest conservation project finally brought traditional agriculture to an end.

International negotiations on access and benefit-sharing under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) reached a critical point this year when delegates signed an agreement at the COP 10 summit in Nagoya, Japan. Attempts to address perceived threats of biopiracy – the commercial exploitation of plants or other genetic matter without adequately compensating the communities where they are found – captured more attention, but another aspect of the convention is more relevant to groups such as the Dulong: “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities… relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.” This statement recognises that conservation of biological diversity is integrally linked to the traditional lifestyles of local communities.

Between 2002 and 2009, the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK), an NGO based in Yunnan, undertook surveys and consultations exploring the impacts of the SLCP programme on agro-biodiversity and livelihoods in Dulong. By planting trees on farmland on slopes over 25 degrees in return for eight years worth of grain subsidies, the aim of the SLCP is to increase vegetation cover and reduce soil and water loss, while also considering the livelihood needs of farmers. The study found that the SLCP brought benefits in the form of increased living standards and resolved grain shortages, but it also brought traditional agriculture to an end threatening crop and animal species and, said some village elders, traditional culture too.

Traditional Dulong agriculture is based on swidden agriculture in which forest is cleared, leaving stumps of Alnus nepalensis trees in the field. Seeds of Alnus are also planted, so that after cultivation ends, forest cover regenerates quickly. Alnus nepalensis is a nitrogen fixing tree, so the trees help restore soil fertility to enable future cultivation on the same plot.

Although the government has tried to discourage swidden agriculture since the 1960s – blaming such practices for destroying forest resources – this was the first such effort to come with specific implementation measures. When the programme was first introduced in Gongshan county in 2002, most of the quota for conversion was allocated to Dulong. At the beginning of 2003, there were 987 hectares of cultivated land in the valley, of which one-third was permanent arable land (paddy and rainfed terraced fields): the rest were swidden fields under cultivation on steep slopes. All of these swidden fields were included in the conversion programme. The local government allocated subsidy payments on a per capita basis, with all villagers receiving 180 kilograms of rice every year. This was later converted to a cash payment.

Poverty has always been widespread and deep in the region. In 1995, the average per capita income was just 344 yuan (US$40). From 1995 to 2001, per capita income rose to 684 yuan (US$103), bringing average income levels for the whole valley to just above the national poverty line of 680 yuan (US$102). The government has for years been providing relief grain and selling grain to Dulong villagers at subsidised prices. For the local government, the SLCP provided an opportunity to use central government funding to bring Dulong villagers’ grain consumption levels up to the poverty line. It is certainly the case that for many Dulong villagers, especially younger people, having an ensured grain supply without having to work in the fields is most welcome. However, given the conditions on which grain has been supplied, there is a high price to pay.

Swidden agriculture is based on the use of a wide variety of local underutilised and neglected crops. Before 2003, farmers regularly cultivated more than 10 varieties of crop, such as upland rice, foxtail millet, pearl millet, amaranth and coco yam. Given the valley’s location as a link between Chinese and Indo-Burmese genetic resources, some varieties are likely to be unique to the area. By 2009 in one village only two crop types continue to be cultivated, while in another village only one-third of the nine major crops continues to be cultivated. In general, crop seeds can only be stored for one to three years. Most farmers interviewed assumed that other households are preserving traditional varieties, and therefore the seeds would to be readily available if they wished to plant them again. Farmers like Bingdang, who have kept cultivating traditional crops in small corners of their permanent arable land, are a very small minority, since most traditional swidden crops do not perform well outside swidden fields.

Clearly, the programme has substantially resolved grain shortages for rural households, and some say that even after the conversion programme ends they do not want to renew traditional farming practices. However, many older Dulong villagers are concerned about the future viability of Dulong culture as a whole. Traditional swidden agriculture relies on a wealth of knowledge about the characteristics of swidden sites (such as vegetation cover, slope, aspect, soil and so on) and ways to minimise soil erosion on the steep slopes. In the process of cultivation, there are various arrangements for cooperation between households based on traditional social ties. For those Dulong who have not converted to Christianity, cultivation must be preceded by rituals to propitiate the spirits. Thus, traditional agriculture is a central element of Dulong culture, in terms of ecological knowledge, as well as religion and social organisation.

For many older people, food is a key cultural expression. The SLCP has resolved grain shortages by providing paddy rice for villagers in the form of subsidies. However, traditional Dulong food does not include paddy rice and most villagers have not been able to continue eating traditional grains since the arrival of the SLCP. Crops other than paddy rice are referred to as “ethnic food”, and elder villagers insist that according to cultural views, mixed grains other than rice are integral for good health. For example, mothers who have just given birth are mainly given these grains to eat. Many people worry that the young generation is losing essential knowledge. One said: “The things that old people eat and how to eat them… if you don’t know these things, then are you still a Dulong?”

Grain or cash payments under the SLCP can ensure basic living standards and the Dulong people’s rights to subsistence and development. Beginning in 2010, Dulong has established a “partnership” relationship with Shanghai, in which new breeze block housing will be built in 41 hamlets, and roads and communication infrastructure will be improved, including a 500 million yuan (US$75 million) investment in improving the road that links Dulong to the Salween Valley. Li Jinming, an ethnic Dulong scholar at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, is concerned that investment on this scale will have great impacts on the survival of indigenous culture: “Dulong people are getting ready for the big changes that will come, including more tourists. With all these changes, we should put even more attention on making sure that the young people know about our traditions.”

For Dulong villagers, rotational agriculture represents a core part of their cultural heritage. In 2009, the participation of hundreds of villagers in seed exchange fairs organised by CBIK together with the township government also shows the pride and interest ordinary villagers have in their biocultural heritage. There is strong interest among both Dulong officials and villagers to ensure that seeds continue to be viable and that traditional knowledge associated with farming practices is not lost. In 2009, the county forestry bureau approved the cultivation of a very small plot using traditional techniques. CBIK plans to shoot a DVD narrated in the Dulong language documenting traditional cultivation practices to show in schools.

Legal experts in China are currently drafting a new law on the management of genetic resources. This includes developing arrangements for documenting individual items of indigenous knowledge and devising legal arrangements for their protection. However, as the case of the Dulong shows, indigenous knowledge is inextricably linked to the landscape, ecology and natural resource use practices, as well as customary rules and spiritual values. Li Jinming hopes to find funding to set up cultural transmission centres in some of the villages in Dulong valley as a platform for exchange of traditional knowledge across the generations. In this way, he hopes that without refusing the benefits of development from Shanghai, the Dulong can continue to know what it means to be distinctively Dulong.

Andreas Wilkes is deputy coordinator of the China Programme at the World Agroforestry Centre. He has a PhD in environmental anthropology, and has worked on natural resource management in China for more than 10 years.

Homepage image from woaiqiuqiu shows Dulong women.