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Yunnan Province, China

Forest Conservation Efforts in Southwestern China Are Threatening Tribal Culture

Sitting by her fire pit, 76-year-old Li Wenshi sang a melodious folk song in the Dulong language for the reporter and fellow villagers, on the night of October 18, 2020. One of these, Chen Yonghua, listened thoughtfully to the lyrics. Later, Chen said the song reminded him of the lost traditional lifestyle of the Dulong people.

“We Dulong often sing as we work or when we celebrate festivals,” said 41-year-old Chen, head of Dizhengdang Village affiliated to Dulongjiang Township. “We love to sing, and we also sing for our environment, including the Dulong River, the snowy mountains around us and all the wild animals in our forests.”

Dulongjiang is known in China for its well-preserved natural forests and environment and most importantly, its successful poverty alleviation campaign. The township’s Dulong ethnic group, once the least developed indigenous people in the mountainous region of northwest Yunnan Province, close to the border with Myanmar, has been successful in eradicating extreme poverty, hitting its target in 2018, two years ahead of the national anti-poverty goal. Annual income per capita is 6,122 yuan (US$936), according to official data. The national poverty line is 3,200 yuan (US$489).

a woman sits next to a fire with a pot cooking wearing a purple/blue jacket and a blue hat, singing
Li Wenshi sits by her fire as she sings a traditional Dulong song / Credit: Yan Wang.

Isolated Lives

One of the smallest ethnic groups in China with a population of around 6,930 (2010 census), the Dulong have lived in the Dulong River Valley, which is in the northwest of Yunnan, for hundreds of years. Rising in the high plateau of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Dulong River flows through northwest Yunnan into Myanmar, where it is called the N’Mai and forms one of the headstreams of the Irrawaddy River. The river flows about 80 kilometers into Yunnan, sandwiched between Mount Dandanglika on the west bordering Myanmar and Mount Gaoligongshan to the east in Yunnan.

For thousands of years, the valley was secluded and dangerous due to its harsh natural environment and remote location. To outside explorers, the untouched natural beauty, diverse culture and exotic tattooed faces of the Dulong were enchanting.

Historically a vulnerable ethnic group oppressed and looted by much more powerful clans from other ethnic groups including the Tibetans, Naxi and Lisu, the Dulong kept to themselves. By the 1950s, the Dulong were still adhering to a patriarchal clan society, with fishing, hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture as their main sources of livelihood.

With favorable policies and State financial support, the Dulong developed quickly, hailed as having “progressed 1,000 years in one step” and as “an ethnic group that directly entered socialism from a state of being primitive.” It has become a success story of poverty eradication and nature preservation. In 2019, Dulongjiang became the first place to set up a 5G base station in Yunnan.

Criminal Bears

Dulongjiang Township is inside Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve and the World Natural Heritage site of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. A hotspot for biodiversity, the region boasts 2,278 species in 199 families of plants, 19 species of nationally protected wild animals and 20 protected bird species.

At the end of the 1990s, the Chinese government started to enforce ecological protection. Apart from a ban on hunting, major projects to enhance forest protection and the Grain to Green project were launched in the Dulong River Valley. Grain to Green started in 1999, a conservation program which pays farmers to convert cropland into forests to restore degraded land.

According to an article published in the journal Social Sciences in Yunnan in 2008 by ethnic Dulong researcher Li Jinming from the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, at the beginning of 2003, before Grain to Green started, the area of cultivated land in Dulongjiang Township totaled 14,804.2 mu (9.87 km2), including 4,980.2 mu (3.32 km2) of fixed farming area and 9,824 mu (6.94 km2) of land under crop rotation. After the Grain to Green project started, 14,000 mu (9.33 km2) of farmland was reclaimed, almost 95 percent of the original farming area.

Due to the steep mountain topography, flat land to farm on by the river is scarce, so most people practiced slash-and-burn agriculture on the forested mountain slopes. “However, the rules say that mountain slopes with an angle greater than 25 degrees can’t be farmed, which means villagers had to completely abandon their traditional ways of planting,” Professor Guo Jianbin from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at Yunnan University told NewsChina. “This had a dramatic impact on the Dulong people’s livelihood, and as soon as they had to give up traditional farming, they became idle.” This was because they had no farmland to work, while they were provided with subsidies and staple foods like rice, Guo said.

“Previously each household had their own patch of farmland in the forest which was rotated. We haven’t been allowed to farm the traditional way since 2000,” Li Wenshi said. Li Yihua, 30, Li Wenshi’s daughter, said her family owns only 2 mu (1,333 m2) of farmland near the family home to plant corn and potatoes. Her family, like most locals, depends on government subsidies to buy food and daily necessities, she said.

Traditionally, the Dulong hunted with crossbows and arrows dipped in poisonous wolf¡¯s bane [aconite, a toxic herb]. When wildlife conservation stepped up after 2000, hunting became illegal. Human-wildlife conflicts have since increased, and property damage is common. In Dizhengdang Village, most families have had confrontations with bears. In 2020, bears ate one of the Li family’s sheep and ravaged their beehives.

Ma Cuiying, 30, Li Wenshi’s neighbor, told the reporter that a bear had ruined her cornfield in 2020. “A bear grabbed one of our pigs from the pigpen behind our house one day in May. Luckily my father heard the pig squeal, and he shouted at the bear. After a while, the bear gave up and ran away, and the pig survived,” Ma said.

“I remember there weren’t so many bears in the forests when I was young. These days, bears eat livestock like chickens, ducks and pigs, and they steal eggs. They ruin our crops too,” said Li Wenshi. “But we’re forbidden from taking action.” Compensation often does not cover losses. According to Xue Jinling, a researcher at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, every household in Dulongjiang suffered bear-related damage to beehives in 2019. “Wildlife protection is prominently at odds with livelihoods in Dulongjiang,” Xue told NewsChina.

a collage image showign several types of animals
The wildlife of Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve, northwest Yunnan Provice. Clockwise from top left: Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, silver pheasant, red serow, a goat-antelope, and Sclater's monal, a type of pheasant / Credit: NewsChina.

Declining Culture

“Our people have benefited from favorable policies and support from the government, resulting in significant improvements to our living standards,” said Zeng Xueguang, a Dulong man who works at the Yunnan Nationalities Museum in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. “However, there are problems we really can’t ignore anymore,” he told NewsChina. Traditional culture is declining at an alarming rate.

The Dulong used to believe in animism, with rituals for different occasions. Influenced by the Bon religion from the neighboring Tibetan culture, Dulong people used to worship a regional mountain god, or lha. “In our hunting culture, before we set off, we’d make images of the animals we were hunting out of buckwheat flour as offerings to our lha,” said Meng Jisong, a Dulong from Bapo Village in southern Dulongjiang. Meng said that each village has their own mountain god to protect them and bestow a good harvest and food upon them. Now, more Dulong are turning to Christianity or atheism. “In the past, we had rich cultural ceremonies. We chanted prayers when we planted crops, hunted or built houses. We have a strong sense of conservation which forbids us from felling trees at random,” said Chen Yonghua. “Now I feel we don’t commune with our lha.”

According to Chen, the annual Dulong Kaquewa Festival is held around January. The precise time is decided by a village elder or shaman. An ox is sacrificed to their lha for bountiful hunts and harvests. Now, the festival is not held regularly, and when it is, authorities promote it as a tourist attraction.

As new roads connect Dulongjiang to the outside world, the influx of mainstream culture in the internet era has severely impacted the once isolated group. “Dulong culture is not as resilient as other comparatively strong ethnic groups like Tibetans or Naxi,” Xue Jinling said.

Guo said that the abrupt change in diet from wild game and traditional crops like corn, millet and potatoes to processed foods and other non-local staples like rice and milk has had a huge effect. “The Dulong used to get everything from food to clothing from their natural surroundings. The impact of the Grain to Green project has been huge. To an extent, it completely severed the Dulong’s ties to their environment,” he said.

people standing near a truck with the back open and you can see boxes of food inside
Trucks selling staple food and daily necessities regularly visit Dizhengdang Village / Credit: Yan Wang.

Another major problem is the dwindling population. “The sixth nationwide population census [in 2010] already indicated negative population growth of Dulong from the fifth nationwide population census [in 2000] from 7,400 down to 6,930,” Professor Guo said. “Data from the recently completed seventh nationwide population census won’t be released until mid-2021, but we can predict with confidence that the figure will continue to drop, which is in line with my personal observations and research for over a decade.” Although the Dulong were not subject to China’s previous strict family planning policy and are allowed to have three children per family, Guo said young people are unwilling to have large families.

Uncertain Future

Due to its unique significance as both a borderland town and an impoverished ethnic minority area, Dulongjiang received special attention from provincial and national authorities. Projects and investments aimed at improving livelihoods poured into the valley.

According to Zhang Guohua, a village official from Dizhengdang, training programs for villagers in mushroom growing, herb planting, animal husbandry and cooking are yet to yield any fast or effective ways for locals to earn sustainable sources of income. The only successful cash crop is caoguo (Fructus tsaoko, also known as tsaoko fruit), a spice related to the ginger family often used for hotpot seasoning.

“Without sufficient research [beforehand], many poverty alleviation projects were unsuccessful,” Guo said. “For example, one local government tried yak farming, but the high-altitude animal of course couldn’t survive in the local climate.” Even for the relatively successful caoguo planting industry, Guo said he had reservations.

“The market fluctuates a lot so it can’t ensure long-term incomes. Besides, widespread forest floor planting of caoguo may cause plant diversity to decline, threatening biodiversity conservation.¡± Excessive caoguo planting as a monoculture in the forest means other species struggle to survive.

Guo’s concerns are echoed by Dulong who live in Bapo Village. The climate is suitable for caoguo and almost all households grow it, making it the main source of income.

According to Meng Jisong from Bapo, the price of caoguo peaked in 2017 at 20 yuan (US$3) per kilogram, but it dropped by half in 2019.

“If the price continues to drop, there’s no room for profit because planting it is time- and labor-intensive,” Meng said.

Apart from caoguo planting, authorities tried to develop tourism, which poses its own threats to conservation. But in 2020, hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and unprecedented heavy rains from June to October that resulted in road-blocking landslides, tourism was not as lucrative as they hoped.

“In the past, we knew exactly how much we could grow and harvest, and we took pride in forest farming, but now we depend mostly on government subsidies,” Zeng Xueguang said. “We might seem happy, but we don’t know how long the subsidies will last, so it leaves us feeling uncertain.”

“In my opinion, the Dulong’s traditional slash-and-burn agriculture is ecologically friendly, not primitive or damaging to the forest,” Guo said.

“It’s much better to allow them to gradually transition their way of life rather than abruptly changing it under a nationwide across-the-board policy,” he said.

Li Heng, a 93-year-old researcher at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told NewsChina that the shuidonggua (Alnus cremastogyne), a native fast-growing deciduous tree used by Dulong people in slash-and-burn agriculture, provides firewood, lumber and fertilizer, and is not destructive to the environment.

Nowadays, despite being a violation of Grain to Green project regulations, some villagers in Dizhengdang have gone back to farming in the northern mountains of Dulongjiang. Ma Cuiying told the reporter: “During the growing season, our family walks four hours back to our old plots in the mountains. We’ve started growing potato, taro and corn again, and we are looking forward to a good harvest this year.”

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in NewsChina Magazine on 1 March 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: The mountain forest area / Credit: Yan Wang.