Transforming nomadic traditions to biodiversity-friendly livelihoods from the perspective of traditional forestrelated knowledge: the successful story of H Village of Yunnan Province in China



  • Centre of Forestry, Environmental and Resources Policy Study, Renmin University of China


  • 01/11/2016

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Asia


  • China (Yunnan Province)


  • Can we achieve the dual goals of biodiversity conservation and improved lives for indigenous communities? H Village of Yunnan province is one of the successful cases. This paper took this case as an example and examined it to understand how its success happened from the perspective of traditional forest-related knowledge. The study documented periodic land and forest tenure reform from 1950 to present and major development interventions by the Chinese government and foreign donors. The culture and religion of the Lisu people, and the ways Lisu people have lived with natural resources and village regulations, were invented through long-term practical experience living with nature and inherited generation by generation. With modern technologies and culture, the traditional forest-related knowledge and culture have faced great challenges. In their livelihoods recently, the Lisu People have reduced dependence on forest products. “Slash-and-burn” farming and nomadic lifestyles have been transformed to agroforestry practices for commercial crops and off-farm jobs. The case of H Village proves that, with proper interventions, humans can achieve dual goals to improve the livelihoods of local residents and preserve biodiversity in the era of modernisation, globalisation and marketisation. The story of H Village tells us that the relationship between humans and nature should be interactive and interdependent, and thus biodiversity conservation should be based on the socio-ecological system as a whole, not separating humans from natural ecosystems. We should fully consider traditional forest-related knowledge (TFRK) as an asset of local minorities and activate it in this era of globalisation, marketisation and privatisation towards sustainable development.


  • Traditional forest culture; Lisu; Cultural change; Forest polices


  • Liu Jinlong and Liu Xiangyi, Centre of Forestry, Environmental and Resources Policy Study, Renmin University of China

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


Poor people in many cases live in good quality forests with rich biodiversity, and this is particularly the case in hinterlands where indigenous people live (Liu 2007). In the past indigenous peoples in developing countries, unlikely to escape from poverty, have fallen into a so called vicious cycle of poverty, overuse of natural resources and resource degradation, with development interventions over the last few decades (Liu & Innes 2015). This phenomenon has been backed up with academic explanations. The environmental Kuznets curve is among these explanations, and purports that environment deteriorates with GDP increase until GDP reaches a certain level, when environmental impacts reduce with GDP increase (Li et al. 2015). This article tells the successful story of how a traditional nomadic community was transformed into a biodiversity friendly community with quite profitable livelihoods, which is contrary to the above-mentioned common vicious cycle tendency. The story occurred at H village, a Lisu minority hamlet, which originated when nomadic ancestors in the West China mountainous regions immigrated to Southwest China where they lived on shifting cultivation and collective hunting. Nowadays, this hamlet has become a settlement where people rely on their livelihoods of commercial farming and off-farm work, enjoying their traditional lifestyles and rich biodiversity as well. This article took traditional forest-related knowledge (TFRK) as an analytical perspective from which to understand why H village could be successful in achieving a win-win situation in livelihood improvement and biodiversity protection.

TFRK is the experience in and cognition of forest and society that is developed and created from the production and living practices of local residents (Parrotta et al. 2012). It includes many techniques and customary rules for forest management in a sustainable manner. Over many thousands of years, TFRK has been key to maintaining the continuation of natural resource management and local livelihoods and an important aspect of the diversity of ethnicities, languages, wisdom and cultures in many regions of the world including China (Liu 2007). About 60 million residents live in forests around the world (Berkes et al. 2000) and TFRK plays an important role in their daily lives, especially in minority areas where people mainly live off the forests. TFRK has contributed to the establishment and development of many scientific disciplines including botany, forest sciences and medicinal and healthcare sciences (Liu 2007). TFRK is embedded in local communities’ understanding of traditional religions, customs, daily life and land use, and is subject to changes in social and economic conditions and policies at macro and micro levels (Liu 2007; Yi & Liu 2012). With rapid socio-economic transformation, TFRK has become endangered and marginalised (Parrotta & Agnoletti 2007; Luo et al. 2009) and has been widely considered to be ignorant and outdated (Liu et al. 2012; Yuan & Liu 2009). Since the 1990s, forest experts have mobilised for documentation of TFRK globally, directly promoting debate on its protection and inheritance, based on a recognition of the importance of TFRK in sustainable forest management and state and rural development issues in general, including a variety of goods and spiritual services (Yuan et al. 2012). This paper examines a case of the Lisu minority at H village, Tengchong County in Yunnan Province, particularly the relationships among folk culture, customs, taboo, local rules, primitive religion and forestry management, in order to understand the factors that drive changes in TFRK. Further, this paper puts forward some recommendations on the protection and enlivenment of TFRK.

Targets and methods

Lisu Minority

The Lisu people are descendants of the Qiang minority who lived in mountainous areas in the western part of Sichuan Province, in the west of China. They used to live along the Jinsha river valley, which is located at the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Later, they gradually moved further south and west, ending up in the Nujiang river valley area, which is located in the west of Yunnan province. To date the population of Lisu comes to 0.73 million and is recognised as one of the minority communities in China. Today most Lisu live near the Nujiang river region, and the rest live in Lijiang, Dali, Baoshan, Lincang and Yingjiang in Yunnan Province, as well as Liangshan in Sichuan Province. Like other minorities in Yunnan province, the Lisu have a long history of collective hunting and shifting cultivation, or so-called “slash-and-burn cultivation”. Because of inaccessible natural conditions, communication was not convenient, and most Lisu lived a pastoral lifestyle and were considered to have a sort of primary livelihood and primary society. Meanwhile, inconvenience brought adverse effects to the local economy and made it develop slowly. The founding of the People’s Republic of China brought about policy interventions such as land reform in the early 1950s and collectivisation of lands in the late 1950s, the Household Responsibility System in the early 1980s and the Reform of Collective Forest Tenure. Along with social and economic development in China, these policy interventions dramatically changed the livelihoods and society of the Lisu minority people in terms of economy, culture, management of natural resources and livelihoods.

H village

H village represents the history of such changes. H village is located in the southeast of Tengchong and lies at the southwest part of the Gailigongshan National Nature Reserve. H village is surrounded by mountains with little flat ground, so villagers are scattered into hamlets, including Shangzhai, Xiazhai, Laozhai and Doudiping. The lowest altitude is 1,280 metres, and the highest altitude is 2,500 metres, with an average of 1,950 metres. As of 2011, there were 61 families with 304 villagers in total. Among them, ten families were of Han ethnicity, with 40 people, and the rest were Lisu people. The total amount of land is 3,777 mu (1 hectare = 15 mu), among which permanent farmland (paddy fields and home gardens for vegetables and fruits) occupy 338 mu, forests cover 3,315 mu, and others land uses account for 124 mu. The local communities in the area categorise forest land into two types, forest land for self-sufficiency purposes taking up two-thirds of total forest land, and forest land for household responsibility (Between 1994 and 2003, when agriculture tax was collected, local people paid agricultural tax or other charges levied by the local authority that were collected based on the acreage of land in the category of household responsibility land. No tax was levied on the land in the self-sufficiency category.), which occupied only one-third, following the logic of implementing the “Household Responsibility System” policy. Although this categorisation legitimated local authorities to collect governmental revenue, forests in the category of land for self-sufficiency was covered in secondary evergreen broad-leaved forest that was used for fuelwood collection for household consumption, and land in the category of household responsibility was reserved for plantations for commercial purposes that villagers can manage, harvest and trade according to their own wishes. During periods when forests were severely cleared or degraded, in particular in the early 1960s and 1980s, frequent landslides led to serious damage to crops and farmers’ properties, so the community has learnt from these experiences to recognise the forest’s role in water and soil erosion control. A country road was built in 1948, which linked the H village to the outside world. However, the country road was built around the mountains, has many steep slopes and curves, and it takes three hours to get to Tengchong County, around a 60 kilometre distance.

H village was founded in 1893 when the Lisu people went there for slash and burn land activities in the early stages, and a few Han people arrived to avoid wars later on. On this basis, Lisu and Han have lived together having different family names. There were 2,000 mu of cash tree forest, which is used for slash-and-burn land, dominated by 35,000 walnut trees. Farmers intercrop corn and tsaoko (Amomumtsaoko) under the walnut tree canopy. Tsaoko and walnut are the main source of cash income for the villagers and in 2010, per capita income was 8,000 RMB, which is relatively better off in China. Forest cover reaches 97%, with great biodiversity in species and ecosystems. Most of the young people in H village tend to work outside the village, ignoring the traditional livelihoods and gradually becoming modernised. H village can be considered a special case that achieves the double goals of poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation. As showed in Figure 1, compared to 1950, per capita income has increased by 20 times, and population increased by about four times, while the forest cover remains the same in 2010.

Data collection methods

This study began in 2010 with a group of researchers from different disciplines, including sociology, ecology and community development, organised to carry out this study. They first consulted local specialists, including experts from the Forestry Department of Yunnan Province, the Forestry Planning and Design Institute of Yunnan Province and the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. H village of Tengchong County was jointly recommended to be a field survey site. We visited the Tengchong County Forestry Bureau, the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve and the County Official Archives Agency to collect and compile materials about TFRK, the folklore, religious beliefs, traditional cultural activities, policy changes, livelihood activities and so on. The team carried out research activities for a week using qualitative research methods in H village in order to understand the relationships among resource status, policy changes and livelihood activities in the Lisu community. We used the following methods to collect qualitative data.

Figure 1. Change in per capita income and forest cover in H Village 1950-2010

Observation. The researchers lived in the villagers’ houses to be involved in their daily lives. Through observing the community, natural resource utilisation and farmers’ behavior, we formulated issues or hypotheses on the cultural activities of local traditional land use and the relationships among humans, forest, land use, policy intervention and livelihood changes, providing clues and ideas for in-depth interviews.

In-depth interviews. For this study, we interviewed 10 villagers, covering all age ranges of the population born between the 1940s and the 1980s, including the current village leader, the team leader, “Headman” of Lisu People, rural residents, migrant workers born in 1980s, and undergraduates. We adopted an “oral history” method to learn about historical events, natural phenomena, sacred trees or timber forest, village rules and forest management.

In 2015, we paid a return visit to the relevant departments in Tengchong County, sharing the research findings with them in order to further confirm or clarify the results of the study.

Analytical methods

Grounded theory guided our analysis of the collected data. Before the field work, we read materials about local chronicles and image recordings of Tengchong County, such as documents on the “Sino-Dutch biodiversity conservation community development project” and the “Hong Kong community partnership project” implemented in H village, raising questions about traditional forestry knowledge of the Lisu minority, livelihoods and culture. With the help of experts and workers in the local management department, we discovered research issues and conducted field work based on these hypotheses. We used interactive modes to collect data, translating specific and fragmentary information into effective materials related to community livelihoods, economy and policy, and traditional forestry knowledge. Through comparison, analogy, extrapolation, deduction, analysis and synthesis, we showed certain relationships among each of these in order to obtain hypotheses and answers (Miles & Huberman 1993). We shared the hypotheses and answers with the local people and encouraged them to ask questions and finally, explained our findings. Through discussions, we could confirm or modify the previous hypotheses and answers, to finally form the conclusion of this paper.

TFRK, livelihoods and culture

As a minority people historically living in a mountainous region, the Lisu People possess a wealth of TFRK, which is reflected in their traditional livelihoods, beliefs, culture and forest management systems.

Traditional livelihoods

The practices of the Lisu people over the long term developed into a technical system for shifting cultivation, or slash-and-burn cultivation. Key techniques for slash-and-burn cultivation include land selection and preparation, fire control and crop management.

Firstly, selection of land depends on the size of the trees and the coverage of vegetation. Big trees must be kept, especially those of nitrogen fixation tree species, for instance, nepalensis (Alnus nepalensis). In order to prevent water and soil erosion, the trees growing within a distance of 100 meters from a water body or low-lying areas should not be cut, and the land would not be suitable for shifting cultivation. Trees with a DBH of around 20 cm in the area for slash-and-burning should be kept. The trees can be cut from the roots if the land is to be developed for corn, or the roots should be kept if the land is to be developed for buckwheat. Buckwheat land is cut every August and corn land is cut every October.

Secondly, when to start fires and how to control fires are essential to the success of slash-and-burn cultivation. It is considered better to have continuous sunny days in the winter and spring seasons, then the cut-down trees are dried and burn completely. In January of the following year, the buckwheat land is fired and the corn land is fired in February. Before firing, the weeds around should be cleared and a 30 to 40 metre fire break should be built. A sunny and windless day is perfect for burning for safety reasons. The fire starts from the head of the land, and when it reaches the heart of the plot, another fire can be started from the foot, which ensures that the land is fired all over. The Lisu people believe that hope for good life is brought about when trees can be burned completely. The ash left behind is used as fertiliser to increase the land fertility. For land not sufficiently fertilised, firing leaves is used to supplement.

Thirdly, with enough rain, the seeds that were sowed in April or May grow smoothly, otherwise they dry up and die. As a village located in the western part of Yunnan, H village has exactly such a climate. As a result, slash-and-burn cultivation is not only a traditional livelihood for the Lisu people, but also a chance they took to adapt to the local climate and natural resources. Buckwheat land needs ploughing and corn land needs dibble seeding with a stick. The corn can be sowed in February and harvested in October, at which time it may or may not need to be pulled out. After harvesting the corn, it is dried in the sunshine or by fire.

With this kind of cultivation, the land can be planted for two to three years and abandoned with the decline in soil fertility. Five to seven years are required for vegetation to recover and then the land is ready for the next cycle of shifting cultivation.

Traditional lifestyles

Residences and housing. In old times, the Lisu people tended to choose places near the river basin and forest. They believed plenty of water and forests bring good luck and wealth, so people who lived in houses without rivers or forests were treated as poor. Most traditional architecture is built with wood for raw material. But in the past ten years, people prefer to choose places that are near the road. This implies that the convenience of the transport system has become the most important consideration. With socio-economic development, people are using bricks as raw material instead of wood.

Life utensils. Compared to the traditional life utensils like tableware and cups made of wood, presently glass and metal are widely used by the people.

Keeping warm in winter. Because of the very cold winter, here every family has a fireplace inside the house. When the cold winter evening comes, the entire family sits around the fireplace to keep warm. The fire can also be used as light. Traditional clothes are made out of the raw materials of Gerbera delavayi Franch, and Mucunasempervirens Hemsl. Only a few elders have such traditional clothes.

Basic cognition of natural ecology – animism

The Lisu People are animist traditionally. They believe that gods dominate mountains, snow, and lightning. Disease is caused by ghost hauntings, which require a sacrifice of animals. Forest and stone also become the objects of their worship. Amidst their hard lives, the Lisu people pray to supernatural gods for blessings, forming the traditional religious belief system, sacrificial rites and songs. This traditional religious belief system includes the worship of holy mountains, holy trees, wizards and totems.

Worship of holy mountains and holy trees. Traditionally, the Lisu people believe in animism, which asserts that everything, such as a mountain, tree and water, has its own eudemon. People believe that the souls of their dead ancestors are reincarnated into the whole forest or a single tree. They believe that they came from the forest, so they worship the forest, holy mountains and holy trees. An old man said that people here hold yearly unified worship ceremonies, offering sacrifice activities to the holy trees or holy mountain, to pray for blessing. People also pray to the holy trees if their children get sick or if cattle have any problems. Therefore, people protect the forest and headwaters intentionally. In H village, those ceremonies have evolved into worship of the “Big Temple” and “Small Temple”.

The traditional religious wizard. In the Lisu language, the traditional wizard is called a “Ni Pa”, and is mainly responsible for praying and chanting in the ritual activities to express the people’s respect and pray to the gods, exorcising ghosts. The “Ni Pa” is a heritage of Lisu folk culture, but has already disappeared from H village.

The worship of totems. Each clan and tribe of Lisu ethnicity has its own totem, which is the idol of the Lisu people and the emblem of a clan or a tribe. These kinds of totems number up to more than 40 kinds, including buckwheat, tiger, snake, hemp, bamboo, vegetable, birds, fish, frost, fire, etc. These totems are mainly marked on their clothing. Some clans also use totems as their surname, for example, “Ma” meaning of “house” is still available in H village.

Lisu ecological ethics tell us to treat nature morally, as one of them said:

Since everything has a spirit, human is not the only creature in the world. Thus, we need to obey some principles to live together. Human and nature, human and animals can’t hurt each other by no cause.

They think everything in this world is interlinked. The way we treat nature, the same way it treats us back. The Lisu people believe in animism, reflected in the relationship between humans and gods, people and people. A normal human ecological system would be a harmonious and holistic system. People and the environment there have a karmic relationship. A disordered consciousness of ecology will eventually lead to the deterioration of the natural ecology, causing a crisis of human existence. Sun, moon, trees and so on are the objects of primitive religious worship that people do not want to offend. These objects directly or indirectly create things, intervening in human life. So, in Lisu people’s consciousness, it is wrong to go against nature and the ecological environment. Humans should not destroy the harmonious ecological balance. In celebrations and ceremonies, they treat flowers and trees, birds, fish and insects as symbols of the life cycle. A simple consciousness of natural and ecological environmental protection is contained in folk activities, delivered from generation to generation, and is condensed into the Lisu green ecological and cultural complex.

Forest management and utilisation

Forest property. Traditionally, the original forest resources surrounding Lisu communities can nowadays be categorised as common pool resources scientifically. Due to the low population and multiple migrations of the Lisu people, forest resources were open to everyone. Villagers needed to make boundaries on a piece of land with stones as marks and cut the trees inside in order to show that that land has an owner. Other people could not move the marks, otherwise they would be punished. The land for gathering and hunting was open to everyone. The holy trees near the village were seen as guardians, which cannot be cut.

Forest classification. Forest resources are traditionally divided into slash-and-burn farming land, hunting land and holy forests and trees in H village.

Forest management. Forest management is mainly reflected in the management of “slash-and-burn” land and holy hills and trees. It was forbidden to cut the holy trees near the village, punishable by village regulations. The means of punishment include economic compensation for the loss and public shows of apology in the community.

Forest management decisions. Traditionally, the headman was in charge of the village or the clan’s daily routine. Like other villages of the Lisu minority, village H headman was selected naturally by the common sense of community people, not inherited or elected. The headman had absolute authority in forest resource management and other social affairs. Nowadays, the forest agency is in charge of forest management, but the headman still plays an important role in social affairs and forest related activities. For example, the headman is always first to lead the villagers in the implementation process of an important policy, and the residents are willing to ask the headman for help when they have disputes.

Traditional Forest Worship

Worship of the “Big Temple”. On the eighth day of the second lunar month, the villagers led by the headman hold a ceremony for the “Big Temple”. The Big Temple is surrounded by “temple trees” that are treated like safeguards, and is also the place enshrining the ancestors of the villagers. The headman prepares a sheep, two chickens, incense and paper money, three litres of rice, firecrackers, and glutinous rice for sacrifice. The process of sacrifice is clearly defined: consecrate the livestock and sheep first, and then again cooked, with six incense sticks, six cups of wine, six cups of tea, six bowls of rice, six “baba” (a kind of pastry), and six bowls of “sansheng” (meaning three kinds of livestock). The headman and venerable elder pray towards the idol and holy trees. Women cannot enter the temple when the “Big Temple” worship is going on.

Worship of the “Small Temple”. Every settlement of the H village has their own holy trees, called a “Small temple”. A family can consecrate a single holy tree, too. There is no specific time to have ceremonies, while villagers consecrate every first and fifteenth day of the lunar month normally. If livestock gets sick, villagers can hold rites immediately. The props include: three sticks of incense, three cups of wine, three cups of tea, three bowls of rice, a bowl of “sansheng”, and an egg. Incense will be put out first, and then tea and wine and the egg, with “sansheng” coming last.

Worship of the hunting god. Before the 1950s, the livelihoods of the villagers were mainly dependent on hunting and gathering, and they consecrated to the hunting god before hunting each time, with the belief that the god would bless their safety and good harvest. Due to nature preservation activities, the villagers turned over shotguns and gave up hunting. The worship stopped with time while some stones marked for the practice are left.

Review of external policy and project interventions

We divided the land tenure reform into four stages to analyse the loss of TFRK caused by policy intervention and social changes. The four stages are: 1) public land period, from the late Qing Dynasty to 1949; 2) land reform period, from 1950 to 1962; 3) commune period, from 1963 to 1984; and 4) decollectivisation period since 1985.

Public land period

The H village was established in the late Qing Dynasty (about 1893). It had only 15 families, with 74 residents until 1949, mainly living on slash-and-burn farming and nomadic hunting. The village had five surnames: Yu, Ma, Dou, Cai and Hu, with the Yu and Ma surnames being big families. They immigrated there at the same time from various villages nearby. Then, the Zhu, Lu, Feng and Guo surnames appeared between 1919-1949 for various reasons, including avoidance of army duty (see case 1). During this period, the H village maintained relationships among humans, livelihoods and the forest in a traditional way.

Case 1: Between 1947 and 1949, in order to avoid being vault dwellers of the Kuomintang, we fled here with knives, pots and bedding, staying in the roadside shelters. My father was respected by people here for his good medical skill, and we could always get some corn, poultry, firewood and such household stuffs from neighborhood. My mother and sister worked for others to achieve some corn and firewood for a living. At that time, the trees were all over the mountain, with animals living there. We cut the trees, dug the ground and planted the corn together with the local people. — Yongzhong Zhu, resident of H village, Han nationality, born in 1941

Land reform period

During this period, the H village transformed from a nomadic form with no formal organisation directly into the socialist economy form. In 1952, land reforms were carried out leading to extensive changes in land ownership. The residents got 91.5 mu of paddy field from the neighboring Han landlord. There were about 15 families and 80 residents at that time. Due to few people and more land, every family could own land that was cleared off for slash-and-burn cultivation. Land with forests, if close to settlement points, was equally divided among every household. Land far from settlement points and relatively steep was clarified as collectively owned, and the farthest, a relatively large area, to be state owned.

In 1956, the cooperative movement began. Excluding fruit trees nearby residential areas and the temple trees, holy trees and trees at tombs which were still managed by the local customs, other forests and cash trees were confiscated by cooperatives with part compensation. After 1958, the commune movement began, and household forest land and cropland turned into collective assets. In 1960, because of the Great Leap Forward, including jacked up iron and steel production, collective forest was nearly destroyed for energy.

Case 2: In the early 1950s, landlords, who typically have more family members, were afraid of opening up forests for expanding farming areas, and the poor and lower-middle class families easily had access to land nearby for “slash-and-burn” corn production. The government issued land titles to individual households, communities and the state based on the land reform policy. As there were few residents in the village, we all got a large area of land. I got 4 pieces of land, more than 100 mu. But very little was permanent cultivated land, and almost all was slash-and-burn land for corn. After the Great Leap Forward, the trees were almost destroyed for smelting iron. — Yongzhong Zhu, the team leader of H production team from 1967 to 1974

This period has a profound impact on the H village. The nomadic lifestyle of the Lisu people in H village came to an end, and they were organised into groups to live in a village with the name of H with a clear boundary for their settlement. They had to engage in farming, collecting and hunting in defined geographical areas.

Commune period

In the period of collectivisation between 1963 and 1984, the villagers acclimatised to settled life and formed permanent villages and communities. Formal organisations such as production brigades and production teams, planted in traditional community informal institutions, gradually became more and more important to production, organisation, consumption and culture. Modes of production and livelihoods, newly introduced technologies and culture had become an important part of community life and production. The demarcated paddy fields became an important constituent of livelihoods for villagers. As a consequence,  growing Chinese chestnuts and planting corn under the forest canopy and shifting cultivation was gradually transformed into permanent agriculture. By 1984, the population of the village had increased to 200 people, and walnut planting areas had expanded to 100 mu. During the same time, Christianity infiltrated the community. Some villagers came to believe in Christianity.

Case 3: During 1963-1984, H village was officially organised as one production team, which was a unit for farming and livestock raising. Work was assigned to a person according to his/her capacity. Farmers on the team who were good at farming were assigned to manage corn fields, and those who were good at husbandry were assigned to manage livestock. Grain foods and walnuts which are major products of the H village, were distributed to each household with fixed roles. Deducting the amounts which had to be contributed to the state, 70% of the rest of grain foods and walnut production was equally distributed to each household according to the population size of the household. The remaining 30% was allocated to labour time and contributed to the commune to each household in a year. I have 1.2 mu of family plot for self-sufficiency, planting walnut trees and corn or beans. Families can collected fuelwood, herbal medicines and wild vegetables for family subsistence. –Hu Zhuanfa, villager of H village, Lisu people, born in 1955

De-collectivisation period

From the early 1980s, China implemented reforms for opening up and market-orientated development approaches, which have greatly shaped forest management. The three-fixes policy reform of the 1980s, greening barren mountains in the 1990s and collective forest tenure reform in 2000s are among the most important interventions in the policy reform agenda that directly relate to forest management. H village was recognised and identified by the state and local authorities as a sort of village located in a hinterland, minority and poverty region, closed to boundaries with other states, and has been favoured with access to many development projects, including those funded by international donors. In regards to forest management, the Sino-Dutch Forest Conservation and Community Development Project and the Hong Kong Community Partner Project were selected for this research.

Three-fixes policy. This policy is similar to the household responsibility system that began in 1980 and was implemented in the H village for farmland, where the village carried out land and farm output quotas on a household basis, bringing about great production enthusiasm. In 1983, the village implemented the the Three-fixes Policy, which means to fix (similar to the meaning of clarify) the ownership of forests and forest lands, fix the management rights of forests, and fix household responsibility. Accordingly, collective forests were divided to small parcels which were contracted to individual households for management. Compared to the setting of boundaries of each parcel of forest around 1952 when land reform policy was implemented, this time boundaries were more accurate and followed the process of dividing forests into small parcels for each household management required by the forest authority.

Case 4: H village has 4 sub-villages, named Shang-zhai, Xia-zhai, Lao-Zhai and Dou-Diping. One to two representatives from each sub-village were selected to be responsible for land allocation. As for variation in terrain, landforms and distance, all lands owned by H village were divided into 4 parts equally in light of the population size of each sub-village. Each part would be divided equally among the households in each sub-village. As for the high economic value of walnut, its distribution plan had to be discussed separately. For every sub-villager, their owned walnut trees and those trees’ outputs would be estimated in RMB. The normal value of one walnut tree’s output was 7-8 yuan. The lowest value was only 1 yuan and the two highest values were 30 yuan and 50 yuan respectively. They summarised the whole value of trees and allocated those trees to every family in the small village group equally. After the allocation, villagers planted Chinese catalpa wood, lacquer tree, cedar, birch, walnut tree, etc., and cultivated timber and firewood forest on their own hills. Villagers were willing to keep the trees and expected to sell those trees after maturity rather than cultivating the land. — Hu Zhuanfa, the main member of the allocation in 1983

Mountain closure campaign for greening hills and mountains. The local forest authority and the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve Administration Office had enacted a local act, called the “Act of Mountain Closure at the Gaoligongshan NNR region”, which was implemented from 1986. Grazing of cattle, sheep, horses and other animals on the hillsides was prohibited, however it was difficult to enforce and utterly failed.

Sino-Dutch Forest Conservation and Community Development Project. This project was implemented in H village from 1999 to 2001. The main activities of the project were as follows: 1) training of community elites in “biodiversity resources and their value”, “ecological balance”, and “sustainable use of biodiversity resources and forest conservation”, to increase consciousness for the protection of forest resources; 2) enhancing participation of community people in community development planning through different ways such as publicising, participatory assessment, community interviews, villagers meetings and so on; and 3) small-grant community development projects, such as energy-saving stoves, drinking water project for humans and livestock, etc. The consciousness of villagers on protection of the forest was awakened by this project and they also realised the importance of forest resources to their livelihoods.

Conversion of farmland into forest programme. This programme was implemented from 2004. It offered farmers an annual payment of 260 yuan/ha subsidy for afforestation of farmland plus free seedlings for afforestation. Considering that the average annual income of farmers was about 800 yuan per capita at that time, farmers were very enthusiastic to participate. Villagers in H village planted trees that amounted to up to 1,000 mu of area a year for 2004-2005. But after planting, the community people were told that only land officially registered as permanent farmland with acreage of at least 50 mu a piece could qualify to get subsidies from this project. Eventually, only 334 mu were officially accepted to qualify for this programme. As an important outcome of this programme, mountains and hills were closed up and grazing was prohibited in the hills and mountains, as otherwise the newly planted trees would not have survived.

Case 5: The goats can destroy the trees and grass badly. In order to enable success in implementing the project of conversion of farmland into forests, no grazing was allowed in the mountains and hills. In 2004, all goats in the amount of 500 raised by households in H village were sold. Due to oversupply, the people had to sell them cheaply. Normally at around 2004, one matured goat could value 300 yuan, but we sold for only 120 yuan. All the villagers jointly made the rules to close hillsides and no grazing in forests. Because of this we could not feed livestock, and many younger residents left the village for labour work afterwards. — Guanghong Ma

Hong Kong Community Partner Project. This project entered the H village from 2007. From 2007 to 2009, it established a mechanism to promote biodiversity conservation together with the H community, by recovering the connections between traditional culture and nature and collecting and organising the traditional cultural knowledge of the community. In addition to recovering the Lisu language, writing, dance, clothing and other activities, the project helped to formulate more formal and complete village rules. Some of the rules were about forests, such as – 1) the owner would be fined if their livestock entered into farmland or closed hillsides. They would be imposed a fine of 20 yuan for each horse or cow, or 5-10 yuan for each pig or sheep; 2) They should pay 5-10 times the value of whole crop losses on the ground or 200-500 yuan for compensation; 3) They would be fined 200-500 yuan and would be embarrassed in public for their sabotage. These punishments were very serious relative to the same clause in the Forest Law of the People’s Republic of China. The headman of Lisu had the right to implement these punishments.

Changes in forest use and management and their causes

Changes in forest governance

Table 1 describes the changes in the forest management grassroots system over the past century in H village. Traditionally, state power had no place in practices in the community. The Lisu people were self-governed by their own logic, values, religion and spirits. By establishing a land titling system, a forest tenure system with Chinese characteristics, through unintended steps and evolving approaches, going from privatising to land reform to collectivization, then to privatising, centralisation, decentralisation, state power and local authority gradually gained legitimacy to share the rights and responsibilities of forests with community people. Scientific knowledge assisted this process. Nowadays, forests in the H village are managed by the community and people, however under the law and administration of local authorities with practices guided by a mixture of traditional and modern knowledge.

For forest management, the H village adopted a newly developed technology to cultivate the forest and carry out agroforestry practices in the forest, which eventually facilitated completely stepping away from slash-and-burn, collective hunting and local livelihoods highly dependent on natural resources (Table 2). However some elements of land use practices were inherited from traditional slash-and-burning, for instance intercropping of corn under tree canopies and using timber for building and firewood. Nowadays, trees naturally generated are replaced by walnut trees which have a high economic value. Villagers learnt walnut tree grafting techniques to improve walnut varieties, increase production and income. These practices help to achieve the goal of forest conservation and the villagers’ enthusiasm for afforestation has increased.

Case 6: My family began to grow Chinese fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata (Lamb.) Hook), watermelon, southwest birch (Betula alnoides Buch.-Ham. ex D. Don) and some other fast growing species from 2004. I believe that the trees grown in the mountains are our fortunes. They can be auctioned or transferred when our family faces financial problems and is in urgent need of money in the future. Even if there is no urgent need, my child can also inherit the family property.— Ma Guanghong

There has been a profound change in the forest’s spiritual and cultural value in H village. In the modern H village, only the sacrificial ceremony of the holy trees and temple trees has been continued. The hunting stone has become a historical site to be shown. The other nature worship and production technologies that came along with slash-and-burn and hunting have disappeared. The Lisu’s traditional view of nature has faded away and been gradually replaced by a human-centered view based on remaking nature and creating economic value from nature. Along with the young labour force going out to study and work and the changing ideas of people, the traditional knowledge and culture of H village began to decline. In 2000, the village built a simple Christian church. In 2002, there were only ten villagers who believed in Christianity, however, the number of such believers is increasing constantly.

Changes in the population and land use

In the seventy years after the establishment of the PRC, the population of the H village increased fourfold. The growth of population during the late 1950s became rapid. As people in H settled down and could not move away for more land for slash-and burning, they shortened the slash period and soil quality and vegetation had not yet recovered, resulting in the decline of farming production. Additionally, the Great Leap Forward policy also wielded effects. All of these conditions resulted in severe forest destruction. The natural forest within the village suffered a lot. So far, it has not recovered to its original state. Subject to the constraints of land resources, farmers were forced to convert their low-productivity slash-and-burn cultivation system into an intercropping system that realises a higher productivity. After 1990, the prices of rosewood and other rare hard timber increased considerably which promoted local illegal logging of precious wood. Subsequently, smuggling across the Myanmar border increased rapidly, creating a serious threat for the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve. Farmers also knew the value of rare wood from the market. Many actors actively intervened in H community including the local governmental authority, the nature reserve and non-governmental organisations to improve the local people’s livelihoods and awareness of the importance of forest biodiversity and other ecological services. The growth in population is an internal driving force that transforms local traditional knowledge and cultural changes.

After 2000, the number of out-migrant workers has increased year by year. By 2014, around two-thirds of the work force worked outside the village for more than half a year, and 15% of families, including children, lived in towns except for a few days for the spring festival and traditional gathering activities including weddings. Fuelwood used to be the dominant source for cooking and heating, but by 2014, fuelwood was largely reduced. Considering restrictions on grazing that were implemented, pressures on native forest cover were removed, vegetation was recovered, and forest cover was increased in the village.

Change in livelihoods

Over 100 years, the agricultural production system was transformed from slash-and-burn practices, to self-sufficient permanent farming and a mixture of self-sufficient and small-scale commercial farming. Units of farming were transformed from households to commune and back to households. After 2004, agricultural production quickly shifted to the commodity type of agricultural production (Table 4). Compared to 1949, agricultural production types and technologies have changed greatly, the main crops and varieties are completely updated, and the family has become a labour, capital and technology-based service provider and commodity producer.

Policy interventions

The ownership of land and forests experienced a series of policy interventions, such as land reform in early 1950s, the commune movement around 1960, the household responsibility system in 1980, the forest three-fixes policy in 1983, the mountain closure policy of 1986-1996, conversion farming land into forest in 2004, and collective Forest Tenure Reform in 2008. The property rights of forests were transformed from common-pool resources, to privatised, to combined collectively owned and privately owned, and finally privately owned, while holy forests and trees were maintained as community owned. Management units of forests were transformed from vast scale (little management), to small scale by household, to community, and finally to small scale by household. Every adjustment pushed changes in forest management and utilisation.

In the commune movement period, the collective replaced the individual household as a management unit, thus slash-and-burn was greatly altered to an act undertaken by each household. Burning sites were enlarged, which actually increased soil erosion. After implementing the Forest Three-Fixes policy, the residents got ownership of the forest again. They mastered grafting techniques for walnut trees, improving the survival rate from 50% to 80%, and yield was greatly increased as well.

The Gaoligongshan NNR protects forest resources and preserves biodiversity while utilising forest resources. The reserve has assisted farmers in planting cash crops, including tsaoko, tea, and medicinal herbs to improve farmer cash incomes. The Sino-Dutch project and the HK community partner project reviewed traditional knowledge and culture here, discovering a value of its own by directly intervening in local livelihoods. At the same time, they trained the residents in protection awareness and provided techniques and facilities to save bio-energy for home consumption, which influenced local livelihoods indirectly. For example, using energy saving stoves, the residents found an easier way to cook compared to traditional firewood.

As early as 1996, villagers went out to work in the nearby county, and later, more and more community people went out for migrant jobs at greater and greater distances. As of 2010, they worked in Kunming, Shanghai, and so on. The outsiders’ ideas and behaviors changed, and they have become the link between H village and the outside world, which has had a significant influence on the younger generation.

Discussion and conclusion

The cultures and religion of the Lisu people, including the ways that Lisu people have lived with natural resources and village regulations, derive from their practical experiences of living with nature, as well as the knowledge that they have inherited from ancestors for generations. On this basis, they unintentionally affected positive influences on nature, such as protecting natural resources and keeping the ecological balance, which is still important in modern life. Out of animism, the Lisu people express their respect for forests, plants, animals and the environments they live in through tangible and intangible way of life etiquette, religion, habits, etc. Through all these activities they built a long-term harmonious relationship between mankind and nature, which can be seen in every aspect of local ethics, culture, politics and economy. Thus, the forest coverage has been kept at a high level, although has plunged in the short term due to unfavourable policy interventions. The forest ecosystem has been well-functioned, and biodiversity has been well protected. On the other hand, rich forests and biodiversity are a precondition to maintain traditional cultures and lifestyles to some extent, which are supported by biodiversity and forest protection (Shen 2015).

Today, China is in a rapid socio-economic transition. Under modern technology and modern culture, traditional forest-related knowledge and culture have faced great challenges. In their livelihoods recently, the Lisu People have reduced dependence on forest products. Slash-and-burn farming and nomadic lifestyles have been transformed into agroforestry practices for commercial crops and off-farm jobs. If we classify the forest here into two categories—forest related to religious beliefs and forest for livelihoods, we can see that the influence of livelihood change on traditional forestry knowledge is more prominent. People now use more Chinese and specific classification and rules to manage forest use, adapting to the commodity exchange and economic production at a higher frequency. Contrary to this, TFRK and related culture, such as sacred trees and holy mountains, have been preserved in the Lisu religion, split from their lives and production.

It has been a prevailing concept that poor communities with rich biodiversity are vulnerable to outside interventions, and quite commonly both parties are losers during the process of modernisation, globalisation and marketisation. We should admit that modernisation, globalisation and marketisation are deeply changing the relationship pattern of humans and nature and luring people with the desire for a better life and modern technology. They are destroying the one and only thing that human beings can rely on, which is the ability to sustain the life of the earth’s ecological system (Luo et al. 2015). Hopefully, the case of H village can prove that with proper interventions, humans can achieve dual goals to improve the livelihoods of local residents and to preserve biodiversity in the era of modernisation, globalisation and marketisation. The story of H village tells us that the relationship between humans and nature should be interactive and interdependent, and accordingly biodiversity conservation should be based on socio-ecological systems as a whole, not separating humans from the biosphere. The Lisu people’s simple epistemology, traditional forest knowledge and culture enlightened us that forests will be managed in a better way if we carefully consider the role of this wisdom and knowledge in modern society. Thus, we need to explore how to bridge the gaps between modern knowledge and traditional knowledge, modern culture and traditional culture. To explore and seek the harmonious development of humans and nature, we had better positively address the challenges of globalisation. Instead of holding onto traditions passively, we need to find ways to protect national culture and regeneration of traditional knowledge with an open mind.

We should fully consider TFRK as an asset of rural minorities and activate it in the era of globalisation, marketisation and privatisation towards sustainable development, with multi-dimensional objectives, including improving the material and cultural livelihoods of local ethnic peoples and maintaining the integrity of species diversity and ecosystems, to achieve the harmonious development of humans and nature.

In the Law of Forestry of the People’s Republic of China, enacted in 1998, there is no clause on traditional forest-related knowledge (Liu & Innes 2015). Traditional forest-related knowledge has not yet entered the forest policy debate in China. From 2013, big and ancient trees in the countryside have been recognised as important assets that require protection, and the State Forestry Administration (SFA) conducted a national inventory on big trees and protection actions have been taken. However, traditional culture, as a reason why these trees can be maintained, was not recognised. These cultures are considered to be outdated ideas which should be eliminated in order to develop modern society. In recent years, ecological civilisation has been highlighted as a national development strategy, which might initiate a new era for the revitalisation of traditional culture related to environmental protection. However there is a long way to go in China to recognise TFRK as an asset.


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