New Strength in Old Traditions


Over the past decades, extensive deforestation has been carried out by Hani ethnic communities in Xishuangbanna for tea and rubber plantations, whereas in Honghe Prefecture, traditional land use has meant that watershed areas have been relatively well preserved. But as the younger generation work elsewhere for cash, terraced fields that have endured for generations are being left idle. How can the Hani find a balance between economic development and preservation of tradition?

Since 2016, PCD and Yunnan Provincial Institute for Ethnic Studies at Yunnan Minzu University have been developing a platform with Hani villagers and local officials. It operates on the idea that creating a favourable foundation for collaboration is the essential starting point, followed by a period for reflection, then problem-solving, and finally action, perhaps making sustainable development plans or implementing them.

In Xishuangbanna, our partners and local youth have observed ecological changes in the community together. Hani youngsters have become aware of what had happened in the community in the past: forests cleared for tea and rubber plantations for economic gain, opinions of the elderly were ignored, traditional culture dismissed, and ecological preservation undermined. Guided by village elders to rehabilitate bird habitats, youngsters have been learning the philosophy and wisdom of their ancestors on forest and mountain ecology and on indigenous ways of living. It has been the Hani village elders who have been keeping these traditions alive, and through this intergenerational connection, youngsters have reflected and are becoming prouder of their home village, its identity and its culture. They are also aware of the threats of ecological and cultural destruction.

It is our belief that by restoring traditions, culture and ecology can also be changed and improved. In Baka Village, it has been well noted that the Hani village leadership and management system could be improved to meet current needs. Middle-aged persons,youngsters and women were therefore invited to consider being members of the typically elder-led leadership system: nine respected villagers have since been elected as leaders, giving a new life to the structure. By March 2018, the Hani villages of Baka and Guangming in Jinghong Municipality of Xishuangbanna collectively made decisions to change land use principles: transforming a 350-acre rubber plantation into a forest in Baka, and a 200-acre paddy into a bird habitat in Guangming.

In Honghe, a holy mountain protects the water source and, traditionally, the population honours this mountain with an annual festival. However, with the trend of people leaving the area to work elsewhere, reverence for nature has been dwindling. This has motivated Hani communities from Honghe and Xishuangbanna to come together through exchange visits and discuss these issues. Xishuangbanna people have learned traditional ceremonies and customs from Honghe people, who in turn have seen that Xishuangbanna communities are relatively cleaner and more vibrant due to their collective efforts. Hani in both places are now more aware of the value of their traditional culture, feel empowered by their roots, and express more confidence in facing challenges.

Such development – that takes care of people’s livelihoods as well as the ecology and culture – is a sustainable development.

(from Annual Report 2017-2018