Summer School with a Difference

After a hot summer journey, the village of Qingkou in Yunnan, southwest China, finally emerges from amongst the clouds. Dense forest gives way to a tapestry of thatched houses, as a long stretch of terraced rice fields spans out below. The village appears to literally hang from the mountainside.

Situated 1,600 meters above sea level and 6.87 km from Xinjie Township, Qingkou forms part of the larger socio-ecological production landscape of the Hani rice terraces that is currently a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage List and is already listed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System. The village is home to about 1,000 people (209 households), 98 percent of whom are of Hani ethnicity.

Dr. Tuisem Shimrah, a young faculty member at the Department of Botany of Delhi University, and Tomohisa Abe, a Ph.D. candidate from Tokyo Metropolitan University in Japan, are pleased to finally reach their destination. Tuisem and Tomohisa are among over 100 participants from Asia and further afield who spent their summer vacation conducting fieldwork amongst remote ethnic communities in Yunnan and discovering more about the intersections between traditional cultures, transforming environments and social change.

The fieldwork was part of a postgraduate summer school programme organized jointly by the Yunnan University Nationalities Research Institute and the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) in Tokyo.

Not the usual way to spend a summer

By combining both coursework and practical field study, the summer school aimed to give students first-hand exposure to the complex relationships between ethnic cultures and their environments, whilst helping to build capacity for sustainable development in ethnic minority areas in southwest China and bordering regions.

During the three-week programme, participants were introduced to basic social anthropology research methodologies used in field studies and explored how to apply these methods to analyse the interrelationship between humans and the living environments. In particular, fieldwork participants studied the role of indigenous knowledge in agriculture, botany and hydrology, as well as its potential role in promoting sustainable management of natural resources and the conservation of biodiversity.

Fieldwork participants studied the role of indigenous knowledge in agriculture, botany and hydrology, as well as its potential role in promoting sustainable management of natural resources and the conservation of biodiversity.

Yunnan provided a culturally and environmentally rich setting for the summer school. Participants quickly became aware of many trans-regional and trans-location links.

“The theme of the summer school, ‘Culture and Environment’, was very much related to my area of research in India,” Tuisem explained.

“I was working on studying traditional shifting agricultural landscapes in northeast India. The indigenous way of conserving natural resources in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the remote areas of northeast India inhabited by ethnic (tribal) communities, formed one of the main frameworks of my Ph.D. work. The topography, climate, culture and other environmental factors in Arunachal Pradesh were very similar to Qingkou Village in Yunnan.”

Exploring culture and environment: Theoretical and research underpinnings

Qingkou was one of the nine field sites selected for the programme. Students completed nearly two weeks of first-hand research in one of the villages, following an initial week of coursework at Yunnan University’s Kunming campus. During the coursework, lecturers from China and abroad shared multidisciplinary perspectives on field studies, including anthropology, ethnology, ecology, agronomy, hydrology, sociology, political science, economics and media studies.

“The lectures given by experts about fieldwork methodology before undertaking research were of great help in formulating research questions and going into it [the field] in right direction,” Tuisem said.

After a week of coursework, participants go into the field. Photo: Gu/UNU.

This complex interaction between local cultures and the physical environment is an ongoing focus of research conducted by both UNU-ISP and the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS).

Traditional knowledge and local practice have rarely been scientifically and systematically assessed (meaning invaluable, practical information about local knowledge and adaptive capacities often escapes analysis, documentation and dissemination from one site to the next). The UNU-ISP Agrodiversity Project aims to improve understanding of community resilience — how and why local communities have managed and adapted to indigenous systems in response to global changes.

By linking local and global knowledge, the project identifies alternative ways to enhance the coping capacity of ethnic communities and contribute to policy development and sustainable land use systems in marginal regions. For example, Prof. Luohui Liang from UNU-ISP, a co-organizer of the Summer School, has studied how the Hani people of Yunnan’s Ailao Mountains (where the Qingkou Village is located) have harnessed local ecosystem products and services to sustain their livelihoods over generations.

Sacred natural sites, culture and environment

Research on culture and environment also shows how sacred natural sites (such as forests, mountains and rivers), as one of the oldest forms of protected areas, play a vital role in conserving both biological and cultural diversity. Co-organizer of the summer school Dr. Hongyan Gu from UNU-IAS observed:

“One interesting example of the interrelationship between local cultures and the natural environment is the presence of sacred forests in the villages inhabited by ethnic groups such as the Yi and the Hani (in Yunnan). Ritual ceremonies are conducted in sacred forests by shamans, and the sacrificial food is shared by all villagers.”

During the fieldwork, Tokyo Metropolitan University student Tomohisa Abe was struck by the multi-purpose “special” role forests played in the lives of local children. Forests were much more than a source of “useful materials”:the children shared their “remarkable capacity” to navigate through the forest searching for berries and wild fruits, fishing and swimming, or seeking respite.

Tokyo Metropolitan University student Tomohisa Abe was struck by the multi-purpose “special” role forests played in the lives of local children.

“The Hani children not only knew all of paths within the village, but they could also easily find walking tracks through the forest or rice terraces,“ he said.

“I think the local Hani children possess ‘cognitive maps’ filled with ‘natural resources’. These maps are shared amongst some of the children, but not with adult villagers (and often, not even with children of the opposite sex). The children often spend hours in the mountains collecting wild fruits that have almost no dietary significance, but are meaningful simply for their [play/leisure] satisfaction.”

However, social and economic development, including increased access to modern schooling, are bringing changes:

“To obtain ‘natural resources’ in this way is very time consuming. The emerging education system in the village [which changes how children spend their time] may influence this relationship between the children and nature”, Tomohisa observed.

Conserving forests “vis-a-vis rice fields”

Summer school participants observed how faith-based natural resource management systems are often embedded in cultural traditions, beliefs and proverbs.

“Qingkou villagers are deeply aware of the importance of forests, as evident from the way they maintain greenery in different strategic areas such as the hilltops, streams, within fields and on hillsides,” Tuisem explained.

Local Hani people in Qingkou attach considerable significance to conserving forests “vis-a-vis rice fields”. This practice is “embedded from ancestral days, as evident from their narration that goes, ‘Forests are the lifeblood of water; Water is the lifeblood of terraces; Terraces are the lifeblood of the Hani people’”.

“The local community’s management of wet (rice) paddy fields should not to be looked upon as just a traditional mono-crop field. Rather, it represents a delicately managed integrated paddy field where one can also find varieties of vegetables, alongside a forest mosaic of different trees and grasses, fishing and poultry.”

Changing relationships, challenges to sustainability

Globalization and rapid socio-economic change have placed unprecedented pressure on indigenous land management systems in Yunnan and further afield.

“Local communities in China’s southwestern borderland face many challenges, including tourism, rural-to-urban migration and commercial farming. In order to secure better income prospects, more and more farmers have taken up jobs away from the farm, or have left the land to work in the cities. Some farmland has also been converted to grow high-yielding commercial crops such as rubber,” Dr. Gu explained.

“The protection of agro-biodiversity needs local, contextualized knowledge and cultural practices. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Social and economic development poses challenges to researching culture and environment and to building community resilience.

The diverse impacts of social and economic changes on agro-biodiversity in Qingkou were apparent to summer school participants.

“In the context of rapid socio-economic changes, research teams need to pay special attention to the adaptation of traditional cultural and social structures of local communities,” Dr. Gu said.

The diverse impacts of these changes on agro-biodiversity in Qingkou were apparent to summer school participants.

“Of late there has been some disregard of traditional beliefs… some of the families residing near sacred forests have started intruding into the forest area for agricultural activities. Maize (corn) fields can now be observed in the periphery of sacred forest. This may be due to the pressure of meeting food requirements for the increasing population,” Tuisem observed.

Tuisem is concerned about the impact that the rising transient workforce could have on biodiversity and conservation of traditional practices: “Some of the women are even working in construction as daily labourers. If there is a change in market situation in the future, these young people will return to their village. Then, in order to meet their basic requirements, they will resort to [generating income from] whatever resources are available in the village at the time, such as the forests. This ultimately leads to degradation of the fragile ecosystem. The result will be total breakdown of rice field-based agriculture, which is the lifeline of the villagers.”

Government initiatives are underway, however, to help encourage ongoing sustainable management of natural resources and recent efforts to promote ecotourism may also help conserve agro-biodiversity and traditional cultural practices.

“Eco-cultural tourism in regions like Yunnan (known for its biological and cultural diversity) has the potential to not only provide alternative livelihoods to local communities, but also help to drive a ‘revival of traditions’…. In Qingkou Village, for example, the traditional mushroom-shaped thatched-roof houses are well maintained to attract tourists. In addition, the government has also provided policy support for the protection of traditional culture,” Dr. Gu explained.

Methodological issues: Challenges and changes to contemporary fieldwork

What challenges, then, do these changing interrelationships present for “studying” culture and environment? How can the contemporary fieldwork methodology and toolkit evolve and respond?

Whilst these are complex questions — and the subject of methodological debate — the Yunnan summer school not only introduced students to the diverse tools available to the contemporary fieldworker, but also to the breadth of issues and concerns involved in their application.

“Researchers need to address the global-local linkages in specific case studies, as all things are connected,” says Dr. Hongyan Gu.

As Dr. Gu observes, trans-disciplinary frameworks and partnerships are required: “The rapidly changing interrelationship between culture and environment requires us to adopt interdisciplinary frameworks, and thus collaborative research is encouraged between researchers from both natural and social sciences disciplines. Moreover, researchers need to address the global-local linkages in specific case studies, as all things are connected.”

Whilst broad social and economic change impacts on the dynamic between communities, cultures and environments (and the ways of studying them), as Tuisem and Tomohisa both observed, many practical concerns — such as heavy rainfall, language barriers, poor weather and the lack of existing literature — also proved challenging.

“The most crucial problem came from difficulties communicating verbally with villagers. The main reason for this was that I cannot speak the Hani language. But I think there is another important problem: the villagers felt it is necessary to try to use Mandarin (not Hani language) when talking with outsiders, including Han Chinese. Certain villagers can speak limited Mandarin, but it is too difficult for them to answer or express themselves adequately enough in a research interview,” Tomohisa said.

From local to global, bridging the gap

Building bridges across disciplines, cultures and locations can help overcome these challenges and continue to shape fieldwork methodology in new directions.

The Yunnan summer school encouraged knowledge sharing and a “trans-community, trans-regional” application of traditional practices and practical knowledge. By integrating course work and field studies, participants not only learned about the methods of field studies, but also gained appreciation of the importance of traditional knowledge and culture in shaping human interactions with living environments.

Tomohisa was pleased that the fieldwork provided a solid introduction to further research he plans to undertake in the Hani terraces (he is currently studying Hani language in Yunnan). In contrast, Tuisem is confident that he can transfer some insights he gained on traditional land management practices in Yunnan to his own area of field study in Arunachal Pradesh in India, an area known for its ethnic and biological diversity.

“The highlight of the fieldwork was observing how local villagers utilize natural resources, particularly the practice of upholding the landscape of Hani rice fields”, he said. “I hope that the experience I gained, especially the way the villagers of Hani ethnic nationality in Qingkou Village manage and sustained the rice fields, can be replicated in my field area. On the other hand, some of the local traditional knowledge of my field will also be of use for the Hani people.”

The summer school also highlighted the importance of local, traditional knowledge in the protection of diversity and in adapting to the multitude of economic, social and environmental challenges that confront traditional cultures in Yunnan and further afield. As Dr. Gu noted, “the protection of agro-biodiversity needs local, contextualized knowledge and cultural practices. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

However, traditional knowledge and culture is not static. It is evolving with time and socio-economic changes. To help the local communities to adapt to such changes, it is important to engage other stakeholders — such as government, academics and the private sector — and empower local communities in the decision-making and the implementation process.

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Article contributors

Hongyan Gu is a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellow at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS). She holds a Ph.D. in government and international relations from the University of Sydney. Hongyan’s research interests lie in the intersection of environmental history, politics and sociology of knowledge. Her current research project explores the role of forest-related traditional knowledge in biodiversity conservation in southwest China.

Luohui Liang is an Academic Programme Officer of the Global Change and Sustainability Section at the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP), Tokyo. Previously he was the Managing Coordinator of the UNU global initiative on People, Land Management and environmental Change (1998 to 2002), an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland (1995-1996) and a Land Use Planning Officer at the Yunnan Bureau of Land Management, China (1987-1998). His research interest covers sustainable management of land and biodiversity in agricultural landscapes.

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Summer School with a Difference by Heather Chai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Heather Chai is a former writer and editor for the United Nations University website editorial team. She is a diplomat in Australian Government. Heather holds a Masters of Arts in International Studies from the University of Technology Sydney and a Graduate Certificate in International Development from Deakin University Australia.