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People and Forests - Yunnan Swidden Agriculture


Yin Shaoting is professor of anthropology at Yunnan
University in Kunming, and has spent over 20 years on the
study of ethnic minority people in Yunnan, their history,
livelihood, culture and agriculture. This book, completed
first in Chinese and then excellently translated by Magnus
Fiskesjo, brings together not only two decades of field work,
but also a large amount of historical material. It offers
important discussion on policy issues in relation to the
minority peoples. From the outset, Yin rejects views that
shifting cultivation is ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’: it is the
farming culture of the forest, created by the forest-dwelling
Yin develops a typology of shifting cultivation in modern
Yunnan. Distinctions are drawn between systems in which
only a single crop is taken after a fallow period (described as
farming ‘without continuous cultivation’), systems in which
swiddens are cropped for 2 or 3 years, usually with hoeing
and/or ploughing after the first year (called ‘swiddening with
short-term continuous cultivation’), and systems in which
cropping continues for several years (‘swiddening with
long-term continuous cultivation’, but only where irrigation
is possible giving way to fixed-field farming). Decreasing
the time under fallow has the consequence that the forest
fails to recover, so that the systems become grassland
farming, which depends more on skilful crop rotations and
Those systems which depend on naturally regenerating
fallow are distinguished from a minority in which there is
active tree planting, especially of the alder (Alnus
nepalensis) which fixes nitrogen and, by heavy littering,
provides rapid restoration of soil fertility. The majority of
shifting cultivator farmers lives in permanent villages and
farm-defined territories, but there has been an important
minority who move readily from place to place, a practice
becoming increasingly unviable as little unoccupied land
remains. There is an interesting account of a community
which settled in a state forest in the 1980s and has only been
enticed out of it by the offer of land which could be irrigated
and which has good access to the market.
The core of the book is in five detailed accounts of the
agriculture, society and beliefs of people among whom Yin
has worked (Jingpo, Bulang, Wa, Jinuo, Dulong), followed
by comparative chapters. The key to successful forest
swidden farming has been the division of village territories
into blocks which are cultivated by the concentrated efforts
of all farmers, and then fallowed as wholes for as long as is
necessary. Where this system operates, and where cultivation
is restricted to a single year, the weed problem is small,
there is no need for ploughing and little for hoeing, and both
production and ecology are sustainable. It is continued only
by a minority, and in most cases did not survive either the
planning directives of the collectivization period nor the
very substantial growth in population that has taken place
since the 1950s. Even among people of the same ethnic
group there has been much contrast in the systems put in
The collectivization of the 1950s was applied in all parts
of China, the remotest hills and valleys of the southwest
included. Villages became production brigades (dadui).
Land quality was allowed to deteriorate, and harvests
declined, leading to the opening of large new areas of forest,
mainly for grain monoculture. At the same time, state farms
were established on the lower slopes, staffed mainly by Han
immigrant workers, growing mainly rubber in southern
Yunnan, and sugar cane in the west. One former cash crop,
opium, important since the late 19th century and grown by
some south-western groups, was quickly eliminated.
‘Reform and opening’ reached the minority groups of the
southwest in the early 1980s. After a period during which
there was great uncertainty over the directions of future
policy, leading to further extensive forest clearance in order
to establish claims to land, this settled in the 1990s into a
tenure system often not unlike that of pre-communist times.
Land still belonged to the collective and the state, as it did to
the clan in most of these societies before the 1950s, and it
could still be redistributed, but households had increasingly
secure rights of cultivation and decision-making. The
reforms were accompanied by increasing regulation of
forest use, and the declaration of substantial areas as state
forest and nature reserves. For the Jinuo people of
Xishuangbanna, in southern Yunnan, these changes reduced
the available arable area by more than half causing
considerable problems for certain villages. One such village,
Baka, was a study site of Professor Yin in the 1980s; it was
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 123 (2008) 245–246
0167-8809/$ – see front matter # 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
also a study site for an international project coordinated by
this reviewer after 1993 (Dao et al., 2003). Both reports
recount the manner in which Baka village divided after
1960, with progressive concentration into the lower-altitude
site, as also happened elsewhere. Yin emphasizes the
growing attractions of the lower-lying sites, with greater
access to education, market and assistance.
During the collective period, and for some years after it,
the thrust of development policy in these marginal areas of
southern China has been in two directions. First was in
provision of infrastructure, especially roads, schooling,
medical aid and assistance in development of irrigation and
cash crops; the last of these has continued to increase into the
most recent period. Second was a less successful persuasion
to adopt modern fixed-field farming, using chemical
fertilizers and pesticides – ‘having two chemicals come
up the mountain’ – to deal the death blow to swidden
With the rise of ecological awareness in the 1990s, the
drive for farming with high levels of chemical inputs has
given way to a renewed emphasis on ecologically sound
management, including re-adoption (or discovery by the
authorities) of old practices now brought together collectively
as ‘agroforestry’. It includes re-discovery of the use of
Alnus nepalensis for soil improvement and the recovery of
commercial tea cultivation under trees, which has been
practised for several hundred years. Yin finds this trend
encouraging and with it also an increasing emphasis on
growing ‘green’ products for the market (the term ‘green’ in
China referring to low external-input systems, rather than
fully organic systems). The book ends with a powerful
argument for development ‘with ethnic characteristics’
among the minority people of the southwest, recognizing the
central place of the forest in their livelihood and longadapting
culture and economy.
This review covers only a small part of the rich fund of
material in Yin’s book. Among other topics he offers a
detailed discussion of the highly skilled agriculture of the
valley-dwelling Dai people, and provides a great deal of
information on the hunting practices of all the people
studied, and on their rituals and beliefs, pre-1950s social
organization and land tenure. There are many descriptive
vignettes, and excellent and informative photographs. There
is a wealth and depth here that few writers on swidden
cultivation have been able to match. The translation is
excellent and, although complex, this book is very readable.
Those interested in the topic, or in the minority people of
China and southeast Asia, who are able to get hold of the
book, and read it, will be richly rewarded.
Date Added: 12/14/2007 by Harold Brookfield
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