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Ecological Agriculture
Where We Work: Yunnan

The Akha People and the Appeal of Shifting Agriculture

Planting the crop. (Chen Ping)

Text by:

  • Jian Kan, Village Head, Red Hair Tree Village, Mengla County of Xishuangbanna, Prefecture in Yunnan Province
  • Xian Jia, member of Hani Tribe Institute, Mengla county of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan Province
  • Shen Dingfang, Programme Officier, Yunnan Office, PCD

Acknowledgments:

  • The Hani Tribe Institute from Mengla County of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan Province discussed and explained to us the beliefs in Akha culture.
  • PCD's Assistant Programme Officer from the Yunnan Office Liu Fang and Fu yao, wife of Shen Dingfang gave advice on the article.

 

Editor's Note:

In the forest of Mengla County of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan Province live the Akha people from the Hani tribe. The forest is the foundation that provides the Akha with a variety of resources for survival. These people still practice slash-and-burn as their traditional way of farming, but in a way that takes good care of the land by using fallow rotations. When the winds of modernisation blew through the forest, the villagers chose to continue farming although they were able to purchase food from outside, illustrating the appeal of shifting agriculture. This article details the beliefs of the Akha people and their method of fallow rotation, so that we can see the harmony and delight brought by the interdependence between ancient customs and nature.

In March this year, PCD gathered partners from our eight programme counties in Yunnan to conduct a programme named 'Farming is Fun, Farming is Happiness', exchanging with each other the values they found in farming, as well as the contentment that the practice brings. The happiness that people find in farming includes the spiritual fulfillment from following their ethics and beliefs, the bumper harvests their hard labour brings, satisfaction from overcoming the physical demands of such hard work, the food that nourishes their lives, the joy of working hand in hand with family and community members, the peace from being close to nature, gaining good health from practicing ecological agriculture...... All these positive outcomes are richly experienced in shifting agriculture.

+ Click thumbnail to enlarge photo
Land clearance. (Zhu Yingzhan)
Land cleared. (Zhu Yingzhan)
Land burning. (Zhu Yingzhan)
Planting the crop. (Chen Ping)

Weeding in the fallow land. (Zhu Yingzhan)

Thriving rice paddy. (Zhu Yingzhan)

Varieties of plants in the crop land. (Chen Ping)

Crop land after rain. (Yan Meng)

The beliefs in Akha culture

In the Mengla County of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan Province, there live a group of 'Akha' people from the Hani Tribe. The ancestors of the Akha people migrated from far away to settle in the forests here. Over the centuries they have developed their own forms of production and livelihood.

The Akha people believe that this world is animistic, and that humans, spirits and all things in the world should live together in harmony. They have a relationship with the spirits as well as with all physical things. These people differentiate places where people live and where spirits dwell. They divide their living environment into seven sections: villages, scenic forests (with sacred wells inside), forests protecting the villages (with cemetery mountains and sacred trees), firewood forests, livestock land, crop rotation land and the wilderness that belongs to the animal world. The Akha people also have a set of regulations for how people should relate and interact with each other, and for interacting with the spirits and all other things on earth. All these regulations have models and examples, as well as rules for their application. There are specific regulations about appropriate behaviour in the dwelling places of both the humans and the gods. When these regulations are followed, they bring good fortune, while bad luck will result if they are ignored.

Appeal of shifting agriculture practiced by the Akha people

The traditional practice of shifting agriculture is a reflection of Akha culture and beliefs. Shifting agriculture is usually associated with slash-and-burn; that is, a temporary removal of forest cover by cutting and burning, sowing crops in the cleared area, then leaving the patch fallow after the harvest, for forest recovery. It is a part of the agroforestry system[1]. Yin Shaoting in People and the Forest: the ecological anthropological perspective on slash-and-burn points out the need to understand and study shifting agriculture using ecological anthropological perspectives, and that shifting agriculture is a culture created by these forest people. In the long history of human development, shifting agriculture was a commonly practiced farming method amongst the people in the tropics and the subtropics.

Red Hair Tree village has a total of 229 people and 53 households. Of its 13,000 mu (1 mu = approximately 0.07 hectare) of land, 200 mu is the village proper, scenic forests 1,000 mu, forests protecting villages more than 2,000 mu, firewood forest close to 1000 mu and livestock and crop rotation land over 8000 mu. The villagers are affluent enough to purchase food from elsewhere, yet they carry on farming. This reveals the appeal of shifting agriculture: sustainable, supporting diversity, and tying in with ethnic customs.

Land clearing

Every November, the village head organises the heads of households to decide together on the plots of land to be cleared for farming. They use the growing condition of the trees as an indicator of soil fertility, and select one or two patches of land. When there are fellow farmers without land or a new piece of land available for rotation, those with land to spare will usually let these fellow farmers farm on their land unconditionally.

Once the land parcels are identified, village officials act on behalf of the village to apply to the government and the forestry department for land clearance permits in accordance with the forest protection policy. Following approval, chopping starts right after the Akha people’s New Year (2nd – 4th January). Some families will start clearing their land once they have heard a particular birdsong.

Cleaning up the fire breaks

In April, all villagers gather to clear the fire breaks. Once this is done, they burn the vegetation within the fire breaks within three days. All villagers have to be present when this is done, to ensure the fire does not spread uncontrollably. Villagers collect the unburnt wood as fuel, or pile it up for burning again. This part of the work is left for the families to handle. Children will play and help in the dark. Once the clearance is done, villagers will start building access trails and laying irrigation from water sources. Men will build sheds in the cleared patches, while the women plant more than 10 kinds of fruits, spices and vegetables. Once the sheds are done, the planting is also over.

Having fun as the land is being cleared

While the land is being cleared, villagers have their own ways of having fun. Some people will work in the fields until just before sunset and then go to the streams nearby to gather wild vegetables and fish for bringing back to the sheds and cooking before dark. Whenever they have gleaned something special or when they have a need to release their pent-up emotions, they will howl loudly. Other people will then howl back in response, filling the air with their cries. The villagers find it heartwarming when they are surrounded by howling far and near, loud and soft, as if their wishes have been answered. Once the howling has stopped, neighbours will get together, asking each other what delicious food they have for the night, and then sharing the dishes in small groups. When night has fallen, as they listen to the songs of insects and the sound of wind in the leaves, their hearts are full of peace and contentment.

Sowing seeds for crops, sowing seeds for love.

Late May brings the arrival of the rainy season. After two downpours, the land is ready for planting. Some families listen for the bird song ah-ka-ah-huo before they begin. Around bamboo trellises and ant piles, they will plant melons and chilli peppers; at the burnt heaps, they plant cucumbers; at the edge, they usually plant pumpkins and loofahs, and where the Zixie trees used to grow, red millet is planted. When they are sowing the seeds for grains and cereal, the women and men pair up: while the men are digging the trenches, the women will sow the seeds in them. They also have to sing to and echo each other as they do so. If the pairs are in love with each other, it is the best time for romance.

Harmonious families rest the hearts of the spirits of the grains

Late June to August is the down time for the farmers. People immerse themselves in a festive mood. They do have to weed twice in this period – once in late June, once in August. During the last day of weeding, every household performs ya-jia-ya-luo in their own fields. People believe that humans' voices will scare away the spirits of the grains, affecting the harvest. Ya-jia-ya-luo comforts these spirits and calls them back. Whenever there are pest infestations, landslides or poorly growing crops, the community will organise rituals and ceremonies for the spirits of the grains. All family members must attend. They believe that a harmonious family relationship is the basis for good harvests, as it will rest the hearts of the spirits.

Harvest

By October, the rain is done. People are beginning to reap what has been sown. Before harvesting, people must save the seeds for the coming year. The selection process is led by the elderly female member of each family. She will choose the big round seeds from the long, smooth and golden ears. After saving the seeds, the family will organise an activity of tasting the new rice, which is also the prerogative of the elderly female member of the family. They are the first ones to taste it, which is a way of thanking the mother; and then the new rice will be sent to the mother's brothers and sisters for tasting.

As for the harvests, the villagers are so proud of their cucumbers that they have saved the seeds themselves. These cucumbers have no need for chemical fertilisers, and grow to over 20 catties without pesticides. Whenever people comment negatively about shifting agriculture, the villagers will rebuff them using their prized cucumber as a weapon. They are more than willing to compare theirs with those produced elsewhere, on the basis of taste, weight, environmental friendliness, labour input and many other things.

Shifting farming is indispensable

The village head of Red Hair Tree village, Jian Kan, said, "After harvesting, the land will lay fallow. When 11-12 years have passed, the land can be used to grow crops again, and this is what we call sustainable agriculture. The method also intentionally preserves and grows edible plants, and also domesticates them so as to add nutrients to the villagers' diet and to preserve the local biodiversity. Besides, production and local customs organically fused together are a real incarnation of our ethnic sentiments. Shifting agriculture is indispensable to us".


Notes:

  1. Xu jianchu, Pei Shengji, Chen Sanyang. Categorisation of the Ecological Systems of Shifting Agriculture in Xishuangbanna Prefecture.

 

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