The Forests of the Akha - Indigenous culture and sustainable development in Xishuangbanna


The Akha traditionally celebrate new year with a 'swing festival' 

Shen Dingfang (Meng Nan Group for Community-based Sustainable Development) 
Wang Mingsheng (Mengla County Hani Institute)

The indigenous Akha people of Xishuangbanna, southern Yunnan Province, are traditionally animist, believing that all things have souls, and that only the gate to the village separates people from the world of the supernatural. The Akha are a sub-group of the Hani people and divide their living environments into seven landscapes, as spaces to provide codes of conduct. The human landscapes are made up of stockaded villages, forests and sacred wells, scenic forests containing mountain cemeteries and sacred trees, firewood-gathering forests, land for rearing livestock, and cropland; the wilderness belongs to the animal world. However, these traditional landscapes have recently been replaced by the large-scale cultivation of rubber, banana and other cash crops, and as a result, Akha culture is gradually being lost.

In 2008, a retired teacher from Mengla County in Xishuangbanna began to document and organise local Akha genealogy. Wang Mingsheng has travelled all over the county at his own expense, village after village – by 2010, he had visited 73 different locations across the region. What he found after engaging with many Akha people made him concerned: Akha communities were facing the loss of their traditions as well as the moral sensibility through ancestral culture, customs, and ethical codes. At the same time, the Akha hadn’t accepted ‘modern’ culture – they did not know how to abide by those new morals and ethics either. He sensed a thought and cultural vacuum in the lives of the Akha.

In 2010, Wang established the Mengla County Hani Institute to help restore the Akha people’s cultural inheritance. He believes that the Akha people face three main challenges in revitalising their heritage. First, many locals view their own traditional culture with apathy, only following customs for festivals, weddings and funerals, and then quite haphazardly. Second, as discussed, moral sensibilities were being eroded. Third, people today are not living in harmony with the natural environment but seem to be motivated above all by economic interests, exploiting nature without restraint: they have abandoned the Akha belief that "all things have souls".

In 2011, with the support of Partnerships for Community Development (PCD), the Hani Institute began to carry out activities aimed at restoring and preserving the legacy of Akha culture and spirit. At the village level, the Institute has conducted surveys and field studies that call on villagers to rediscover their traditional culture and the sense of spiritual respect for nature. The surveys gathered information on cultural practices such as ancient Akha songs which relate to the creation of the world, stories, genealogy, traditional community management structures, traditional village layouts and calendars.

Historically, Akha communities were organised into three groups: Ju, Pi and Ji. Ju is where elders, each of whom represents a clan, hold their meetings. Ju Ma refers to the tribal chief, a hereditary position responsible for the gate to the stockaded village, the village swing used in ancestral offerings, holy wells, sacred trees and other important spiritual landmarks, and the maintenance of spiritual faith. Pi refers to someone who safeguards the spiritual knowledge of the community, and is responsible for important customs such as chanting after births and deaths, and the treatment of mental illness. Lastly, Ji is someone with skills to meet the material needs of the community.

Unfortunately, over the past half-century, these distinctions have vanished, with much of traditional Akha culture ravaged by various political movements and the mainstream dominant culture. Over time, the Akha cultural memory has become rather vague, and with the influence of ‘modern’ and foreign cultures, disagreements have arisen over what does or does not constitute Akha tradition: it is a challenge to revive a culture when many different understandings exist. Meanwhile, the traditional landscapes and layouts of most Akha stockaded villages in Mengla County have been damaged. While people might agree with and accept the spiritual essence within traditional landscaping, they are also driven by economic interests. Simply put, it will be a huge effort to restore traditional Akha landscapes.

In response to these challenges, the Hani Institute created Song Sha Man Ma, a team of folk artists tasked with re-introducing the concepts of Ju, Pi and Ji that had been in place for thousands of years. Song Sha Man Ma represents the ‘three harmonies’ of Akha culture: interpersonal harmony, harmony between people and nature, and harmony among branches of the Akha family tree. They have since performed in Akha communities in Mengla, Xishuangbanna and across Southeast Asia.

At the county level, the Hani Institute organises regular Akha cultural discussions, activities, and demonstrations, exploring how to restore and organise Akha cultural activities. For example, the Institute has supported some communities in restoring their De Xing (the village square, a space for public activities, community education and cultural inheritance), = Lang Kang (the gate to the stockaded village, a spiritual divider and guide to ethical human behaviour) and A-Pei (cultural festivals). The Institute has also brought members of the Akha community in Mengla to Akha communities across Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar to discover their common roots. These exchanges and discussions with ‘foreign’ Akha have helped to revive the cultural and spiritual aspects that the Mengla Akha had left behind.

The Institute has selected a total of six communities in Mengla to serve asdemonstration sites: Guangnanli, Baluo, Hongmaoshu, Heluo, Xiahuibian, and Shangzhongliang. The intention is that by conducting community-based surveys, restoring traditional festivals, and staging county and district-level cultural activities in the six sites, other Akha communities will clearly see the value of promoting and supporting their heritage.

With the support of the Hani Institute, some communities have already revived some traditional festivals and rituals, and restored the holy wells and the gates to their stockaded villages. Others have moved from the mindset of organising traditional activities for show to one of self-motivation. Overall, there is a more pleasant community atmosphere and a more harmonious sense of order, and these communities are eager to visit other Akha people and promote the benefits of Akha cultural revival.

* This article was originally published in Mountain Futures: Inspiration and Innovation from the World's Highlands, World Agroforestry Centre, Xu et al. (2018) and has been adapted for this website.