China’s Tribal Farmers Face the Global Market

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“I arrived at the market at 2 a.m. this morning,” said Mrs. Liu as she spread out her precious produce on the floor next to her friends. Her exotic fruit, vegetables, and fungi freshly gathered the day before were selling quickly.

Not everything had been gathered from the forest this time. Solarlum leaves were a favorite among shoppers, prized for their aromatic flavor when eaten raw as a salad. Seizing this opportunity, Mrs. Liu and other Jinuo and Dai peoples of China’s Southwest district of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province had gathered seeds in the forest and cultivated the plant in their kitchen gardens.

At the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago, the simple act of cultivating wild seeds was a massive technological leap that overshadows any advances we have witnessed in the 20th century and became a defining moment for modern humanity. Now Mrs. Liu’s cultivation of wild seeds are all but lost in a world obsessed with the next big agricultural techno-fix to land a big profit.

 

The word among foreign venture capital firms in the corridors of the Landmark Towers Hotel in Beijing, far from Mrs. Liu’s market, is that the clever money is in genetic engineering—especially now when access to the vast potential of the Chinese market is accelerating due to China’s recent entrance to the World Trade Organization. Thomas Dyrberg, representative of Danish company Novo AS venture capital, says that interest in the Chinese sector has increased in recent years and his company has placed 15 investments in the past year. Sister company Novozymes employs 420 people in its quest for new enzymes found by screening plants and fungi from China’s rich biodiversity.

Situated on an island carved out by the twisting current of a tributary of the mighty Mekong River, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens is regarded as a national treasure. It contains 6,000 plant and tree species, including 3,000 collected from the surrounding rainforest. Director Guo Huijun explains that the disappearance of traditional agricultural varieties will hinder development of promising new ones. So his priority is conserving the region’s threatened forest and agricultural biodiversity. “The Jinuo used to grow around 13 varieties of upland rice in any one village,” he said. Now the Jinuo have moved down from the hills and instead grow hybrid paddy rice varieties requiring subsidized fertilizers and pesticides. Guo pioneered the now widely accepted concept of agricultural biodiversity conservation. “People and their knowledge create agricultural plant varieties and so are part of a holistic system that depends on each other,” he said.

Back in the Village

At the Dai village of Mandajui, a village elder proudly showed off the new spirit shrine in the center of the village. As a keeper of the Buddhist temple in the village he saw no contradiction in mixing two faiths. “I remember when the new road divided the village 20 years ago,” he said. It brought new marketing possibilities for the Dai and increased their contact with outsiders. The village elder explained that “by 1990 our 12 home-bred rice varieties had been replaced by just one hybrid variety requiring fertilizers and pesticides provided by the government.”

Samples of over 200 rice varieties gathered from Jinuo and Dai are locked in the seedbank at the botanical gardens, but Guo knows full well that storage can only be an interim measure. Sooner or later the seeds must be cultivated in the field or they will go the way of 90 percent of agricultural varieties worldwide that have disappeared from farmers’ fields over the past 100 years. The urgency to conserve rare seeds is all very well to the Jinuo and Dai people, but after being forced down from the hills by Chairman Mao Tse-tung and being banned from hunting in the dwindling forests in 1998, their traditional way of life is not the viable option it once was.

Many people now desire cash crops, preferably of a variety that mixes well with the traditional mix of rice, maize, and tea. The researchers at the botanical gardens have tried to help by suggesting options for lucrative plants and providing the initial seeds. Recently the Jinuo tried to produce passion fruit because the juice is popular in China. But the year after the planting season the price halved due to oversupply and just collecting the fruit was too much work for the return, so the crop rotted on the vine. While the advice of the botanical garden may have failed in this case, its suggestions regarding the pomelo, a favorite with the lowland Dai tribe, have been more successful. Gardens and roadside stalls are full of the fruit, which look like giant grapefruit. Another favorite crop is rubber, and towering tropical rainforest has been replaced by row upon row of rubber trees, posing a dramatic change to the landscape and ecosystem.

Worrying about market prices for crops is a new concern for the Jinuo and Dai peoples. Children learn quickly—prices for butterflies, popular among tourists, have doubled this year, so they all carry a net.

The Jinuos’ experiences with China’s internal price fluctuations have already been hard, and now the Jinuo will have to deal with a completely new animal—the global marketplace. The implications of China’s entry into the WTO are far-reaching as the country relaxes trade restrictions against foreign companies operating inside the country. The new liberal mood has already tempted transnational companies, who are positioning themselves fast. The shelves in Beijing’s supermarkets are stacked high with Kellogg’s, Nestle, Nabisco, and Coca-Cola products.

In turn Chinese companies must compete on the global stage to stay afloat. While some of the larger ones with a competitive edge may survive, the fate of Mrs. Liu and her tribe are questionable as they try to make ends meet.

Since 1990 Rod Harbinson has been working to expose and stop destructive abuses of the environment and the people inhabiting it. During this period he has travelled throughout Europe and Asia. He has produced several books and documentaries and has worked as editor of a number of magazines and journals. His photos and articles have been widely published in books, newspapers, and magazines around the world.

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