Biodiversity and Traditional Cultures in Xishuangbanna

Written by Anthony R. Ives

Throughout the world, we are losing biodiversity as the human population expands and material wealth places ever more demands on natural resources.  At the same time, we are losing cultural traditions and ethnic diversity as modern communication and transportation act to homogenize cultural experiences.  Both of these patterns have economic development at their core, and the future course of economic development will likely drive what happens to biological and ethnic diversity.  Although these patterns are driven by the same root causes and are therefore intertwined, they involve fundamentally different ethical issues.  As I argue below, I think both biodiversity and cultural traditions need to be at the forefront of discussions on economic development, but for different reasons.

The existence of pristine rainforest untouched by people is a myth.  Tropical areas throughout the world have been inhabited for at least thousands of years.  Even the tropical forests of the New World, while sparsely populated when “discovered” by Europeans, had only recently been depopulated by the European diseases that swept through the New World faster than the Europeans themselves.  All tropical forests bear the signs of long-term human habitation.

But the impact of people on the rainforest is escalating dramatically.  This is caused by the growing human population in the tropics which exerts increasing pressure on rainforest resources.  Also, economic and technological development has created the motivation and power to change or destroy rainforests in unprecedented ways.  We are losing rainforests throughout the world, and the biodiversity they contain is threatened.

At the same time, the world at large is losing cultural traditions.  To take Xishuangbanna as an example, Xishuangbanna is occupied by 13 recognized ethnic groups, showing a diverse collection of languages and cultural traditions.  These peoples have come from the north and the south since pre-historic times, and the hard mountainous terrain provided barriers that insulated ethnic groups from external cultural and political pressures.

Xishuangbanna is experiencing ever more movement of people and ideas.  The migration of people from their homes in search of economic opportunities, and the influx of people and communication technologies are breaking down the traditions that had remained intact due to the former isolation of villages (Figures 1, 2).

Economic development is at the heart of loss of biodiversity.  Much of the Xishuangbanna rainforest has been cleared for farming and plantations.  The past 30 years has seen an explosion of rubber.  In this time, the amount of rainforest has decreased from 70% to less than 50% of the land area of Xishuangbanna, leaving rainforest in isolated, high-elevation, and steep-sloped patches (Fig. 3).  In addition to the elimination of rainforest, in some areas there has been an intensification of harvesting of forest products (for food and medicines) from the remaining rainforests both in Xishuangbanna and surrounding regions (Fig. 4).  Greater mobility of products turns subsistence use of rainforests into harvesting for cash, with forest products transported for sale in regional markets.

Although economic development impacts both biodiversity and traditional cultures, these two issues are fundamentally different.  I think that humankind has an ethical obligation to preserve natural ecosystems, because with the power to destroy nature comes the responsibility to protect it.  Therefore, nature preservation must be integrated into economic development to become one component in improving the livelihoods of people.

The ethical issues surrounding ethnic diversity involve cultural self-determination rather than cultural preservation.  Cultures are dynamic, an expression not only of the traditions of a people but also their aspirations.  For cultures, I see an ethical imperative to protect people from directly or indirectly imposed cultural assimilation.  The USA, and even more recently Australia, had explicit programs to assimilate indigenous peoples into European culture, which is simply wrong.  Economic pressures, though not directed at breaking down cultural traditions, can nonetheless do so more effectively than overt assimilation programs.  Any discussion of economic develop must include issues of self-determination for individuals, families, communities, and ethnic groups.

Would a slowdown in economic development save biodiversity?  For example, would a severe drop in international rubber prices lead to greater preservation of rainforests in Xishuangbanna?  The lesson from Europe and North America is no.  In these regions, concern for conservation came after economic development, with the strongest sentiment for conservation coming from city dwellers.  But development had already taken its toll on biodiversity.  In southern Wisconsin, USA, where I live, the natural vegetation is prairie, with tall grasses and other plants that used to grow to 2 meters tall and extend for hundreds of kilometers in all directions (Fig. 5).  The prairie soils, though, are the richest in the world, and these prairies succumbed to the farmer’s plow more than 100 years ago.  Our remaining prairie is all manmade – areas in parks or preserves that were planted and are now managed by people.  Conservation of prairies is not a possibility because they no longer exist; we need to restore them.  Conservation and restoration in Europe and North America came only after economic development left people generally wealthy, with sources of income that do not require the consumption of natural resources in the immediate surroundings (although there is still the huge importation of natural resources from elsewehere in the world).

Would a slowdown in economic development preserve cultural traditions?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Regardless of its effect on cultural traditions, an economic slowdown would not be good.  When I was with a colleague in northwestern Yunnan, I remarked on the beauty of a remote village we visited.  He responded “Poverty is never beautiful,” a lesson I will never forget.  Economic development is necessary to improve people’s livelihoods.  Increased wealth provides not only increased material goods, but also improved health, education, and opportunities.  As a foreigner, I am fascinated with the cultural diversity of Xishuangbanna, and my appreciation is heightened by the loss of so many cultural traditions from my own ancestry.  However, the primary ethical guide for discussing traditional cultures must be cultural self-determination, and economic development is essential.

Economic development can take numerous pathways, and different pathways will have different impacts on biodiversity and traditional cultures.  If greater wealth can be brought to Xishuangbanna villages through means other than cutting down or overharvesting rainforests, then pressure on the remaining rainforests would be reduced.  There needs to be an alternative to the Western pattern of increased conservation awareness only after there is little remaining to be conserved.  If greater wealth can be brought to Xishuangbanna villages without disrupting families and communities through cultural swamping and economically driven migration, then people will be better able to determine their cultural fate. 

There is no easy and failsafe plan to promote economic development while protecting biodiversity and the rights of people for self-determination.  Nonetheless, Xishuangbanna is moving in a direction that makes these more likely.  There are two key ingredients.  First, there must be a nature reserve system that protects some of the remaining rainforest.  These cannot be just nature reserves on paper; protection of rainforests must be guaranteed through laws and enforcement.  Furthermore, public education about the value and fragility of tropical rainforests will increase public support for nature reserves.  While economic development might take some pressure off rainforests as a source of income, thereby helping with rainforest preservation, there will never be a substitute for strong, legally enforced protection of rainforests that must be the foundation of any conservation effort.

Second, control of economic development of resources should be, at least in part, at the local level.  Allowing the wealth from resource development to be controlled at the village level will increase opportunities at home, thereby limiting the forced disruptions of traditions and families of the many ethnicities of Xishuangbanna.  In the USA, the last 4 decades has seen a resurgence of Native American cultural identity and political self-determination.  Like the case of conservation in the USA, this is restoration of culture after it was nearly destroyed.  The history of traditional cultures in America and China are very different, and I don’t want to imply they are comparable.  Yet the loss of traditional cultures due to cultural disruption and economic forces would be a loss not only to the people holding these traditions, but also the world at large.

Xishuangbanna possesses fantastic biodiversity and ethnic diversity, and as a foreigner I marvel at both.  Both will undoubtedly change in the future.  Whether these changes are good or bad depends in large part on the pathway of economic development.  Biological preservation and the rights of people need to be key concerns in directing the economic development of Xishuangbanna.


Discussions with Vivian Fu, Zhuangfang Yi, Chuck Cannon, Jocelyn Behm, and Mary Ann Fitzgerald while I was writing this article taught me a lot, and remaining mistakes and misconceptions are the result of me not being a good enough student. I also thank Hong Jiang, Vivian Fu, Hong Zhou for aid in the translation. Finally, I thank Jinli Zhao for encouraging me to write this and providing her expert support.

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