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China's Agricultural Heritage

By staff reporters ZHANG HONG & VERENA MENZEL

BOASTING thousands of species of domesticated crops and wild plants, China is one of the world's richest crop germplasm resources. Many crops grow on Chinese farms through a multitude of different methods, some that have been used for centuries, even millennia. In March 2012, the first Chinese Farming Culture Exhibition opened in Beijing. Its focus was the preservation of agricultural heritage such as that of the Dong ethnic group communities.

Four Pilot Projects

People of the Dong ethnic group mainly live in the mountainous areas of southeastern Guizhou Province. Every April, they begin farming the terraced fields that cling to the mountainsides. They sow rice seeds in greenhouses and transplant the seedlings to paddy fields once they have reached three centimeters in height. One month later, they introduce fish fry into the fields. After a while ducks are added to the mix, completing the traditional ecological system of the two fauna and the rice plants.

This coexistence of rice, fish and ducks builds an extraordinarily effective ecosystem. The paddy field provides a sustainable environment in which micro-organisms flourish and provide feed for fish. The fish and ducks clear pests and weeds so that the rice can grow healthily.

The rice-fish-duck system of the Dong people was exhibited at the Chinese Farming Culture Exhibition as an example of typical agricultural heritage. It is also one of the pilot systems of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

China is one of the first countries to be involved in the GIAHS project, which has identified 16 ancient agricultural systems as pilot sites worldwide. Apart from the rice-fish-duck system of Cong-jiang County in Guizhou Province, China is host to three other pilot sites – the rice-fish system of Qingtian County in Zhejiang Province; the Hani rice terraces of Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province; and the traditional rice cultivation of Wannian County in Jiangxi Province.

The Qingtian rice-fish system was one of a batch of five traditional agricultural systems chosen as the FAO's first pilot sites when GIAHS was launched in 2004. Living in isolated areas, the farmers of Longxian Village, Qingtian County have kept the tradition of growing rice and raising fish in rice fields for 1,200 years. They never use chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Many people regard traditional agriculture as backward and often want to replace it with modern techniques. But Min Qingwen, deputy director of the Center for Natural and Cultural Heritage at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), does not take this line. "Quite a few functions of traditional agriculture, including cultural and ecological functions, haven't been fully recognized," Min said.

"Yuan Longping, the 'Father of Hybrid Rice', has made a remarkable contribution to solving the problem of feeding the world's massive population. Agricultural heritage, on the other hand, provides people with better agricultural products," Yuan Li, a researcher at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, explained. The quality of the fish produced by the farmers of Qingtian County is recognized around the world. They are exported to over 20 countries and regions including Italy, France and Brazil.

Endangered in Modern Society

Yan Gongda, member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultation Conference (CPPCC) and vice-president of the Chinese Calligraphers Association, called for the preservation of agricultural heritage during the annual session of National People's Congress (NPC) and CPPCC in March 2012. "Nowadays, it is rare to see mulberries or locust trees, not to mention the primeval forests that were once quite common. Traditional poultry and farming skills are also declining," Yan said.

Agricultural heritage is a vital tool that can be harnessed to preserve and protect our environment. Traditional farming skills are struggling to survive in the shadow of rapid urbanization and spread of modern farming technology.

The rice culture system of Wannian County is an example of agricultural heritage at risk. Wannian is one of the world's oldest sites of cultivated rice, and archeological evidence suggests that rice planting in this area may date back 12,000 years. Wannian rice, offered as a tribute to emperors during feudal dynasties, is one of the earliest types of cultivated rice still grown today.

Wannian rice has a great mouthfeel that may be attributed to the special natural environment in the area. The sun exposure is three to four hours shorter every day than in the surrounding areas. The air, water and soil temperatures are also 3-5oC lower, and the rice grows for one month longer. The output, however, is rather limited since the rice can only grow in specific water, soil and climatic conditions. Cultivating rice brings lower returns than working as migrant laborers in cities. As a result, Wannian rice is on the verge of extinction.

A number of ecological agricultural patterns formulated by ancient Chinese have become endangered in modern times. These include intercropping, where two or more crops are grown in close proximity, dryland farming, various forms of agroforestry, and the Turpan water system of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

In recent years, villages that support traditional farming culture are fast dying out. At the end of 2009, there were 2.3 million villages in China, but fewer than 3,000 of them, just 0.13 percent, practiced traditional agriculture. This is a phenomenon that prominent writer Feng Jicai deems "cultural tragedy."

It is also an environmental tragedy. Though modern agricultural technologies significantly increase grain output, they also bring some problems due to the over-application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Traditional agriculture continues to shrink in its wake.

The Pu'er tea agricultural system in Yunnan Province, Aohan dryland agricultural system in Inner Mongolia, Xuanhua traditional vineyards in Hebei Province, Shaoxing Torreya grandis trees in Zhejiang Province and traditional jujube fields in Jiaxian County, Shaanxi Province have also been listed as GIAHS candidates.

Dai Weidong, FAO program officer in China, has suggested integrating the development of agricultural heritage sites into ecotourism and rural tourism in order to preserve them. When tourism prospers in China's rural communities, however, farmers prefer to be engaged in travel services rather than hard farm labor. Tourism is a double-edged sword, according to Sun Yehong, a doctoral student at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research. The more valuable a heritage site, the greater destruction tourism may bring.

Taking on the Mission

Gao Xing, deputy Party secretary of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at CAS, believes that farming culture is at the center of China's 5,000-year civilization.

Determining who is in the best position to carry on the task of continuing traditional farming skills is an urgent task. Whoever takes on this role would be removed from cultural progress, technological advances and ecological change. It is also paramount to work out how these heritages can contribute to agricultural modernization and construction of new socialist countryside.

In Min Qingwen's opinion, deliberately pursuing traditional agriculture on a large scale is unnecessary. Instead, he suggests maintaining traditional farming culture in remote areas where ecological and farming conditions are unfavorable while developing the deeper value of these heritages to boost the local economy and improve farmers' living standards.

According to Min, traditional farming patterns such as the Honghe rice terraces system should be encouraged in mountainous areas that suffer from soil erosion, and where it is not practical to use large machines. These farming methods not only fit the local natural environment, but also meet the local demands of economic and cultural development and are beneficial to regional sustainable development.

"Preserving an agricultural heritage is to preserve a farming system," explained Li Wenhua, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and researcher of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at CAS. "If a system of farming is maintained, the related farming culture and biodiversity will be conserved. Losing such a system is much worse than losing a species."

Agricultural heritage preservation was a hot issue at the annual sessions of the NPC and CPPCC in March 2012. Yan Gongda suggested during the sessions that the agriculture commissions of each province work together to establish a preservation organization. This would include administrative departments responsible for cultural heritage, agriculture, water conservancy, forestry, animal husbandry, fishery, and environmental protection. Each department would be obligated to protect endangered agricultural heritages as determined by general surveys.

Yan also proposed setting up a special fund for agricultural heritage preservation. "The fund should be used to train professionals in preservation and sponsor those inheriting traditional farming skills," Yan said. "Furthermore, I advise a combination of site conservation and museums by building agricultural eco-museums on the sites of agricultural heritages."

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us