First Terraced Landscapes Conference - Honghe, China

First Terraced Landscapes Conference - Honghe, China

8 December 2010

The ‘First World Conference on Terraced Landscapes’ was held in Mengzi City, Honghe Prefecture, Yunnan Province, P.R. China from 11-15 November 2010 (see earlier piece here). The meeting aimed to discuss the conservation of terraced landscapes worldwide, but with a particular focus on the Yuanyang Hani Rice Terraces that lie within Honghe Prefecture. The Ramsar Convention was one of the collaborating institutions for the conference since it provided an opportunity to promote Resolution X.31 ‘Enhancing biodiversity in rice paddies as wetland systems’, and to learn more about the issues facing rice terraces farming.

View of the Hani Rice Terraces

The meeting brought together a wide range of participants, including local rice terrace farmers, government officials, academics, and representatives from international and local organizations, specializing in the conservation, history, culture and ecology of terraced landscapes.

Head table at the conference

The conference began with a field visit to the Hani Rice Terraces which are shared by villagers from a number of minority groups, such as the Hani and Yi, who have farmed the terraces for at least 1,200 years. Over this time, the villagers had developed a holistic system of water and landscape management to ensure the regular supply and equitable sharing of the water for their terraces. The forests at the top of the Ailo Mountains, where the terraces are located, are protected so that the ground can better absorb the rainwater that falls. The water then flows down to the villages and then to the terraces via an intricate network of ditches which are managed by ‘ditch keepers’, elected members from the villagers who maintain and repair the ditches. Finally, the water reaches the Hong He (River) at the foot of the mountain where the villagers stay, evaporation brings the moisture back up to the mountain tops before falling as rain and the cycle starts once more.

These villagers, although from different minority groups, have a strong feeling of being ‘brothers and sisters in the mountains’, inter-marrying and borrowing farm animals (i.e. buffalos) from each other. They themselves say that the ‘glue’ for this strong bond is the water that flows through their villages and terraces.

A group of villagers from the terraces

After the field visit, the meeting participants then returned to Mengzi City to discuss the issues facing the conservation of terraced landscapes worldwide, but focusing on the example from the Hani Rice Terraces.

A villager preparing his presentation to the conference

It was recognised that many terraced agriculture landscapes worldwide have a long history and they share one common problem, that of the exodus of young people and men to nearby towns to find work with higher pay. In the case of the Hani Rice Terraces, the women who remain have to take on a greater responsibility for the management of the terraces. For terraces such as those in Ifugao (Philippines), the problem of a lack of labour had become so serious that some of the terraces are now becoming abandoned and are in danger of collapsing.

A villager’s interpretation of the terrace landscape

In order to make rice farming more economically attractive so that younger villagers would be willing to remain and work on the land, high-yielding rice species have been introduced by government and researchers. Although these have a higher production, they also require more chemical input than the rice varieties that were traditionally used. According to the villagers, introduction of the new rice varieties is causing the loss of the many traditional varieties that the villagers have grown for generations, and the new varieties are less preferred by them because of the lack of taste.

Ladies from the terraces in traditional dress

Tourism has also been introduced into terraced landscapes as a way of bringing additional income for the villagers. However, these tours need to be sustainable managed in order to allow the visitors to have a genuine experience of the traditional farming culture and of the village way of life, and to provide the farmers with an equitable share of the benefits from tourism. After all, the villagers are the managers of the landscape that the tourists have come to see.

The conference ended with agreement to form an ‘International Terraced Landscape Alliance’ to work for the conservation of terraced landscape worldwide, with the secretariat being based at Honghe University. Further information can be obtained from Prof. Shi Junchao who organised the conference.

Report by Lew Young