UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Protection and cultivation of rattan by Hani (Akha) People in Yunnan, Southwest China



Agroforestry, cultivation practices, cultural identity, forest conservation, forest management, forestry planning, income generation, protected resources


Introducing the practice

The method for growing rattan reported here is practised by the indigenous Hani (Akha) communities of Mengsong, Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan province of China. These communities have unique systems for managing natural resources and forests.

The communities differentiate forests and forest systems according to their function and products. There are forests that yield building materials (lieshugejio) or cash crops (naqiluogo), forests that enhance the landscape (puchang), forests used for graveyards (nagbiong) and protected rattan forest (Sangpabawa).

The practice occupies much of the year. The Hani farmers prepare the land in early February, in the middle of the relatively dry season. Rattan seeds are then sown in swidden fields, seedbeds or other protected areas. In March-April, when the seedlings are strong enough and 20-30 cm high, they are transplanted to spots beneath strong trees on which the rattan can climb. Additional planting takes place in July, but at this time cut stems are planted rather than seedlings. The entire process from sowing to harvesting takes about six to ten years. The forest is cleared regularly and managed in order to allow good rattan growth.

The importance of this practice and the reason for its selection as Best Practice lies in:

·           The efficient conservation, reasonable utilization and stable output of rattan.

·           Sustainability, since there is no over-exploitation of resources.

·           The selective harvesting of rattan (every three to five years) so as not to destroy the plants’ root systems, thus allowing new shoots to develop.

·           Several possibilities for local production and marketing: rattan as a raw material, rattan furniture, and rattan strings for the annual festival of the Hani.

·           The selective management of rattan and other plants, which protects biodiversity and does not disturb the natural water situation.

The practice is still in use because it provides long-term benefits to the Mengsong Hani and has a multiple function within the society. It has an economic value as it provides an income through the manufacture of traditional rattan furniture, such as stools, tables and baskets. The practice has an ecological function as cultivating rattan in swidden-fallow fields results in improved fallow management and enhanced biodiversity. Finally, rattan cultivation and production has a social and cultural value, through the exchange of rattan handicrafts between communities, the rattan ‘swinging festival’, wedding gifts etc. The government and the forestry office have recognized its value within the society and therefore encourage its continuation.

Origins of the practice

According to the villagers of Mengsong, the practice related to the local Sangpabawa or protected rattan forest originated about 100 years ago and has been maintained and developed ever since, covering an area of 300 ha in 1950. The chieftain (Tusi) of Mengsong made the decision to establish the rattan forest and to regulate its use due to depletion of wild rattan resources in the other forests. Villagers were allowed to collect a limited number of rattan canes for agricultural tools, for the annual Yeku ‘swinging festival’, and for house construction. Before that time the Hani had collected rattan canes and stems in all forest areas without control and exchanged them for rice with the Dai people in the lowlands. This was an important form of livelihood, particularly for poor families.

The diagnosed depletion of rattan in the wild and protection of rattan in the Sangpabawa led to indigenous innovations by some Hani farmers for cultivating rattan in the swidden-fallow fields. While they left swidden fields fallow, they immediately cultivated rattan seeds in them. The rattan growing period was well matched with the 7-13 years of swidden-fallow cycle. Hani people sometimes also cultivate rattan in the margin of forests and streams.

After liberation in 1950, the forest was allocated to the community, which continued the practice. In 1981 the state declared the rattan forest a state forest under community management. The community at that time resolved to manage the forest as they had been doing for the last 100 years.


Contents and approach

The purpose of the practice is to produce rattan for use within the community. It has further benefits, however. The practice results in the development of a protected forest area where the diversity of other plants is also preserved and enhanced. These include plants which the community uses for food or medicine.

All villagers take part in the practice and all benefit from it. One villager is in charge of organizing the village labour needed to clear sections of forest, plant stems and seedlings, and harvest the rattan. Experienced men–specialists–collect seeds in the forest, prepare the swidden fields for planting stems and sowing seeds, clear sections of forest for transplanting seedlings, and direct the harvesting process. Experienced men also make the rattan chairs. Women collect the rattan shoots which are consumed as food, and they help the men with sowing and planting.

In addition to the cultivation of rattan in the community forest, three years ago the community developed a strategy for converting swidden fields into permanent agro-forestry plots. This was done with the help of the Chinese Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK). In the village of Hongqi, 50 Hani (Akha) families cleared an area of 40 ha for growing bamboo, rattan and other crops. Plots were allocated to the families. There they grow mainly sweet bamboo for edible shoots, corn, upland rice, vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants, and fruit trees. In one field the researchers found more than 50 different species of useful plants (for food, the market, fodder and handicrafts). Between the bamboo plants the farmers transplant rattan, which will produce in three to five years. This rattan will help to make up for shortages of rattan in the community forest. The aim is to use the Songpabawa forest only as a source of rattan seeds (five different varieties) and to transform the sloping swidden fields into permanent fields where bamboo and rattan are grown on a permanent basis.


The role of indigenous knowledge

The local people know how to manage a forest in such a way that it remains productive over long periods of time. They know how to select seeds, how to propagate rattan, how to clear the forest and transplant seedlings, and how to obtain products for various purposes, including for food and for generating income. They also know how to protect areas of biodiversity, and how to organize themselves so that the swidden fields are beneficial to all members of the community.

The practice is reinforced by the community’s system of values and beliefs. According to the legends of the Hani (Akha) in Mengsong, the gods had condemned the Akha to death by strangulation because when clearing an area of the forest for shifting cultivation they had damaged the plant and animal communities. But the Hani people were wise and used the rattan not to strangle themselves, but to swing on. Each year the Hani organize the Yeku festival (‘swinging festival’), which enables them to survive against the initial will of the gods. The swinging was to show the plants and animals that the Akha had been punished for the damage to the plant and animal communities during cultivation.

The knowledge associated with the cultivation of rattan is mainly in the hands of experienced specialists, but it is not secret. Everyone learns how to maintain the rattan forest. But the specialists go to collect the seeds, they distribute seeds and seedlings to relatives and neighbours, and they prepare seed beds where they develop different varieties and achieve as much diversity as they can. The diversified plots of experienced families provide examples for other community members.

This knowledge is transmitted to the community from the village head and the forest specialist and within each household from elder to younger. Transmission was strictly oral until 1990, when ethno-botanists searching for different varieties of rattan and bamboo noticed the practice. It was not documented before, however.


Achievements and results

Some 15,000 clumps of rattan are growing in the more than 300 ha of forest managed by communities. Each year they produce approximately ten tons of rattan canes. Hani people classify rattan into two large categories dahong and lei. Two-thirds of the clumps are rattan dahong and one-third are rattan lei. From one clump of rattan dahong, the villagers collect one string about ten meters long every three years, and from a clump of rattan lei one such string every five years. By rotating the gathering of strings from the clumps, the village can harvest about ten tons a year. The villagers are clearing more forest in order to add more rattan plants and increase production.

The practice is sustainable as no trees are felled and the forest is maintained to provide an ecosystem for rattan growing which is close to a natural forest. The difference is that it is managed by the villagers. By harvesting carefully and replanting rattan, productivity is even higher than that of a natural forest. With the intercropping of upland rice and rattan in the swidden fields, there is a complementary relationship between shifting cultivation and rattan forest.

The practice is cost-effective: while the input of labour is not constant, the benefits are year-round. Rattan obtains a high price at both local and regional markets, it provides food, and it generates income by providing raw material for tools, handicrafts and the festival.

The practice is locally manageable, as the Hani villagers have shown. They control both the practice and the natural resources themselves, using their own customary forms of village organization. They have also transferred application of the technology from the forests to the swidden fields, transforming 40 ha of swidden field into highly diversified agro-forestry plots.

The practice has proven to be a viable way to manage a highly diversified forest so as to derive economic benefit from it, and to transform swidden fields into permanent agro-forestry plots containing more than 50 different plant varieties. The practice depends for its success on the community’s skills in cultivation, joint management and internal organization. At the same time, however, the practice itself improves families’ livelihoods and strengthens the community. In other words, there is a strong relationship between IK and the local community.

The practice does pose a danger of overexploitation, however, if the demand for rattan increases and prices go up. External pressure to extract timber could also affect the area of the rattan forest.

The practice could be improved through further experimentation and through discussion among the Hani about the improvements. The practice should be disseminated to other areas and villages with similar conditions. Transforming more swidden fields could increase the total area under permanent agro-forestry, with the result that rattan and other tree crops can be harvested after 7-10 years.


Source of inspiration

The practice could be replicated elsewhere but there would certainly be conditions and prerequisites to consider. Since this is a social practice with cultural meaning and differentiated tasks, requires a strongly organized community. At the same time, it requires the ecological conditions for rattan production.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Administrative data

Organization involved

Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK)

Floor 3, Building A, Zhonghuandasha

Yanjiadi, Kunming 650034, China

Tel.: +86 871 4123519

Fax: +86 871 4625033

E-mail: cbik02@public.km.yn.cn

Website: www.cbik.org or www.cbik.ac.cn



The role of CBIK and its staff has been:

·           Documentation: CBIK researchers have noted, documented and publicized the best practices of rattan management.

·           Technical support: Farmers’ nurseries for raising rattan seedlings for purposes of large-scale production have been improved through the integration of indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge.

·           Extension: CBIK staff work with state forestry agencies to achieve large-scale extension in Yunnan, and to transfer the best practices to other, similar biophysical and socio-economic environments.


Contact person

Professor Xu Jianchu

E-mail: cbik@public.km.yn.cn


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Timmi Tillmann

CBIK (CIM-Germany)

E-mail: timmi@public.km.yn.cn


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