Local knowledge for restoration in a rubber-dominated landscape in SW China

How local communities in SW China are contributing to the design of a restoration program for rubber-dominated landscapes

By Francis Commercon

The most interesting study sites for a student of conservation biology are often those places where environmental threats are being met with innovative restoration efforts. That is why I traveled last fall to Man’e, in Xishuangbanna Prefecture, SW China, where rubber plantations have replaced much of the original lowland rainforest. There, I conducted an independent study project for an undergraduate semester study abroad program* and, in the process, I immersed myself in a vibrant community that will soon help scientists understand how to restore biodiversity and ecosystem services throughout this region.

Smallholder rubber monoculture in Man'e, China. Photo by Francis Commercon

Smallholder rubber monoculture in Man’e, China. Photo by Francis Commercon

Over the past 15-20 years, most of the natural forest around the Man’e (曼俄) has disappeared. Up until the 1970s, forest abutted the village and provided edible plants and wild meat sufficient to provide nearly half of villagers’ caloric intake, according to one village elder. Today, the hills around the village are still green, but a hike in any direction from the village takes one into an endless expanse of single-aged rubber trees, planted along contours in orderly rows.

One must walk for forty minutes north of the village to the Menglun Nature Reserve to reach the nearest significant patch of remaining seasonal tropical rainforest. Thanks to regular application of herbicide beneath the rubber trees, one encounters no understory vegetation and virtually no wildlife in the plantations—this shell of a forest is silent and eerie.

Since rubber became widely available to smallholders in the early 1980s, it has spread to cover more than one-fifth of the prefecture’s land area and slightly less than half of the land area in the township around Man’e.3,5 The loss of natural forest has led to degradation of local ecosystem services, such as biodiversity, soil retention, watershed services, and climate regulation1,5. Furthermore, rubber farmers suffer from economic vulnerability, as their income relies heavily on the volatile price of a single cash crop.1 Planting other species of economic value within rubber plantations could diversify farmers’ incomes and restore many of the ecosystem services lost through conventional monoculture practices.

ICRAF’s Green Rubber project, supported by BMZ and GIZ and headed by Dr Rhett Harrison, will establish a platform for testing the economic and environmental benefits of different intercropping options in an experimentally rigorous manner.

The project, which will span multiple villages in China, Laos and Thailand, engages smallholders directly in planting locally appropriate variations of the principle experimental treatments. Experimental treatments will capture a gradient of intercrop diversity from single species planted in rows beneath rubber trees to systems with many (6+) intercropped species accompanied by regrowth of natural vegetation.

The farmers themselves will implement the experiment voluntarily on their own rubber plantations and contribute significantly to decisions regarding the specific crops planted within treatments. Man’e, a Dai village of about 900 people, serves as the pilot village in this study and researchers initiated contact with villagers in December 2015.

Involving local farmers in designing restoration solutions. Photo by Francis Commercon

Involving local farmers in designing restoration solutions. Photo by Francis Commercon

There are at least two main reasons for involving local farmers in the design of restoration initiatives. First, they may have suggestions specific to the local growing conditions and markets for potential intercropping species, essential insights that complement the broader knowledge base of academics. Second, incorporating significant contribution from local people into the experimental details will help farmers feel they have ownership of the experiment.

Because the farmers themselves will be the ones planting and harvesting the new crops and monitoring latex yields, researchers hope to gain participants’ honest commitment to the project. As this process begins, project organizers should have some expectations as to how much local knowledge they can expect to learn from villagers. To what extent is local knowledge truly new and useful for restoration goals? Furthermore, through what means can researchers best engage with local communities to obtain their insights and participation?

I set about to answer these questions by immersing myself in the Man’e community. I found a home in the village with the incredibly hospitable and friendly family of Yi Zhuangfang, a colleague of Dr. Harrison at ICRAF. Through my host family, I had a window into the diverse activities of villagers, both economic and recreational. I woke up at 5AM to tap rubber with my host parents, and I stayed up until 11PM playing volleyball with my host grandparents and their many friends. I followed my host father to his wood carving shop, where I learned about a locally-valued timber tree that could potentially be intercropped. I accompanied my host grandfather to the orchard where he collected the red seeds of Adenanthera pavonina, and I sat with my host grandmother and other village women as they gossiped and strung those red seeds into necklaces to sell at tourists’ trinket stands.

When I started, I identified the most likely places I could find local botanical knowledge that could inform locally appropriate species for intercropping—shade tolerant plants that have value for sale or personal consumption. These included current agricultural practices, collection of wild edible and medicinal plants, and cultivation of plants in gardens around the village.

I interviewed representatives of forty-nine households (29% of the village total) about their economic activities, their relationship with the nature reserve, and their opinions on rubber intercropping. I found friends to take me to the nature reserve on multiple occasions and I learned about their knowledge of wild plants. At social events I learned the names of many of the more important garden vegetables and spices.

Possible useful species for restoration in rubber plantations. Photo by Francis Commercon

Possible useful species for restoration in rubber plantations. Photo by Francis Commercon

By the end of my study, I had collected long lists of crop plants, wild edible and medicinal plants, and garden plants. These lists contained multiple species that researchers later considered for inclusion in the experiment. Engaging with local people in this community will provide important input into the intercropping design.

However, accessing the relevant local knowledge requires much effort. I discovered that only a handful of individuals have the majority of botanical knowledge useful for the intercropping project. Most villagers have stopped growing other crops besides rubber and very few people go to the nature reserve. Edible wild plant collection has become a recreational activity. People now go to a clinic in Menglun when they get sick, so market value rather than personal consumption governs knowledge of medicinal species. The vast majority of villagers have little notion about intercropping, but a few people already actively intercrop other valuable plants in their rubber farms. These individuals can provide invaluable insight into what plants will and will not provide good yields under the shade of rubber.

I found farmers often did not see the importance of their knowledge to the intercropping experiment and, therefore, did not volunteer their suggestions or insights. Though villagers introduced me to many plants suitable for the Green Rubber experiment, they rarely did this in the context of rubber intercropping. In fact, there seems to be a certain mental block associated with the idea of intercropping that prevents most villagers from thinking beyond single-species understories of tea, coffee, or cacao, species scientists have promoted in the past. For example, in response to my question about potential intercropping species, one individual mentioned tea as an option. She said her family actually planted tea under their rubber trees, but she couldn’t think of other possibilities. When I visited her farm, I found only a handful of poor old tea bushes scattered here and there, but I discovered half a hectare of young rubber trees neatly intercropped with thriving pomelo!

Collaboration with local people can yield fruitful and unique results. My results showed that within the community there was knowledge useful in designing the experimental trials. In fact, at a collaborative workshop held in December, ICRAF researchers learned a lot from potential farmer participants. Still, this knowledge was difficult to access. Scientists interested in incorporating local knowledge into restoration projects must invest the proper time and effort to become familiar with diverse aspects of the community, to seek out those individuals with the most to offer and, whenever possible, to learn from villagers in the field rather than limiting exchange to meetings and discussions.

Rubber integrated with other species is better for small-scale farmers and the environment

Rubber integrated with other species is better for small-scale farmers and the environment

As an aspiring conservation biologist, I found an invaluable educational opportunity in the chance to observe scientists approach a rural community about changes in land management. Throughout my stay in the village, I maintained contact with the researchers at ICRAF and the Yunnan Tropical Crops Research Institute (YITC), a local research organization that advises the Xishuangbanna government on social and environmental issues concerning rubber. I served in an informal role as a communication link in the process of organizing an initial meeting to gather villager interest and a subsequent collaborative workshop that discussed specific details of the restoration experiment.

I also studied the village’s religious calendar in an effort to help the researchers avoid planning workshops over a major festival. I observed how project organizers successfully encouraged local participation and engaged farmers to learn their insights and suggestions. The researchers and I also noted places where the process could be improved when introducing Green Rubber to future study villages, such as clearer communication with certain key figures within the village prior to the initial meeting and attention to most appropriate language for communicating with villagers. For me, the take home message was the importance of spending the time to thoroughly understand local conditions before entering a community to promote restoration or conservation initiatives.

The Green Rubber project will provide a unique experimental platform to test methods of restoring ecosystem services and income stability to rubber-dominated landscapes. It can also serve as a model for collaboration between local people and scientists in a restoration context.

Francis, with ICRAF's Dr Rhett Harrison, Leader of the sustainable rubber project

Francis, with ICRAF’s Dr Rhett Harrison, Leader of the sustainable rubber project

Francis Commercon is a 2nd-year student of Conservation Biology and Biological Sciences at Colorado State University, USA


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      https://umweltoekonomie.uni-hohenheim.de/fileadmi/einrichtungen/umweltoekonomie/3-Team/SURUMER_Joint_Publication – ergaenzt.pdf

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      6. Xu, J., (2011). China’s new forests aren’t as green as they seem. Nature 477, 371.


*School for International Training’s (SIT’s) China: Language, Cultures and Ethnic Minorities

Blog Editor: Daisy Ouya

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