Ferns and Fire: Village Subsistence, Landscape Change, and Nature Conservation in China's Southeast Uplands

By Coggins, Christopher Reed | Journal of Cultural Geography, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Ferns and Fire: Village Subsistence, Landscape Change, and Nature Conservation in China's Southeast Uplands


Coggins, Christopher Reed, Journal of Cultural Geography


ABSTRACT. Anthropogenic fire has shaped mountain landscapes in southern China since prehistoric times. Early Han settlers adopted periodic burning techniques from non-Han swidden agriculturalists, adapting them to suit their own cultural needs. In the early 1900s, Western observers noted the ubiquity of firing, but its historical role in village subsistence remained enigmatic. Research in western Fujian shows that in high mountain areas fire maintained montane grasslands and wet meadows within a mosaic of broadleaf forests, bamboo, and rice paddies. Meadows were prime grazing areas for cattle and provided bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) rhizomes, an important source of dietary starch in an area with low rice yields. Wildlife surveys show that grasslands, wet meadows, and other clearings are good habitats for wild ungulates, but widespread burning at lower elevations, where forest cover was sparse, often caused erosion, flooding, and ecological degradation. Following state bans on burning, beginning in the 1950s, biologically impoverished pine monocultures spread rapidly. High elevation grasslands and some wet meadows have been replaced by dense stands of short pines. Local people's involvement with selective pine forest clearance and the protection of broadleaf and mixed forests could contribute to habitat heterogeneity, improve degraded lands, and strengthen community-based conservation practices.

The history of the planet is unintelligible without the history of fire.

--Stephen J. Pyne, World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth

INTRODUCTION

In southeast China there are two expressions representing the traditional practice of setting fire to the mountains, one is shao shan, meaning to "burn the mountains," the other is lian shan, literally "to smelt or refine the mountains." Together these phrases evoke a preindustrial cultural perspective on the dual benefits of fire, a viewpoint common among hunting and farming peoples worldwide, and one that is itself being refined and reinvigorated in contemporary ecology; flames can drive out or annihilate undesirable things from the landscape, and they can revitalize or improve that which remains.

Cultural geographers and ecological anthropologists have long recognized the benefits of anthropogenic fire and its formative role in the landscape ecology of the earth's major biomes (Conklin 1954; Stewart 1956; Sauer 1963). In recent decades, as ecological research has moved beyond the paradigm of homeostasis and systemic equilibrium (Zimmerer 1994, 2000), anthropogenic "disturbances," including fire, have consumed an ever greater share of scientific and scholarly interest. Because of its centrality in a wide range of preindustrial and contemporary rural cultural practices, including agriculture, forestry, wildlife habitat management, game drives, warfare, political resistance, and religious rituals, fire has figured prominently in studies of local resource management, environmental history, and political ecology (Lewis 1974; Scott 1976; Harris 1980; Cronon 1983; McNeely and Sochaczewski 1988; Nodvin and Waldrop 1991; Denevan 1992; Gadgil and Guha 1992; Hazen and Hazen 1992; Peluso 1992; Pyne 1995, 1997; Marks 1998; Kuhlken 1999). As field studies yield more data on the physical, chemical, and ecological dynamics of fire, conservation agencies like the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service increasingly rely upon controlled burning techniques. While these trends may signify the beginning of a new, more positive view of fire as a management tool, (1) in global terms, state suppression of traditional firing practices remains prominent in broader colonial and postcolonial efforts to control natural resources and to impose core values on peripheral areas and rural peoples (Scott 1998). Fire prevention is often deemed critical for state legitimation in a wide range of conservation efforts, including protected area management, flood control, agricultural development, and even global warming (Pyne 1995).

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