Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Pathways of "Indigenous Knowledge" in Yunnan, China

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Pathways of "Indigenous Knowledge" in Yunnan, China

Article excerpt

Although the word indigenous is prohibited in China, indigenous knowledge was adopted by a Chinese NGO in Kunming in 1995 to focus on minority farmers' land uses that protect biodiversity. The author's research on Akha farmers in southern Yunnan traced Akha land use from 1950 to 2006, assessing the effects of changing political economies, especially the 1980s switch to a neoliberal path, on Akha land management. Akha practices that maintained biodiversity persisted through collectivization (1958-82) and economic reforms (1982-1997), but have almost disappeared since the 1998 state policies reclaiming villagers' forests and sloping agricultural lands. Aspects of neoliberalism that combined crisis environmentalism with state development plans have removed Akha land uses that protected biodiversity more effectively than socialist collectivism did. Links between indigenous knowledge and biodiversity are called into question as Akha farmers plant monoculture cash crops on remaining lands. KEYWORDS: indigenous knowledge, China, NGOs, Akha, shifting cultivation, forests, tea


In February 2006, the director of the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK), a domestic nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Kunming, China, told me that indigenous for CBIK is not just about "ethnic groups" but about a specific relationship between people and place. This relationship includes knowledge of local institutions, which CBIK defines as resource access and land-use practices. CBIK promotes indigenous knowledge to protect biodiversity in Yunnan Province, of which Kunming is the capital.

CBIK was founded in 1995, the year that the central government of the People's Republic sent a formal response to the working group on indigenous rights of the UN Commission on Human Rights rejecting as inappropriate an "indigenous question" in China. Indigenous rights, according to the Beijing statement, were applicable for countries where European colonization had marginalized indigenous peoples. Since China had not participated in colonialism, issues of indigenous rights did not apply to China. The central government also banned the use of the word indigenous for China's minority nationalities, as state-defined ethnic groups are called.

With indigenous prohibited, CBIK's name in Chinese uses traditional in its place, although CBIK staff routinely use the word indigenous in English. In light of Beijing's objection to the use of indigenous and rejection of indigenous rights in China, how have the term indigenous knowledge or the possibility of indigenous resource claims made their way into Yunnan? What has a focus on "indigenous knowledge" enabled a Chinese NGO to do? More importantly, what effects has this focus had on ethnic minority farmers in Yunnan with respect to local institutions and biodiversity conservation?

To broaden the context of inquiry into "indigenous knowledge" in China, the article considers three questions.

1. Who defines indigenous in China and toward what ends?

2. How do indigenous communities assert autonomous power and economic and cultural integrity internally and/or against the nation-state?

3. How important is the socioeconomic structure (neoliberalism, privatization, collectivization) for indigenous communities?

Brief responses to these three questions situate the article in the context of indigenous rights throughout the world.

The Three Questions

1. Who defines "indigenous" in China, and toward what ends? There are multiple sources defining indigenous in China, and here I explore only three. The first is the central government's 1995 response to the UN Working Group on Human Rights, claiming that an "indigenous question" was inappropriate for China. This statement, discussed further below, represents the central government's position that national policies had sufficiently addressed the issue of minority nationality. …

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