Xiao Chala: one village and its environment

A small village in China's southwest highlights the challenges faced by rural development in the country. Ross Perlin reports.

Perched on a mountain rising on the western side of the Nu River, Xiao Chala is in some ways a typical village, in one of the most remote and impoverished parts of southwest China’s Yunnan province. The village of 142 people largely relies on subsistence farming, although there is growing participation in the cash-based economy, and as in much of the country, traditional culture is being eroded by the impacts of media and education.

Its population is mostly Dulong, one of the smallest official ethnic minority groups in China (7,426 according to the 2000 census). The villagers drink from fresh mountain streams and breathe clean air. Close to a third of those in Xiao Chala are Protestant Christians who attend services at the village church.

Xiao Chala’s future is an open question, but it has been spared the fate of some villages in the region, which were entirely displaced by development projects and reforestation plans. Nonetheless, what until recently had been a process of growth driven locally by local needs, is now treated as an international issue, in which various levels of government, NGOs, and the tourism industry all claim a stake.

Living on the land

You don’t stumble upon Xiao Chala. The breathtaking gorge along the Nu River’s upper reaches, which locals claim as the world’s second largest (after Arizona’s Grand Canyon), is traced by this rural region’s only paved road, running along a sensitive border region with Myanmar.

From the road, a few hours’ walk up a steep bridle path brings you to the first signs of settlement, but it is difficult to say when you’ve actually reached the “village”. Xiao Chala is, in reality, a scattering of homes and fields — some of which are separated from each other by as much as a rugged half-hour walk.

The community sprawls across the mountain; it has evolved without a central focus and without any planning authority. Speak to a Xiao Chala old-timer like Jincai and they will say the community dates to 1953 or 1954, when three families migrated here from the township of Kongdang in the neighbouring Dulong River Valley.

The reason for the move was environmental: devastating floods drove the families in search of a mountain home. With the arrival of other settlers and a birthrate subject to looser restrictions than the Han majority, the population has surged. As a result, says the village head (or cunzhang) with a laugh, the mountain almost feels crowded now.

Nonetheless, almost every household (of which there are now 39) inhabits at least two or three wooden buildings with adjacent fields, and new structures are easily built with pine logs and slate roofing, both found on the mountain itself. A kitchen building centred on a fire pit is where the family gathers, while separate structures, raised slightly from the ground and reached by a ladder, serve for bedrooms. Chicken coops and pig pens are part of the ensemble, with animals ever-present. However, trash is simply left where it is, or thrown haphazardly onto a pile.

Going hi-tech, just a bit

Telephone lines have climbed their way up to the village for a number of years now, though many families had their lines cut for non-payment of bills. More unusual for a mountain village, is the presence of a light-bulb in many rooms, and a TV often placed just opposite the fire pit.

The village’s vice village chief (or fucunzhang), Ahua, says proudly that his was the first home in the village to get electricity, but there still is not enough to run the lights and enjoy CCTV (China’s state television network) at the same time. For all of Beijing’s plans for rural electrification, and the building of dams to serve that need, Xiao Chala’s power is home-grown.

The power of the Nu River, surging just below, may in the next decade be used to support 13 huge hydroelectric dams, not to mention smaller power stations on its tributaries. But Xiao Chala harnessed the power of a swift mountain stream five years ago; the village gets its power from a basic micro-hydroelectric project that the villagers devised themselves. Another stream powers the village’s communal water-wheel.

Most of the area inhabited by the Dulong people, in the valleys of both the Nu River and Dulong River, is now a national park, with restrictions on development. Beijing’s policy of “stopping farming to let the forest return” was intended to prevent the return of disastrous floods in China’s east, which have been blamed on deforestation upstream.

Forests and opportunities

In the Dulong River Valley, where most Dulong live, the reforestation policy launched in 2003 aimed at 14,000 mu (9.3 square kilometres), when fewer than 15,000 mu (10 square kilometres) were under cultivation. Although farmers are, in effect, paid not to farm (originally 50 yuan for each mu that is reforested), the traditional practice of slash-and-burn agriculture has been called to a halt, and hunting and logging have also been curtailed.

In Xiao Chala, the restrictions seem to be grudgingly accepted. Some of the current terraced agriculture can continue, but is essentially limited to corn, rice, and a few other vegetables. During a recent visit, I found that middle-aged villagers were at home tilling the land, while most young men were on an extended trip in the higher mountains to collect medicinal herbs (such as coptis and fritillary) and sell them in Bingzhongluo, the nearest town.

Supporting government restrictions, but with priorities of their own, are international development agencies, particularly the World Bank and The Nature Conservancy. Since 2000, Shuangla, on the road below Xiao Chala, has been part of a major Global Environmental Facility Trust Fund project to develop a sustainable forestry in southern China.

The Nature Conservancy started a long-term project in the area “to protect this healthy and incredibly valuable ecosystem before it is too late,” focusing particularly on developing reserve management with local authorities. In both cases, communities like Xiao Chala are being asked to rethink how they use their land.

With agriculture, logging, and hunting discouraged or banned outright, villagers seem to be pondering their options. In addition to collecting medicinal herbs (which has a long history in the region), some families have acquired cows to protect their savings. One family in Xiao Chala is making a go of raising fish in a small pond. Playing the China Welfare Lottery (China’s national lottery) is tremendously popular too.

For Ana, 25, one of the few villagers to have entered university, the answer is to work in a government bureau in Gongshan, the county capital. She said many of the villagers who receive secondary education will also choose to work and live outside Xiao Chala.

And for those like Andu, 24, who has only three years of primary-school education, finding part-time work away from the village is increasingly important. He had recently returned from 7 months doing road construction across the border in Myanmar. Work in eco-tourism, which is slowly making its way to Bingzhongluo, still seems a remote prospect at present.

A village of only 142 inhabitants can hardly represent all of the varied environmental challenges faced by rural China, but it makes for an interesting point of departure. Xiao Chala feels in some ways like a world unto itself, a quiet vantage point for watching the development of the valley below. But at the same time, villagers increasingly feel their dependence on that world below, and its relentless economic and environmental pressures.

Ross Perlin is completing an MA at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, focused on endangered language preservation in western China. He has written on language and the environment in China and Central Asia.