Category Archives: Food

Looking ahead to Obama’s September visit to Laos

obama-on-air-force-one

As the Obama Administration looks to add the finishing touches to its five year Rebalance to Asia, it is likely to continue to capitalizing on building ties to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly, particularly over the last four years, towards improving bilateral and multilateral ties with ASEAN.  It has sent more high-level visits to ASEAN member states than its predecessors, had a visible presence in improving security relations with most ASEAN countries, and held the first U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit in Sunnylands last February.  And as a final feather in Obama’s cap, he’ll be the first president to visit to Laos this coming September

The visit to the small Southeast Asian country may seem minor in the current geopolitical climate; however, it is far more important in the long run.  Laos is tiny with only 6 million people earning on average just over $1000 per year, but the premise of the U.S. Rebalance has always been to re-engage with Asian countries wholesale in an effort to bolster the region.  Through Laos, the Obama Administration can solidify its objectives and spur a more holistic relationship with ASEAN.  In other words, the President’s upcoming visit to Laos represents the essence of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia as a whole.

On the surface, improving relations with Laos seems daunting.  Laos is beset by many problems in addition to economic development challenges, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to being a central thoroughfare for the region’s illicit trade network.  Historically, the U.S.-Lao bilateral relationship has been rather rocky.  Traditionally, policymakers have worked to curb relations with Laos’s Communist government that was deigned partially responsible for the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam.  US Congress protested Laos’s entry to the WTO and criticized the Lao government’s lack of good policies to protect the Hmong minority, whose diaspora forms key constituencies in congressional districts in states like California and Minnesota.

Yet, it is because of these hurdles in the U.S. bilateral relationship that make Laos an ideal candidate for furthering the regional pivot.  The U.S. Rebalance is concerned with building bridges and opening channels to promote greater collusion between the U.S. and the whole region.  This entails reaching out to all of Asia and finding chains that can potentially help the U.S. and intra-Asian growth.  Properly mending relationships to promote a greater relationship promotes a sustainable future.  Furthering U.S. engagement with Laos will ensure the legacy of the Rebalance beyond the current administration.  To do so, the President should confront two significant regional issues: food security and UXO.

First, in conjunction with the President’s September visit, the Administration should establish new policies to improve Laos’ food security.  Laos experiences some of the highest nutritional deficiencies, child mortality, and maternal mortality in Southeast Asia. To assist with Laos’s food security problem, the Administration could build on successful frameworks for cooperation already in place.  Thus, USAID provides programs to supplement good nutrition and improve regional capacity building through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).  A joint effort from the Department of Defense, the Oregon Health Science University, and the Lao University of Health Sciences created the Lao American Nutrition Institute (LANI).  LANI hopes to revitalize agricultural growth knowledge and practices in Laos.  In spurring this effort, the Obama Administration can establish sustainable development policies and build capacity within the Lao government on programs that benefit the whole of Laos’ population.

Second, it is paramount for the Obama Administration to resolve the long debilitating unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in Laos.  The small munitions left over from the U.S.’ Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos (1964-1973) still saturate much of the countryside and pose a threat to the country’s agriculture and young, vulnerable population.  UXOs have been a front row issue in the prior visits by high profile Cabinet members.  Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, highlighted the UXO issue during his visit in November 2015.  As a Vietnam veteran, Secretary John Kerry expressed his sincerest wishes towards properly handling the issue and bringing closure to the UXO issue during his visit to Laos in January 2016.  Obama would benefit from boosting UXO removal efforts as prescribed by lawmakers.  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has promoted responsible and effective strategies in removing UXOs as well as a deep concern that the U.S. owns up to the Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos by seeing that the country becomes completely UXO free.  Regardless of the approach, Obama should set a definite tone over UXOs in the upcoming visit.  Taking responsibility to end the UXO threat for good improves the U.S.’ standing in the region and will move the agenda of the Rebalance forward.

In his final months, President Obama will be setting the finishing touches on what has been a major foreign policy effort.  Above all, Obama would like to set the tone of being invested in improving the whole of Asia, exemplified through a serious responsibility to improving Laos’ development and correcting past US foreign policy decisions that proved detrimental to the region.  Laos will be Obama’s chance to set the record straight and cement a sturdy framework for constructive engagement with the region.  With this framework, future presidents will be encouraged to do the same: embrace Asia as a whole and continue an approach toward capacity building that ensures a brighter future.

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No Recourse: Upper Mekong Dam Spells End for Tibetan Village

Cizhong village in the background along the west bank of the Upper Mekong in Yunnan.

Cizhong village in the background along the west bank of the Upper Mekong in Yunnan.

Cizhong, a remote Tibetan village in China’s Yunnan province, has no recourse against the onslaught of impacts from the construction of the Wunonglong dam on the Upper Mekong River.

This year has seen no pause in activity from civil society organizations and community level stakeholders in the Lower Mekong targeting criticism at the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos, both high-profile projects on the main stem of the Mekong River. Moreover, evidence shows how efforts of these groups are actually delaying the construction of these projects and raising the costs associated with their completion. Dual influences of economic uncertainty in China and Southeast Asia and the unavoidable effects of climate change in addition to grassroots efforts are challenging the popular notion of a “domino effect” of inevitable hydropower development on the Mekong.

Yet while the domino effect on the Lower Mekong may be under question, it has prevailed in China’s stretch of the Mekong , silencing activism and subjecting affected communities and local ecologies to the vagaries of unchecked development. The 990MW Wunonglong dam, scheduled for completion in 2019, and the impacts of its reservoir on thousands of households serves as a case in point.

Construction began at the Wunonglong dam site in 2010.

Construction began at the Wunonglong dam site in 2010.

I first heard of the impacts of the Wunonglong dam on the day I walked into Cizhong, a village 40km upstream of the construction site. Cizhong sits on a small plateau 100 meters above the Mekong at the southern end of Deqin county in one of the most remote areas of Yunnan province. I crossed into Cizhong on a bridge that will be inundated by the dam’s reservoir in a few years.  Looming fifty meters above, a half constructed bridge built by the dam developer Huaneng Hydrolancang will upon completion bisect a patch of carefully maintained rice paddies located between the river and the village.

Cizhong is majority Tibetan, and for years both Chinese and foreign tourists have flocked to the village for two reasons.  First, eighty percent of the village’s 115 households are members of the local Catholic church established in the late 19th century by French missionaries. Several times a week, villagers file into the stone Cizhong cathedral, a nationally protected structure, to take part in mass led by Li Fei, a priest from Inner Mongolia.  The prayers sung in unison before mass are to the tune of commonly known Tibetan Buddhist chants.  European tourists typically line the back pews to catch a glimpse of this uncommon marriage of cultures.

Cizhong’s Catholic Church, a nationally protected structure built in the early 20th century.

Cizhong’s Catholic Church, a nationally protected structure built in the early 20th century.

Second, Cizhong is home to a growing cottage wine industry, also introduced by the French missionaries prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  The wine boom started in the late 1990s with the resurrection of a Rose Honey grape variety found growing on the cathedral grounds and no longer cultivated in France.  About ten years ago, the local Deqin county government introduced agricultural assistance programs that brought in other kinds of grape varieties as well as technical aid to supply a larger wine making industry in the Shangri-la region.  Currently, most villagers sell their grapes to middlemen each harvest, but some choose to make their own wine to retail at Cizhong’s local wineries and guesthouses.

New neighbors

However, the things that make Cizhong special may not be around for long. The Wunonglong dam threatens not just Cizhong’s local economy that has delivered modest levels of prosperity to the village over the past thirty years, but also the religious harmony between local Tibetan Catholics and Buddhists.

In two years Yanmen, an upstream community with more than two hundred households, will be entirely relocated to Cizhong.  Yanmen sits low along the banks of the Mekong and will be completely flooded by Wunonglong’s reservoir and the only place to transplant Yanmen’s residents is on top of Cizhong’s rice paddies.  Upon hearing the news of Yanmen’s takeover of their rice paddies, Cizhong’s villagers reacted emotionally as the paddies create a critical community space for social interaction. “The village elders cried when they heard the rice paddies would be destroyed.  The paddies were carved with their bare hands in the 1960’s and now the government wants to take them away?” says a local villager. Another villager claimed one rice harvest can feed the village for two years. Without a rice crop, villagers will have to generate income to overcome a critical food security issue.

Part of Yanmen village located below the inundation zone of Wunonglong's reservoir.

Part of Yanmen village located below the inundation zone of Wunonglong’s reservoir.

The day I walked through Cizhong was the last day for the giant walnut trees that lined Cizhong’s only road. To widen the road making way for Yanmen’s relocation, the remains of the trees, which each can produce up to 10000 RMB (1500 USD) of walnuts per year for sale at local markets, were stacked into wrecked piles of limbs and logs. Villagers received 300-10000 RMB in compensation per tree, at most enough to cover one year’s harvest.

The wine industry, as well as walnuts, has suffered as a result of the relocation. “They cut down an entire row of my grapes,” says a villager who also lost walnut trees to the road’s expansion.  “We were only compensated 40 RMB for a healthy vine and 30 RMB for saplings.  One vine produces 40 RMB of grapes per year, and I have no new land to plant on.  They took 100 of my vines.”

Road widening brings down scores of Cizhong’s walnut trees.

Road widening brings down scores of Cizhong’s walnut trees.

No equity, nowhere to turn

Land compensation is an issue of major contention in Cizhong.  More than half of Cizhong’s agriculturally productive land is being claimed for redistribution to the incoming residents of Yanmen and originally villagers were offered 30,000 RMB per mu of land (1 acre equals 6 mu) lost to Yanmen’s relocation.  Currently the local government is offering 100,000 RMB per mu, but Cizhong’s villagers continue to hold out.

“The villagers who moved to the city long ago and no longer live here agreed to 100,000 RMB per mu.  It’s easy for them because they have other jobs and other income, but to us, the taking of our land is taking away our only source of income,” says a villager surnamed Wang. Some villagers will lose all of their productive land. Stall tactics make sense since the local government will take 30% of the compensation and only dole out the agreed upon compensation in monthly installments over 15 years.  At the current offer, with only 3000 RMB per mu in compensation per month, even the most business savvy individuals will not be able to survive.  “We will wait,” says Wang with unsteady confidence.

Yanmen’s residents will rebuild on Cizhong’s carefully cultivated rice paddies

Yanmen’s residents will rebuild on Cizhong’s carefully cultivated rice paddies

I inquired about legal recourse.  “The local mayor only listens to money.  He’s not on our side,” continues Wang.  “I tried to file a petition in Deqin, the county seat, but the official there said the only way he’d review our petition was if the entire village showed up. That’s impossible. We don’t know who to turn to.”

Two hundred meters from the village on the opposite bank of the Mekong, new road construction and a tunneling project carries on day and night. Like the old bridge, the current road to Cizhong will be flooded by the dam’s reservoir. Noise from stone crushing machinery and cement processers pervades the valley.  Last year a landslide created by the road project forced the river to change course and washed away three mu of Wang’s riverside agricultural land. To date he has received no compensation.  Wang claims landslides opposite the village have resulted in the deaths of more than fifty construction workers. He points to cracks in the plaster walls of his traditional home built of wood and earth.  “My house shakes all day long from the construction.”

Highway construction opposite Cizhong has led to landslides and more than 50 deaths.

Highway construction opposite Cizhong has led to landslides and more than 50 deaths.

“Ten years ago we had everything we needed and now life is only getting worse,” continues Wang. Electricity generated by the Wunonglong dam will not be distributed to Cizhong.  In a prelude to Cizhong’s current worries, a small-scale hydropower project adjacent to the village was constructed a few years ago. It sends no power to the village, and to make matters worse, the small scale project cut off access to a local stream and to pasture lands beyond it.  “We let our cows out to pasture in the hills but they came back with bloodied legs because they couldn’t cross the land affected by the small hydropower project. Now there’s nowhere for our cows to graze.” When the small scale project was commissioned, developers promised locals 500 units of free electricity – those promises were never fulfilled.  Not a single Cizhong villager was employed in the construction of the small scale power station, and the price of electricity has been on a steady rise in the village.

Squeezed by national development needs

When Chinese dam developers conduct feasibility studies and first meet with locals affected by projects, they fervently sing praises of hydropower, boasting of how the dam will deliver local communities out of poverty and provide new income sources.  Reality tells a different story as infrastructure development projects in southwest China nearly always fail to provide net benefits to those who live closest to them.  In the case of China’s hydropower development on the Mekong, most power is sent to cities on or near China’s eastern coast. And as China doubles down on its commitments to reducing carbon output, the investment in hydropower projects, particularly in the under-developed southwest is amplified.

In Cizhong as in many other parts of upland southwest China, the Chinese government’s “core interests” of energy dependence and carbon reduction combine forces to turn land held by indigenous ethnic peoples  into a marketable commodity. Individual livelihoods, the social cohesion provided by generational practices and reliance on the land, and local traditions are consistently marginalized.

A few years ago at a village meeting, a former Cizhong mayor berated the villagers shouting “This land, this water, these mountains, they are not yours!  Stop acting like these are yours!  This is the state’s land, and these are the state’s resources.”

From a legal perspective, the Chinese state owns the land and everything above and below it, but villagers who are responsible for the productive economic activities that happen on that land are legally guaranteed compensation at fair market value for land grabbed by developers or involved in relocation efforts. Yet on China’s periphery, even the commoditization process fails. The marginalized nature of Cizhong and distance from the state’s judicial apparatus prevents fair compensation. Further, the law lacks consideration for values attached to various ways upland ethnic peoples use the land.

The Chinese state apparatus sees compensation to and relocation of rural peoples affected by development through standards applied to lowland agriculture, where patches of land are treated as commodities producing an accountable thus taxable yield on an annual basis. In upland China as in parts of Southeast Asia, land use patterns are less standardized and less predictable. Villagers there use mountain slopes as common pasture land for grazing animals, the forests as areas for collecting consumable and marketable products such as the matsutake mushroom and caterpillar fungus, or as in Cizhong’s case, walnuts produced by trees lining its roads and fields. The value of community-building functions created by these shared land use practices often is greater than the cumulative economic value derived from the land.

Sunday mass in Cizhong's Catholic church.

Sunday mass in Cizhong’s Catholic church.

“We are worried about village harmony,” Wang continues, discussing how the daily routines of Cizhong’s Catholics are still deeply entwined with Tibetan Buddhist culture.  “It’s common to see Buddhist monks present to give blessings at Catholic weddings and Christmas and Easter. We’ve achieved this harmony through decades of exchange with our Buddhist neighbors.”  However, all of Yanmen’s residents are believers in Tibetan Buddhism and unfamiliar with Catholic culture. Wang is worried that despite common ethnic heritage, the influx of Buddhists will upset community harmony and social interaction.  He labels Yanmen’s residents as overly superstitious and tells stories of how they are caught up in a spiteful sectoral feud between a local protector deity and the Dalai Lama that divides families in this part of the Tibetan world.

As if matters could not get any worse, when Yanmen village moves in, Cizhong will lose its name. Yanmen is one rung higher in China’s administrative ranking of localities, providing further risk to the interdependent cottage tourism and wine industries that have bet their futures on Cizhong’s name and unique history. The name change coupled with the inundation of Tibetan Buddhist villagers from Yanmen will dilute the uniqueness of Cizhong’s past and have a particular impact on Cizhong’s tourism industry.  With less land available for agricultural production per household, villager’s annual grape yields will decrease having an impact on income.  Villagers might choose to switch to higher value crops, but options for diversification are few in the canyonlands of the Upper Mekong. Alternatively villagers will be pressured to intensify the use of fertilizers to increase grape yields, pushing limits on sustainability and subjecting the local ecology to the effects of dangerous chemicals.

Spring grapes in Cizhong

Spring grapes in Cizhong

With no avenue for legal recourse and no one coming to aid the villagers, Cizhong’s days are numbered. The demoralizing effects of the Wunonglong dam are obvious and with nowhere to turn to for assistance or relief, Cizhong’s villagers can only passively wait to absorb the next shockwave. Censorship and the tightening of restrictions on NGOs under Xi Jinping’s government discourages civil society groups from intervening in cases like Cizhong’s making this unfortunate village just one of many caught up in the inevitable leviathan of energy infrastructure development in southwest China.

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Filed under Agriculture, China, Current Events, Energy, Food, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management

China’s national meat scandal hits Yunnan

 

This week news broke that dozens, if not hundreds, of police seizures had been carried out across the country in an ever-broadening meat scandal. The crackdown covers at least 14 Chinese provinces including Yunnan, where much of the spoiled food apparently entered the mainland.

Coinciding with reports released across the country, the Yunnan Public Security Bureau announced it had seized 750 tons of rotten or otherwise dangerous pork, chicken, beef and donkey meat in three separate cases. The investigations were originally opened last year but a spate of arrests began on April 13, 2015, and has led to the jailing of 25 people as well as the confiscation of tainted food valued at 80 million yuan (US$13 million).

The national scandal has involved horrific stories of meat frozen for up to forty years. Investigators believe Shenzhen was a major port of entry for three billion yuan (US$482 million) in spoiled goods (requires proxy). However sizable amounts are also thought to have entered China through Vietnamese border crossings in Yunnan and Guangxi. Once in China, meat was often thawed, repackaged, relabeled and then frozen once again before being distributed across the country.

Yunnan police detained suspects in the cities of Songming, Yiliang, Jinghong, Jinning, andChenggong. Some were taken into custody for trafficking, while others arrested for illegally transporting banned substances. Vietnamese companies operating under the Chinese names Tianhe (越南天河公司) and Huafeng (越南华峰公司) have been implicated in smuggling meat across the border, although no legal action against the companies themselves has been made public.

The case in Songming began when 200 middle school students were sent to emergency rooms with food poisoning. A subsequent criminal investigation into the school cafeteria eventually uncovered a cache of rotten meat, some of which tested positive for E coli. All of the students were eventually released from the hospital.

As with most Chinese provinces, Yunnan is no stranger to terrifying headlines concerning tainted or dangerous food. Before ancient meat products came to be a concern, gutter oil — referred to colloquially as digouyou (地沟油) — was a major worry, culminating in the 2013 police seizure of 32,000 tons of ‘store-ready cooking oil’ manufactured largely out of industrial and commercial waste.

The current province-wide investigation into illegal food and drug smuggling is code-named ‘Operation Sharp Sword’ (利剑行动). In addition to uncovering trafficking rings dealing in contaminated meat, detectives are also concerned with finding factories producing fake over-the-counter drugs. To report suspicious behavior, people are encouraged to call the Yunnan Public Security Bureau hotline at 63052548. Operation Sharp Sword will continue until April 2016.

This article, written by Patrick Scally was first published here on GoKunming.com.

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China’s Upscaling of Potato Production Sprouts Controversy

 

Farmers in China's Gansu province show off increases in potato yields

Farmers in China’s Gansu province show off increases in potato yields

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture started the year with an awkwardly named but nevertheless resonating event: at the “Potato Staple-ization Strategy Research Symposium” Vice-minister of Agriculture Yu Xinrong proclaimed that potatoess shall become China’s fourth staple food.  That netizens tweeted more than half a million responses on Sina Weibo about this denotes more than sheer curiosity. While many of the conversations focused on a perceived Chinese consumers’ tardiness in getting on the Columbian Exchange bandwagon, the announcement could have an impact throughout the country and affect the ethnic minority regions and the Southwest in particular.

Historically speaking, potatoes, an American contribution to the world’s food basket, quickly became a mainstay on the tables through most of the Old World, despite initial trepidation among the Europeans.  Research suggests they might have contributed extra nutrition and thus the population boom that brought about the Industrial Revolution. The Irish Famine ensued, and the rest of history is laced with potato jokes.

Spud Stigma

In China, however, spuds have largely remained within the category of dishes (菜) rather than the staple source of carbohydrates and thus energy of the meal (主食). Unlike the other new comer, corn, which has successfully shed its foreign flair, the name Western taro (洋芋) has stuck with taters and is further strengthened by deep-fried potatoes served up by fast food industry that positions it as a Westernized modern food choice. The association of potatoes with foreignness has also been brought to the New World by immigrants, and in a subaltern twist the term potato queen is used to describe Asian gay men that prefer non-Asian partners.

Besides foreigners, the other factor that gives spuds a bad name is poverty. An unnamed researcher has been widely cited saying that potatoes are the staple food for 75% of China’s officially poor counties, where potatoes are consumed “instead of cereals” up to half of the year. What’s more– a lot of that poverty is concentrated in ethnic minority areas: the backward denizens of supposedly sad places like Yunnan, Guizhou, and Gansu rely on spuds to scrape out a living.

The reverse side of the perceived unfortunate overlap between ethnicity, poverty, and potatoes is something that a southern Yunnanese acquaintance imparted over lunch the other day: spuds are grown for oneself. Adapted for a wide variety of ecological conditions and productive even in poor soils and under other unfavorable circumstances, potatoes provide easy and reliable sustenance. More importantly, in the words of anthropologist James Scott, potatoes can be “appropriation-free”: bulky, low in commercial value, and harvested intermittently, potatoes like other tubers are a good way of keeping the tax-collectors and their ilk at bay. It is no coincidence that potatoes are so prevalent in refuge zones as different as Guyuan in southern Ningxia and the balmy mountain slopes of Yunnan and Guangxi.

Cumbersome taters

While direct requisition of crops is not much of a concern for farmers today, especially since the abolishing of farming taxes in 2006, potatoes are nevertheless strongly affected by farming policies and national food security strategies. For justifiable historic reasons the Chinese government, which is linked to some of history’s worst natural and man-made famines and related unrest, at all levels is extremely concerned with ensuring availability of food. With national grain self-sufficiency as the core principle, the central government has consistently demanded and incentivized production of staple crops through a mix of administrative mandate to grow certain crops, direct subsidies to house-holders and larger producers, and intervention pricing. While intervention purchases and stockpiling has been extended to the somewhat-ridiculed strategic swine reserve, it still mostly focuses on grains and shuns spuds because of the difficulty of appropriation.

Unlike bacon, you can’t just put some taters on ice for a few years, or depending on the situation either cellar the spuds for a good while or alternatively sell at a commodities exchange in Chicago if the price is right. Potatoes don’t keep well and the bulk makes them a lousy commodity for shipping. Despite globally being the fourth most significant staple (hence the frequent misstatement in the press that somehow the UN has declared potatoes as one of the global four staples), the governmental preference for a government-focused national-level food security rather than rural household level food-sufficiency has led to spuds falling behind in output growth. However, food security (what the Chinese government calls 粮食安全, not to be confused with food safety – 食品安全) is primarily concerned with the provision of food at the national level through market mechanisms rather than household self-provision. In other words, there is no tater scarcity at the household level, where those who choose to grow them can have their fill, but that does not result in peaceful minds behind the planners’ desks.

It is not to say that potatoes are some sort of primeval anarchist food taking on the capitalist-with-Chinese-peculiarities hegemony. For one, local governments have been as quick as ever to get their paws in the potato pot and are pushing potatoes as one of the options for farming development. According to the National Statistics Bureau, between 2006 and 2012, total potato output increased by about 40%. That’s a solid increase of over more than 5% a year, albeit rather low when compared with the expansion of many other indicators over the same time period. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes. Mind you, the FAO estimate for 2006 exceeds the Chinese central government’s estimates 5-fold, so go figure on who’s right.

It would also be a mistake to say that there is much pride in the importance in the potato in the regions where potatoes are important to the diet. During a recent month-long research stay with various rural households in Ningxia, I heard several apologies for offering too many potatoes and not enough rice to the guest. My insistence that, having grown up on a Latvian potato farm, I gladly take spuds over rice any time was accepted with a polite smile and puzzlement over the impossibility of such a statement. The shame of living off potatoes even by those who grow them is an obvious obstacle in increasing the demand for fresh potatoes and possibly even derived dry goods.

Technical solutions

The drive to (let’s borrow a word from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ repertoire) hype spuds encounters the simplest of economic realities: if there was demand for potatoes the farmers would meet it despite regulations slanted against it. After all, regulations have not stopped urbanization and the emergence of a secondary market for theoretically untradeable farmland. And if indeed the potatoes were so good for you as some have suggested, the market would have overcome the consumer acceptance obstacles described earlier and we would be eating spuds left and right.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to “staple-fy” spuds should be interpreted as increased pressure to expand potato production – the stated goal is to almost double the current reported plantations of 80 million mu to 150 million mu. That’s increase of almost half a million hectares. New investment in growing technologies and varieties will be made available, which has predictably caused knee-jerk concerns about potential weakly regulated experiments with genetic modification. It also means a push towards more industrially processed and thus durable potato products, particularly using potato starch that, unsurprisingly, transforms the crop into long shelf-life products favored by retail supply chain managers and government food provision planners alike. To celebrate the new national potato staple-ization strategy, Shanxi potato entrepreneur Feng Xiaoyan, who goes by @sisterpotato on Sina Weibo, has launched a product line of potato mooncakes.

And while you praise the crackdown on superfluous gifts and thus a reduced (albeit not eliminated) chance of getting your next year’s Mid-Autumn bonus in the form of candied fork floss covered potato starch mooncakes, the good folks in China’s agricultural research and development industry are getting ready to partake in the expected windfall in research funding and new experiments. Local government officials and their cousins who own the farming companies are looking forward to filling their coffers with infrastructure programs and potential subsidies.

A curious and unfortunate potential side-effect of expanded cultivation is the replacement of existing technologies and varieties with improved yields with the accompanying other side of the coin– disappearance of existing livelihoods and genetic as well as cultural diversity. While the farmers of hilly dry parts of Yunnan will not be marching down the streets of Kunming against Monsanto (in fact, poor Monsanto is unlikely to be able to stick its finger in this pie), the fact remains that intensifying farming can leave the growers and the rest of us with fewer resources for when the bad times of crop failure, pests, or climate change hit.

Interestingly, this year’s Central Government Document Number 1, the annual proclamation of rural and development priorities, did not address potatoes and did not call for any expansion of the staple policies to include new crops. The State Council might not be as excited about spuds as Ministry of Agriculture is. Just like many issues, this one will be decided in the well-ventilated halls of newly built governmental districts with limited direct public input. Regardless though of whether one roots for the spud or takes a more tater-phobic stance, the potato staple-ization controversy has stirred minds and brought to dinner table conversation some of the fundamental issues at play in Chinese agriculture, particularly in the economically marginal regions.

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Filed under Agriculture, China, Current Events, Economic development, Food, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Yunnan Province

Unexpected Waters: How Sudden Water Changes in the Mekong Affect Local Thai Livelihoods

 

The riverbank vegetable plot in Boong Kla sub-district, Boong Kla, Bueng Kan was completely inundated.  Ms. Jarin Kamghong had to replant the plot after flooding in December 2013.  Photo: March 8, Montree Chantawong

The riverbank vegetable plot in Boong Kla sub-district, Boong Kla, Bueng Kan was completely inundated. Ms. Jarin Kamghong had to replant the plot after flooding in December 2013. Photo: March 8, Montree Chantawong

On an early morning last December, Manee* (name changed to protect privacy), a woman of 73, woke to prepare offerings to the monks in Ban Viang Kook of Nongkhai Province in Thailand. A papaya in one hand, she steadied the knife in the other to make somtum – northeastern Thailand’s famed salad dish. Apart from unripened papaya, the other crucial ingredient is tomato. Manee walked to her backyard on the banks of the Mekong River to pick some. That’s when she realized that her riverbank crops had flooded overnight, as she lifted her sarong up above her knees to avoid the water. Continue reading

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Tibetan Wine Boom Threatens Food Security

The growing Tibetan wine industry raises concerns about local food supplies and pesticide use.

Many familiar with China and Tibet, may have heard about China’s “Shangri-La,” a region in the northwest of China’s Yunnan Province bordering Tibet and Sichuan that was officially renamed in 2001 after the location of a mystical Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.  The goal of this naming campaign was to heavily promote and extend tourism throughout the region, a strategy that has proved highly effective for the local government with the number of both Chinese and foreign visitors continuing to grow annually and with the increasing expansion of a tourism industry catering to the desires of travelers wanting to experience both Tibetan culture and local natural wonders.

 

Grapes on vine in a village near the Yunnan Tibet border

Grapes on vine in a village near the Yunnan Tibet border

Over the last decade, a significant corporate and agricultural development project in the region has involved the growth of a Tibetan wine industry among rural villages on the upper Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers.  About nine years ago, the provincial government approached villagers across the region’s warm and dry rivers valleys and encouraged them to begin growing grapes to annually sell to the newly established Shangri-La Red Wine Company, a new corporation with close government ties that markets its wine as being distinctly Tibetan and coming from “Shangri-La.”  As part of this program, villagers were given grape seedlings and concrete trellises to support their new vineyards.  Slowly, more and more villages have caught on to this practice and pattern of agriculture to the point that in several areas, fields have been transformed into monocrops, though this is not the case is all locations.  Indeed in some of the region’s villages, a diversity of crops including wheat, barley, buckwheat, corn, and in the southernmost areas rice, are all grown.

 

The government introduced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards to the  village along the Upper Lancang in Yunnan close to Tibet.

The government introduced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards to the
village along the Upper Lancang in Yunnan close to Tibet.

Though I had been traveling and studying in this region for seven years and had indeed witnessed grape growing, it was not until 2011 when I arrived to conduct research on the potential impacts of hydropower resettlement in the region for my master’s degree that I began to realize what a large undertaking has occurred with grape agriculture and the major impacts that this has had on local livelihoods.  Discovering these issues, I began to explore them more deeply, writing a chapter in my MA thesis focused on the topic (which is soon to be published as an academic article), and now looking at this grape agriculture, its history, and the changes associated with it in great depth for my doctoral research.

 

Original Rose Honey vines in the church yard at Cizhong in the  south of Yunnan’s Tibetan region

Original Rose Honey vines in the church yard at Cizhong in the
south of Yunnan’s Tibetan region

Despite their recent expansion across the region, grapes and wine actually have a long and interesting history in the region in isolated areas.  In the late 1800’s, French Catholic missionaries established a strong presence in the region, primarily in the neighboring Nu (Salween) river valley but with a few successful churches and Tibetan converts in the Lancang as well.  While establishing their churches, the French also began to plant grapes and to produce wine, a practice which is still carried on to this day by villagers in Yunnan’s southern most Tibetan villages in Cizhong.  Unique to Cizhong on the upper Lancang is also a variety of grapes known as Rose Honey, a strain that was thought to have been completely wiped out by a blight in France but was found preserved within the church walls at Cizhong.

 

Township government Cabernet vineyards planted outside of Cizhong’ s church

Township government Cabernet vineyards planted outside of Cizhong’
s church

Based on my own interviews and ethnographic work in the region, the Rose Honey grapes are in fact only grown by a limited number of villagers and today are primarily unique to Cizhong alone.  When the prefectural government and Shangri-La Red Wine Company introduced and encouraged grape growing throughout the region approximately eight years ago, they provided a new variety of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which is the only variety that this company will purchase.  Therefore the majority of the communities in the region grow and sell these grapes, though in some cases around Cizhong they also produce some wine to sell to tourists themselves, though this is not the case everywhere, especially in the most upstream areas closest to Tibet where some villages have no knowledge of wine making.  Unlike the Rose Honey grapes, the Cabernet variety also requires significant chemical inputs by way of fertilizers and pesticides.

 

From a sustainability standpoint, this increasing reliance on chemicals is one of two major areas of concern and interest – the second is food security.  Villagers themselves are not unaware that they are becoming increasingly reliant on chemicals and that this may be causing problems either.  In one village where I work, only two years ago it was a very common practice among households to intercrop vegetables for personal consumption among grape vines.  However starting this year I both noticed that the practice has decreased and was informed that this was due to villagers own worries about eating foods exposed to too many chemicals and possibly now toxic soils.  Similarly, one of my informants in Cizhong prides himself on two features of his grapes: they are completely organic, and he only grows the Rose Honey variety he obtained from the church yards.  This man has pointed out that most people in Cizhong use many chemicals because the Cabernet grapes introduced by the government won’t grow without them, while the Rose Honey grapes can be grown without any inputs.  Using these characteristics he markets the wine he makes as being both organic and of the historically significant Rose Honey variety, and has managed to develop a very good income for himself by selling wine to local government officials for banquets and to a restaurant in the famous tourism city of Lijiang to the south.

 

Cizhong villager tending his organic Rose Honey vines.  He makes and sells wine  himself rather than selling grapes to a company.

Cizhong villager tending his organic Rose Honey vines. He makes and sells wine
himself rather than selling grapes to a company.

Food security and changes in traditional cropping patterns and ways of life are also a major issue created by grape growing.  In the downstream regions around Cizhong, the majority of villagers still grow large amounts of grain including rice (the northernmost rice in the Mekong and the only rice grown by Tibetans), wheat, barley, corn, and buckwheat to fulfill their own subsistence and livestock needs.  This is not the case upstream however where villagers now grow little to no grain in exchange for grapes as a monocrop; by doing so they then rely on the profits from grape sales to purchase grain for subsistence and also fertilizers and pesticides.  This has brought about two issues.  The first is major changes in diet, as people who traditionally subsisted on wheat and barley are now purchasing rice and in a sense becoming “Hanified” by their diets as they move away from eating traditional Tibetan foods.  Second, there is now a great reliance on the government and the Shangri-La Red Wine Company to purchase grapes, which are the number one income source and thus hugely important in securing funds to purchase adequate amounts of food to eat.  However from year to year, selling grapes is a major issue of concern, particularly being able to sell them at the ideal time when they are first ready to be harvested because if one waits too long they begin to rot on the vines and lose weight which is how they are measured for sales.

 

Interview with an 85 year old Cizhong villager who learned to make wine from French Catholics in the 1930s (photo by Sun Fei).

Interview with an 85 year old Cizhong villager who learned to make wine from French Catholics in the 1930s (photo by Sun Fei).

Since the harvest season of 2011 when I first began studying these issues, the company purchases have consistently arrived late every year, which has created serious worries among villagers about their ability to sell the crop.  Despite government assurances that the company is guaranteed to arrive by a certain date each year, this has not appeared to actually be the case, and securing maximum prices and value from grapes from year to year is a constant struggle for villagers as well as the new reliance on outside food purchase which are well captured in the following quotes from interviews:

 

“Before we planted grapes we didn’t have to buy corn and pesticides, but now we do.  However our income is still better growing grapes. If you plant grapes your income will increase, but you also have to spend more money to buy food.”

 

More or less, villages fully recognize the vulnerabilities involved in switching their cropping to grapes, but have still chosen to do and have invested much time and energy in doing so because of the high monetary returns that they provide.

An abbreviated version was posted here earlier this week on thethirdpole.net

 

 

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Filed under China, Food, Mekong River, SLIDER, Uncategorized, Yunnan Province

Rubber and Sustainability in Southern Yunnan: A Tale of Two Villages

Will Feinberg compares Xishuangbanna’s rubber and sustainabilty in two of southern Yunnan’s ethnic villages. One monocrops while the other hedges.

Driving past new stores and half-built housing developments, you take a right into the forest. Keep going. The farther you drive, the worse the road gets until you burst through another patch of palms trees and cross a stream. Where are you? You’re in Mandian Village, just outside Jinghong, Yunnan and  right in the heart of Chinese rubber country.

Introduced to the area in the 1960s by the central government, rubber is big business in southern Yunnan. Large state plantations have steadily given way to private enterprises and the region has seen a proliferation of rubber planting in the past twenty years. Today in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region, which Jinghong is the seat of, rubber plantations already make up almost one fifth of all land.

While the environmental costs have been heavy, the rubber explosion has done wonders for Xishuangbanna’s economy. For rubber farmers in Mengla Country, for instance, the average household income is close to $30,000/year, comparable to places like Shanghai or Guangzhou. The economic benefits of rubber harvesting were quite clear to me while traveling through the region late last month. During the trip, I visited two villages that I had been to in 2011. In both cases, rubber has transformed the local economy, however one village was clearly better off than the other. Why?

The first village I visited was the aforementioned Mandian Village. Mandian is largely inhabited by people of the Dai ethnicity, with a 20-family group of Yi people living in an adjacent settlement. Mandian, like many other villages in the area, practices rubber cultivation and relies on rubber as its main source of income. According to villagers there, the Dai started harvesting rubber over a decade ago, while the Yi settlement began their rubber industry only within the last few years. For the village economy as a whole, rubber has had a positive influence. Per capita incomes have risen as well as household consumption and the money from rubber has allowed the town to build a new school.

However, as rubber is Mandian’s only cash crop, the village’s fortunes are now beholden to the world rubber market. Nothing illustrates this better than what happened to the village in 2012. Last year, the bottom fell out on the rubber market and the price of raw rubber dropped by half, going from 30 yuan per pound (1 US dollar is roughly equal to 6 Chinese yuan ) to 15 yuan per pound. Two villagers that I interviewed described the effects. One, a middle-aged Dai woman told of how most of the villagers who harvest rubber had to work overtime to scratch out living and the quality of life dropped for many families. Though because the Dai also plant rice, no one in the village went hungry. A young Yi woman that I spoke to also described how the economic hardships as a result of the rubber crash delayed the building of their house. The Yi, who were recently resettled as a result of the building of the Jinghong Dam, were forced to return to their old fields as a way of producing food during 2012 crash and without these fields, many villagers might have gone hungry. The fall of the rubber price in 2012 was not isolated just to Mandian village. The drop was felt in villages like Mandian all over southern Yunnan and in other rubber producing areas like Malaysia and Brazil. But there was at least one village that was comparatively isolated from the crash’s effects.

Nanpanzhong Village sits on the slope of a ridge just an hour’s drive from the Burmese border. A collection of some 120 families, Nanpanzhong is an Aini village. The Aini are a branch of the Hani/Akha minority, a nomadic, transboundary ethnicity that typically practice subsistence agriculture in the mountains of Southeast Asia. What makes the Aini of Nanpanzhong special, aside from their incredible hospitality, is their economy. Like the Dai and Yi of Mandian, the Aini also harvest rubber, but the role that rubber plays in the village’s economy is quite different. In an interview with the village mayor, I learned that money from rubber harvesting makes up only 30% of the town’s income. Instead, their primary source of income, by a long shot, is pigs. The town raises hundreds of short-eared swine which command quite a high price in China’s metropolises. According to the mayor, his pigs’ pork sells for 130 yuan/pound, many times higher than the price of normal pork. In fact, most of the village’s pork can only be found in places like Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai; people in Jinghong can’t even afford it.

Pork sales now net the village almost sixty percent of its total income, but Nanpanzhong’s foray into the meat industry is a rather recent affair: villagers only began raising pigs in 2003. Its impact, however, has been astounding. According to the mayor, the average household income was hovering around 500 yuan per year at the turn of the millennium. Thirteen years later, that number as skyrocketed to almost 8,000 yuan and now, the mayor claims, Nanpanzhongcun is the envy of the surrounding valleys.

 When the rubber price plummeted last year, Nanpanzhong was largely unaffected. Of course, the mayor explains, villagers feel the effects when the rubber price fluctuates, but certainly less so than other places. The village is largely self-sustaining for food and the money earned from rubber, livestock and tea (which makes up a tenth of the village’s income) is used for electronics, vehicles and building materials. Both the mayor and villagers that I spoke with were convinced of the Nanpanzhong model’s superiority.

The evidence is hard to disagree with. Not considering the environmental concerns, of which there are many, rubber can be an unsustainable enterprise. Mandian, and hundreds of villages like it, have had a mixed experience with rubber. While it brought the village a new school and the villagers a higher standard of living, Mandian’s reliance on rubber and the fluctuations of the global market brought hardships to the village last year, forcing some villagers to leave in search of food. On the other hand is Nanpanzhong’s model. Rubber, while an important source of income for villagers, is part of a healthy balance. With families growing their own food and relying on two cash crops (rubber and tea) and livestock for their income, the villagers of Nanpanzhong are largely insulated from greater trends in the rubber market. The village’s exact model may not be able to be replicated in every village in Yunnan, but its general ideas can. Pairing rubber with a second cash crop and agricultural self-reliance are concepts that could give protection to villages like Mandian and offer a more economically sustainable path for thousands of people in the region.

 

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China needs to change its energy strategy in the Mekong region

This op-ed was first published at ChinaDialogue and thethirdpole.net on 7/16.

 Mekong bridge

At the end of this year cars and container trucks loaded with goods from China and Thailand will finally be able to drive across a multi-lane bridge spanning the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China). The bridge will connect Chiang Rai province in Thailand to Bokeo province in Laos, effectively linking China’s highways stretching south from Beijing and Shanghai to those coming north from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Funded by equal investment from the Chinese and Thai government, the completion of the bridge, which took ten years of planning and two years to build, is not without controversy. For many years Thailand held back investment due to an uneven distribution of benefits between China, Laos and Thailand. Also on the Thai side, the NGO Rak Chiang Khong claim the bridge negatively impacts the local Golden Triangle economy and will ruin Mekong fisheries.

The Golden Triangle Bridge serves to highlight the challenges facing China, as the country’s new leadership attempts to balance its slowing and volatile economy and deliver domestic stability by maintaining peaceful economic relations with its neighbours.

China’s regional strategy

“In 2012 China’s growth in trade and outward investment with the five other Mekong countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam surpassed its trade and investment growth in ASEANcountries,” said Xu Ningning, chairman of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Business Council. “Greater growth rates will continue with increases in regional cooperation and win-win investment opportunities.”

For the past three years China’s GMS provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi have posted growth rates of 12-15%, the highest of China’s localities, and arguably China’s economic rise has also helped deliver high growth rates among Mekong countries.

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s created a favourable environment for China to develop its economic cooperation strategies toward the Mekong region. The blurring and opening of once inviolable borders encouraged traders on both sides of the China-Southeast Asia frontier to appeal to local and national governments for better conditions for trade and migration. The Chinese government responded with twenty years of state-led trade liberalisation and investment policies to promote regional cooperation in state and private sectors.

China’s economic cooperation strategies towards its four Mekong neighbours has dovetailed nicely into a strategy that fits China’s current development needs. Liu Jinxin, a policy analyst and logistics expert says, “Unlike the US which leads the world in finance and IT, both high-value service-oriented industries, China is the world’s factory, producing goods to drive the growth of its growing middle class and serving export markets around the world. To survive, the Chinese ‘factory’ needs inputs like energy and raw materials.” Continue reading

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, Food, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Laos, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam, water

Yunnan’s Wild Mushroom Season is Here!

mushroom market small

PHOTO: Kunming’s Guandu mushroom market

You may know that Yunnan has been called a ‘Kingdom of Biodiversity’, but perhaps you didn’t know that Yunnan is also a ‘Kingdom of Mushrooms’. Research shows that more than 600 species of mushrooms grow in Yunnan, of which 20-30 are species of famous edible mushrooms found across the entire province. Below I list the six edible mushrooms known as the most delicious and most common to Yunnan. The rainy season (also the mushroom season) is coming shortly, I hope you can find at least one or two these mushrooms in the wild! Continue reading

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Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong dam by dam

The Mekong, a river of wildly majestic fast-flowing currents flowing through six countries, has long enchanted explorers with its rich biodiversity second only to the Amazon.

It is home to the Giant Catfish, and at least 877 fish species sustaining food security for around 65 million people which make the Mekong the world’s most important centre of freshwater fisheries.

“For the people born on the Mekong, the river is like their blood—the principle of life,” says Dorn Bouttasing, a Lao environmental researcher.

Surely it is unthinkable that man would want to endanger or destroy the basis of such extraordinary natural wealth? Such invaluable natural resources, their infinite value defies any attempt to measure with a crude price tag.

My documentary Where Have All the Fish Gone? (Eureka Films) looks at the four Chinese hydropower dams that have been already built on the Lancang (The Chinese name for the upper Mekong), but its main focus is on the Lower Mekong basin shared by Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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Filed under Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, Food, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Laos, Mekong River, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam, water