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.