Traditional culture and community forest management in Hani village, Yunnan, China

The case study focuses on the community forestry in Mengsong Hani Community, Yunnan Province of China. It uses a variety of documentation to clarify the traditional management and natural resources conservation of the Hani Ethnic Minority. In addition, the major changes in tenure and customary laws are discussed in our case study. To be more specific, we mention the interactions between traditional culture and the community forest and how are stakeholders' interests distributed and balanced. Some genetic diversity of plants like rattan is managed and enhanced among Hani communities through their agriculture and forestry practices, such as folk classification, Sangpabawa. What’s more, swidden agriculture, state policies, population, and customary institution are important factors associated with changes in land cover and land use in Hani community forestry. The reasonable functional partitioning, land tenure policy and different management approaches are a promise to achieve sustainable forestry development.


The location of Hani village

Meng Song is a Hani-populated mountainous region located in Jinghong County, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southern Yunnan, southwestern China. It is located at 21° 27'N-21°3 4'N and 100° 25'E-100° 35'E, with a total area of about 100 Square kilometer. There are 11 natural villages in Mengsong, with the exception of 1 Laku village, the remaining 10 are Hani villages. The altitude of this area is 800 ~ 2000m, and most of the area is l500-1800m. Around the village, there are well-preserved tropical mountain rainforest vegetation and abundant vines. Climate is a typical subtropical climate, with annual precipitation of 1600-1800mm and the annual average temperature of 16 -18ºC.[1]


The Hani ethnic minority

  • The Hani people, who are also known as the Akha in Southeast Asia (especially in northern Thailand)[2]
  • The fourth-largest ethnic group in Yunnan Province [2]

Ethnic traditional culture

  • Patrilineal clan: The position of the village chief is normally hereditary but the chief may be selected by a group of knowledgeable and well-to-do village men. The village chief usually has legal authority and religious functions, but won’t have the rights like an absolute ruler.[3]
  • The Hani people have a deep reverence for the forests as they believe forest provides a vital life-support system for their way of life.[2]
  • Religious beliefs: Hani People believe in natural religion, which is a form of nature worship. ( They worship the sun, the moon, mountains, rivers, wildlife and other life forms as gods, and they pay their sacrifice to numerous gods by holding special ceremonies).[4]
  • Festivals and rites: Hani People have developed a series of traditional festivals and religious rites for worshiping the village god and the mountain god. ‘Angmatu’ celebration is the most important sacrificial festival in Hani minority, which is the ceremony to worship their village god in the Sacred forest[4]

Traditional management of forest ecosystems 

The Mengsong Hani people divide the forest into two categories, one is the traditional community protecting forest, and the other one is the available forest.[5]

Traditional community protecting forest(TCPF)
Forest Types Description
The Community Rattan Protecting Forests The protection of local wild rattan resources and the restriction of exploitation have promoted the cultivation of rattan by local people. The rattans have been cultivated for five generations and have a history of more than 100 years in Mengsong. There are 2 genera, 4 species, and 5 variants, and 3 species and 5 variants are cultivated by the Hani people. In addition, the original creation of the Hani in Mengsong to cultivate rattan on the land on fallow rotation. This relieves the pressure on local people to use rattan natural resources, which in turn promotes the protection of rattan natural resources[5]
Village Shelter Forests Hani people believe that all things have spirit, and people and ghosts live in their boundaries. Therefore, around the village, a forest about 500m wide (about 80 ha) should be set aside as the protective and shelter forests of the village. Because of the cultural belief of shelter forest, no one is allowed to go in and cut down trees, but non-timber products, such as drugs, fruits, and vegetables, can still be collected.[5]
Water Source Forests The water source forest is the largest of all protected forests. These large areas of forest are the main habitat for local wildlife, so the water source forests are also the main hunting areas for indigenous people. Cutting down any trees except coffin wood in these water source forests is prohibited. Besides, Bawa is also an important local water source forest, which provides the five villages in Mengsong community with a continuous source of drinking water all year round. It is also one of the important water source forests in the 133.33ha paddy fields of Mengsong dam.[5]
Cemetery Forests and Sacred Forests Cemetery Forests and Sacred Forests are supreme and inviolable in the minds of the Hani people, so these woodlands receive absolute protection, and even the collection of non-timber products is not allowed. And Hani people in Mengsong has a history of more than 200 years, they migrated from the Simao pine forest in the northeast to Mengsong dam along the Nandan road. This is one of the reasons why the forest in this area is still well protected.[5]
Available forests
Forest Types Description
Traditional Timber Forests Under the unified planning of the entire village, the villages of Mengsong have their relatively fixed traditional timber forests to provide a variety of living materials for public building materials, firewood and fences. Villagers are free to cut down the wood they need in the timber forest under the jurisdiction of the village, but these products can only be consumed by themselves and cannot be used for any form of Commodity Exchange, and villagers are not allowed to cultivate land in this forest area. If there is a violation of the regulations, the violation of the rules will be handed over to the village court for punishment.[5]
Traditional Economic Forests The villagers remove some weeds and young trees under the forest and plant some long-term crops under the natural forest, creating a semi-artificial ecosystem. villagers use the forest to create a special habitat and improves its social and economic benefits without weakening the ecological function of the forest through artificial modification and management.[5]

Changes in land tenure and land use

  • Since 1950, China has implemented conflicting policies that affect ownership of land.[3]
  • Before 1958, most agricultural lands are controlled by landlords and most forest land was accessible to individuals for collecting rattan and other NTFPs are governed by customary laws.[3]
  • During 1958-1978, the collective period, people’s communes collectively owned agricultural land.[3]
  • During 1966-1976, the Cultural Revolution period, the Bureau of Forestry changed their focus to policies that favoured logging instead of monitoring the forests, which led to the heavy loss of forests. Also, the state demanded increased grain production to achieve food self-sufficiency, which also resulted in expansions of swidden land and forests lost.
  • From 1978 to 1983, based on the Household Responsibility System, lands were contracted out to individual farmers but the forests were still under the state control.[3]
  • Form 1983 to now, Yunnan province implemented a policy named Liangshanyidi (freehold and contracted forest lands and swidden fields). The state is trying to use this policy to shift forest management from the state to the individual. Under this policy, individual freehold can lease the freehold plots and collectively-held forests. The state usually holds the closed canopy forest as state forest, and local communities hold collective forests for cutting timber. In Mengsong, the community’s right to protect and utilize these forests was recognized by the government in 1983.[3]

Customary institutions

  • Hani society was traditionally organized according to 3 customary institutions: The village chiefs, social organizations and territories land governed by a range of customary rules that were monitored and enforced by the village chiefs and clan elders.[3]
  • Communal committee: A communal committee consisting of head man, village chief, and the heads of clans who deal with the daily affairs of the community. And it plays a key role in regulating land and natural resources.[3]

Customary laws

- The fundamental rules of Hani people’s society.

- A series of customary laws were evolved to manage natural resources and solving internal disputes and external cooperation with other villages

- These customary laws have been embodied in almost every aspect of Hani People’s livelihood, in the practice of management and preservation of forests.

  • The representative rules of forest management are made by the head man of the village:
  1. Limitation of harvesting rattan: large to medium diameter rattan can be collected 5 times a year and a small diameter rattan can be collected once every 3 years. The rule protects rattan's sustainability and ensures that the villagers have a source of income.[6]
  2. Deforestation banned:  heavy clearance is not allowed in the forest and the existing management does not allow the natural forest vegetation to be disturbed. But each spring, each household in villages will be offered rattan stems for the preparation of traditional festival of Hani people.[6]
  • Stipulations of an agreement to manage and protect this forest:
  1. Deforestation is not allowed in the forest.[7]
  2. One single cane would be offered to each household for making ploughing tools in each spring.[7]
  3. Several rattan stems will be provided each year to each Hani village for making swinging ropes for the traditional festival day of Hani people.
  4. When villages construct a new house for their families, each household will be allowed to collect some canes (weighing as much as 25 kg) as construction materials. [7]
Affected stakeholders Relative objectives Power&interestes
  • Planting cash crops in fallow fields and rehabilitation lands to increase their income
high interests & low power
Village chief
  • Managing collective forests and natural resources on behalf of the community, with the assistance of members of the community committees
  • Revising customary laws and developing detailed regulations for collective forests,
  • Organizing and supervising villagers to harvesting non-timber natural resources according to customary laws
high interests & high power
Headsman (palu)
  • Assisting the village chief to manage land and natural resources
high interests, Medium power
Elders of village
  • Maintaining territorial control for cultural, environmental, and community protection.
high interests, low to medium power
Heads of the clan (pamou)
  • Assisting the village chief to manage land and natural resources
high interests & medium power
Priests of Hani People (Mopi and Migu)
  • Hosting a sacrifice in the sacred forest,and dedicated to protecting the sacred forests including Bawa
high interests &

low to medium power

Forest rangers
  • Guarding the scared forests
high interests & medium to high power

The Hani villagers

The ordinary villagers and farmers in Mengsong, especially the Hani people can be considered as affected stakeholders. The interests of villagers are closely related to the rational traditional management of forests. The Hani people have a deep reverence for the forests, which stems from their traditional ecological ethic.[2] They believe forest provides a vital life-support system for their way of life. The traditional religious beliefs make them show a high degree of concern for the traditional community protecting forests, manifesting in the absolute protection of sacred forests and village shelters forests. The local residents highly identify with a large number of forest-related activities, including farming, harvesting and hunting activities. Villagers can increase the source of income by planting cash crops in rehabilitation forests and fallow fields, thus improving their quality of livelihood. The water source forest, as collective forests, is the main hunting areas for the Hani ethnic minority, and these forests also serve as the source of water supply to agricultural production and daily usage for villagers. Some non-timber resources in the traditional community protecting forests (TCPF) [5]can be harvested under the rules made by village chief, and distributed to local villagers according to the rules. These forest-related activities associated with local villager's livelihood identify them as affected stakeholders.

Communal committee

As a customary institution created to represent the interests of the community in Hani village, the communal committee consisting of headman (paul), village chief (zoema), and the heads of clans( pamou) , is committed to maintaining territorial control for cultural, environmental, and community protection.

The Hani are a patrilineal clan. [3]The position of village chief (zoema) is normally hereditary but the chief may be selected by a group knowledgeable and well-to-do village men. [3]The role of the village chief was traditionally imbued with legal authority and religious functions, but never with the authority ruler. [3]The village chief make decisions through discussions among the male clan members.[3]

The customary institution, responsible for dealing with the daily affairs of the community[3], plays an important role in regulating land and natural resources, including developing detailed regulation for delineation of forest reserve boundaries and selection of sites for swidden cultivation in fallow fields[3].

Interested stakeholders Relative objectives Power&interestes
Mengsong county government agencies
  • Implementing state policies and promoting local economic development
high power & low to medium interests
The Bureau of Forestry
  • Managing and supervising natural resources of state-owned forests including water source forests in Mengsong regions based on the state policy and laws,
  • Aiding with community committees in managing collective forests and provide organization and guidance
medium to high power & medium to high interests
Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Conducting scientific research on the traditional management model of Hani people
  • Providing technical support for forest conservation and biodiversity for Hani villages
low power & medium to high interests
National Natural Science Foundation of China
  • Funding for researchers and scientific institutions studying the traditional management model of the Hani
low power & low interests

Conflicts and Challenges

The research shows that the traditional regulations of Hani village only consider the actual local conditions and the villagers' own interests, and cannot comprehensively take into account national policies and related regulations. The traditional regulation only includes the management and protection of collective forests and self-reserved mountains that are closely related to their own interests. The village regulations and people's covenants basically do not involve forests outside the community, such as nature reserves and other state-owned forests. Forest area, etc. [5] In some villages near the protected area, villagers often go to the protected area to cut firewood, collect bamboo shoots, plant vegetables and fruits, and even cut down trees, which caused considerable damage to forest in the protected area. [5] At the same time, villagers sometimes enter protected forests for some sacrifice activities, which will harm the ecological diversity of the forest and leave some hidden dangers of forest fires. [5] Therefore, how to change the one-sided concept of villagers and combine the traditional culture of the community with the policies and regulations of the conservation area is one of the great challenges facing the current management.


The Hani village community has developed its unique traditional management of forests based on religious beliefs and actual ecological environment. They have been committed to the protection and rational use of forest resources for many years, which has greatly protected the biodiversity of local forests. It is proved that community-based forest management can lead to more efficiency in the areas where there are strong local institutions and rules regarding natural resources. meanwhile, participatory forest management (PFM) proclaims another feasible approach. The factors, which included defining the tenure of forest definitely, ensuring equitable benefit sharing, establishing and implementing effective rules and developing powerful institutions, are shown to be essential for sustainable utilization of forest. Grassroots and local institutions are critically important in promoting the recognition and utilization of traditional knowledge and community-based practices, which is of great significance for many other regions in the world. [4]


In recent decades, due to the influence of policies, market, and population growth, the traditional ethnic lifestyle and agricultural production methods, as well as the village community management system have undergone tremendous changes. This traditional resource management model, based on ethnic cultural beliefs, values and township rules, has been greatly challenged. A management style that focuses too much on the interests of Hani village not only keeps it out of touch with the rapidly developing economy and society, but also makes it difficult for the government to implement policies in hani village. This creates a communication barrier between the village community and the government, which is not beneficial to either side. what's more, Although Hani villagers have made great contributions to the forest protection, the incorrect management and rehabilitation of the fallow fields have also caused a series of problems in the available area. The increase of vulnerability and invasive species like Crouton Weed (upatorium adenophorum Spreng)caused by monoculture have a negative impact on the ecosystem.[4]

To maintain the sustainable development of Hani village and the livelihood of villagers, it is urgent to implement policies keeping pace with the time. And the Mengsong county agencies are supposed to have effective communication with affected stakeholders represented by the communal committee and villagers and make adjustments and modifications in terms of customary laws and implementation of policies.

Some suggestions on helping villagers to obtain higher economic income. After case studies and analysis of Naidu Village in the class, we suggest that Hani villagers can make better use of non-timber products and produce more benefits. The Hani villagers, especially farmers, can learn to establish a more complete product sales mechanism like Naidu Village.[8]. For example, the Hani villagers can be encouraged to plant cash crops of the same variety in fallow swidden fields, and they can gain a quantitative advantage. By selling in large quantities to buyers, they can get reasonable prices for merchandise trade. It will help increase their source of income. Also, they can monitor the market retail through specialized personnel, thus achieving the purpose of increased trading profits. In this way, villagers can also be prevented from planting cash crops in state-owned forests to a certain extent. We also advocate some Hani's corrupt customs, like frequent sacrificial activities, should be decreased or even abandoned. Younger villagers are supposed to acknowledge the state policy and laws, and broaden the horizons of traditional culture, thus promoting sustainable development of traditional community forests.[8]

  1. Chen, S. Y., Pei, S. J., & Xu, J. C. (1993). Traditional management and utilization of rattan resources by Hani people in Mengsong, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. Acta Botanica Yunnanica, 15(3), 285-290.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Jiao, Y., Li, X., Liang, L., Takeuchi, K., Okuro, T., Zhang, D., & Sun, L. (2012). Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management in the Cultural Landscape of China’s Hani Terraces. Ecological Research, 27(2), 247–263.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Jianchu, X., Fox, J., Xing, L., Podger, N., Leisz, S., & Xihui, A. (1999). Effects of swidden cultivation state policies, and customary institutions on land cover in a Hani village, Yunnan, China. Mountain Research and Development, 123-132.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Yang, J., Guo, L., Yin, L., & Xue, D. (2013). Application of Hani people’s traditional knowledge on forest management. In Proceedings - 2013 6th International Conference on Intelligent Networks and Intelligent Systems, ICINIS 2013 (pp. 296–299). IEEE Computer Society.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Jianhua, W., Jianchu, X., & Shengji, P. (2000). Study on indigenous knowledge system for management of ecosystem diversity in Mengsong Hani Community, Xishuangbanna. Chinese Journal of Ecology, 2.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Wang, K., Hong, L. T., & Rao, V. R. (2005). Folk nomenclature and management practices of rattan in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, southwest China. World Bamboo & Rattan.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Yunnan, S., Kanglin, W., Jian chu, X., Shengji, P., & Sanyang, C. (1996). Selected non-timber forest products for natural resources conservation and community development in, 1–7.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Menzies, N. K. (2007). Our forest, your ecosystem, their timber: communities, conservation, and the state in community-based forest management. Columbia University Press.
Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Qiao Wang, Yizheng Zhang. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Post Image Type: Abrahamic Faiths, Hani autonomous prefectures and counties in China, CC BY-SA 4.0