Agriculture Practices of Indigenous People in China Have Been Greatly Affected by Climate Change

The People’s Republic of China does not recognize the term “indigenous people” for its 55 ethnic minorities (incl. groups in Taiwan), even though in 1990 the country declared itself a supporter of indigenous rights elsewhere. Instead, China calls its various ethnic groups “ethnic minorities” (少数民族). The difference in terminology can be explained in historic terms. According to the ILO definition, indigenous peoples are those with their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions, descended from populations who inhabited the country at the time of colonisation or at the time of the establishment of current nation-state boundaries. Unlike countries in Latin America, Africa or South Asia which were colonized in a relatively short period by European powers, China’s history is one of constantly changing territorial expansion and a process of ethnic migration.

In fact, when looking for Chinese language information on climate change and ethnic minorities, the most accessible information talks about the impact of colder and dryer weather on the nomadic Mongolian and Manchurian tribes of North and Central Asia during the Northern Song period (960–1126 AD) that forced them to move southwards and displace the agricultural Han Chinese population of the Central Plains in China. Interestingly, the Mongolian and Manchurian peoples are today considered among the 55 ethnic minorities that make up 8.9 % of China’s total population according to the latest 2020 census.

Many ethnic groups got incorporated into China’s national territory as various imperial dynasties – Han Chinese, Mongolian and Manchurian – expanded their territory to include tribute states over the millennia in search of resources and tributes. Often, the original peoples and their cultures remained relatively intact, as long as the requested tributes were delivered to the respective imperial courts.

Naturally, today’s ethnic groups reside along the borders of China with Southeast Asia (e.g. Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar), South Asia (India, Buthan, Nepal, Pakistan), Central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) and North Asia (Mongolia, Russia, North Korea). Four ethnic minority groups have a population of over 10 million, namely the Zhuang, Hui, Uyghur and Manchu. Tibet has the highest proportion of ethnic minorities (95 percent), while Guangxi is home to approx. 18 million people of ethnic minority status, mainly Zhuang. Some of them self-identify as indigenous peoples or are recognized by experts as such, e.g. Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur, Tujia, Tong, Bai, Miao, Yi, Hani, and Naxi. Their customary laws and traditional practices are distinct and make vital contributions to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The traditional livelihoods of ethnic minorities in China are mainly based on agriculture, fishing, hunting and livestock raising. Traditional forms of living like nomadism have been discouraged in recent decades and settlement for agriculture and pastoral practices encouraged. Agricultural activity has shifted due to changing weather patterns like draughts, heavy flooding and torrential rains. Farmers have been forced to adapt, change crops or abandon agriculture altogether. However, there are different coping strategies depending on knowledge and access to information. While some farmers have chosen to do nothing, others have given up farming together and migrated to urban centres to find work.

Other ethnic minorities have applied and adjusted their traditional agricultural knowledge to change planting processes. For example, where farmers used to plant a single crop on one lot before, they now apply mixed planting techniques. Crops with different characteristics are planted in one plot to ensure that at least one harvest will withstand whatever weather manifestation of climate change may befall the crops. Also, farming communities across different ethnic groups living across different altitudes in one area collaborate to change customary laws in order to better distribute water resources and enable all to continue farming. At the same time, adaption barriers exist: for example, farmers lack meteorological information services, infrastructure and technology extension in agriculture or animal husbandry. They need information on how to improve infrastructure or production technologies, such as water, electricity, transportation facilities, disaster warning information, employment information and farming or breeding techniques. To overcome these barriers, ethnic groups in Yunnan, for example, have established local knowledge-based climate adaptation actions, partly supported by government or private sector support, which has enabled the establishment of initiatives such as water storage, drought relief and irrigation programs.

Another copying strategy became available with the ascent of cultural tourism – both domestic as well as international – with its promise of better income and physically less exertive work. Rural communities have shifted from agriculture-based livelihoods to tourism-based activities. Much of it was enabled through accessible government funding to encourage public-private partnerships to invest in bed-and-breakfast type accommodations, convert local heritage buildings into guest houses, run traditional food restaurants, or offer services like Yak rides through the mountains or guide local tours. In recent years, eco-tourism has been on the rise where local minorities also impart knowledge on biodiversity or local customs, in order to preserve their way of living and their culture.


This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager: Annette Wiedenbach


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