Due to its unique significance as both a borderland town and an impoverished ethnic minority area, Dulongjiang received special attention from provincial and national authorities. Projects and investments aimed at improving livelihoods poured into the valley.
According to Zhang Guohua, a village official from Dizhengdang, training programs for villagers in mushroom growing, herb planting, animal husbandry and cooking are yet to yield any fast or effective ways for locals to earn sustainable sources of income. The only successful cash crop is caoguo (Fructus tsaoko, also known as tsaoko fruit), a spice related to the ginger family often used for hotpot seasoning.
“Without sufficient research [beforehand], many poverty alleviation projects were unsuccessful,” Guo said. “For example, one local government tried yak farming, but the high-altitude animal of course couldn’t survive in the local climate.” Even for the relatively successful caoguo planting industry, Guo said he had reservations.
“The market fluctuates a lot so it can’t ensure long-term incomes. Besides, widespread forest floor planting of caoguo may cause plant diversity to decline, threatening biodiversity conservation.¡± Excessive caoguo planting as a monoculture in the forest means other species struggle to survive.
Guo’s concerns are echoed by Dulong who live in Bapo Village. The climate is suitable for caoguo and almost all households grow it, making it the main source of income.
According to Meng Jisong from Bapo, the price of caoguo peaked in 2017 at 20 yuan (US$3) per kilogram, but it dropped by half in 2019.
“If the price continues to drop, there’s no room for profit because planting it is time- and labor-intensive,” Meng said.
Apart from caoguo planting, authorities tried to develop tourism, which poses its own threats to conservation. But in 2020, hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and unprecedented heavy rains from June to October that resulted in road-blocking landslides, tourism was not as lucrative as they hoped.
“In the past, we knew exactly how much we could grow and harvest, and we took pride in forest farming, but now we depend mostly on government subsidies,” Zeng Xueguang said. “We might seem happy, but we don’t know how long the subsidies will last, so it leaves us feeling uncertain.”
“In my opinion, the Dulong’s traditional slash-and-burn agriculture is ecologically friendly, not primitive or damaging to the forest,” Guo said.
“It’s much better to allow them to gradually transition their way of life rather than abruptly changing it under a nationwide across-the-board policy,” he said.
Li Heng, a 93-year-old researcher at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told NewsChina that the shuidonggua (Alnus cremastogyne), a native fast-growing deciduous tree used by Dulong people in slash-and-burn agriculture, provides firewood, lumber and fertilizer, and is not destructive to the environment.
Nowadays, despite being a violation of Grain to Green project regulations, some villagers in Dizhengdang have gone back to farming in the northern mountains of Dulongjiang. Ma Cuiying told the reporter: “During the growing season, our family walks four hours back to our old plots in the mountains. We’ve started growing potato, taro and corn again, and we are looking forward to a good harvest this year.”