Drinking their fields dry

Category: longsheng, terraced fields

Few of the thousands of tourists to Longsheng County of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region would realize that their presence is actually endangering the magnificent landscape of terraced fields they enjoy. With a population of 167,000, of whom nearly 80 percent are ethnic minorities of Miao, Yao, Dong and Zhuang, Longsheng received 235,000 sightseers in 2006, according to Yang Tongming, head of the county. In May this year, the Dragon Backbone alone - the core area of the 700-year-old terraced fields - drew 50,000 visitors, including 10,000 from overseas," he says. 

Tourism indeed has contributed much to the county's revenue, Yang says. Longsheng's tourism earnings had jumped from 234,100 yuan ($30,864) in 1999 to over 11 million yuan ($1.45 million) in 2006, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the county's total revenue.

Meanwhile, the family inns run by local farmers within the Dragon Backbone area frog-leaped from three with 45 beds in 1992 to the current 112 with more than 3,000 beds, providing handsome earnings to the locals, Yang says.

Extending in layers carved on a hillside at an elevation between 300 and 1,100 meters above sea level, the Longsheng terraced fields got its fame first among photography fans in the early 1990s. "The distinct and smooth lines of the Longsheng terraced fields are particularly fascinating to scenic image capturers," observes Lu Zhou, a professor of ancient architecture at Qinghua University.

In comparison, the terraced fields created by the Hani people in Honghe, Yunnan Province could overshadow their counterparts in Longsheng in terms of history, farming skills, sizable stretches, and aesthetic effect, Lu says.

Yet there is one thing the Hani terraced fields cannot match: accessibility. While the Hani fields are hidden deep in the Ailao Mountains and the journey to the place is an exhausting drive of a whole day, Longsheng is within easy reach of 78 kilometers northwest of Guilin, a leading tourist attraction in Guangxi.

However, says Ben Huangwen, deputy head of Longsheng County, this very advantage might be what has caused the damage to the famous terraced fields.

The easy access brings flows of tourists, many of whom stay overnight to wait for better photographic opportunities. That has resulted in a water shortage, says Ben.

"The water consumption has multiplied as tourists are several times the local population," he says. The core area of six villages has a total population of 7,800, while the tourists expected this year number 300,000. "Hence the contention of human consumption of water with the irrigation."

To satisfy this consumption of water, the locals have to compromise what is used for irrigation. "The terraced paddy fields used to be inundated with water all year round," says Ben. "Now the farmers won't flood the fields until the transplanting season so as to save the water."

That means half a year the fields are dry. And the dry land leads to the collapse of the fields.

After an investigation of the terraced fields, Duan Xiangfeng, an engineer with the Guangxi Planning Academy of Land Resources who has made four trips to the six villages, noted down 577 sites of collapse involving more than 25 hectares.

There are two reservoirs near the Dragon Backbone, says Duan, but they cannot provide adequate help. "They are long out of repair and suffer serious leakage, with one-third of the designed capacity of water conservancy leaking away," she says.

Also collapsed is the traditional farming system, Duan says. As the farmers are preoccupied with receiving tourists, from whom they earn far more than from rice growing, there is a lack of field management.

"Local villages used to have people tending the ditches blocking the surface runoff when there is rainfall," she says. "Now those ditches are deserted with little tending of them. When a storm hits, the surface runoff easily runs wild into torrents to destroy the fields."

Local officials turned to land authorities for help and the Regional Department of Land and Resources of Guangxi has incorporated the preservation of Longsheng terraced fields into its land consolidation program.

The program aims to consolidate fragmented and underused land, reclaim wasteland or land damaged by mining or natural disasters, and develop unused land resources with the prerequisite of guarding against desertification and soil erosion.

"We are obliged to preserve farmland," says Cao Guosheng, deputy director of the department. "We are even more obliged to preserve a farming legacy like the Longsheng terraced fields."

He adds that the department plans to put in 30 million yuan ($3.96 million) for the Longsheng project, which involves a total area of 795 hectares of terraced fields.

That is how Duan and her colleagues came in, and produced a plan for the consolidation of the terraced fields after a year's work.

If the farmers continue to prioritize tourism and neglect farming, she wonders if the terraced fields can be preserved.

Deputy Director Cao also felt that the project is unprecedented. "While trying to preserve the farmland," he says. "You have to preserve the terraced farming culture as well."

This, says Luo Ming, chief engineer with the Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Center under the Ministry of Land and Resources, is actually "the most creative and brilliant spot of this project."

The nationwide land consolidation program, initiated in the late 1990s, is to "preserve the country's 120 million hectares of farmland," says Luo. "But fundamentally speaking, farming is a culture. You cannot preserve a land without preserving the culture that has been integrated with the land." 

In this sense, she says, Guangxi is leading the country in displaying the essence of land consolidation.

Cai Yunlong, professor of land management from Beijing University, agrees that the project must proceed from preserving a legacy and culture. He suggests that efforts be made to draw local farmers' attention back to the terraced fields. "Terraced farming used to and will continue to be their fundamental means of subsistence," Cai says. "To survive they created the magnificent terraced fields, which are now attracting people from near and far to enjoy. They still benefit from the terraced fields even if their direct income from farming is dwindling. For their sustainability, they can never ignore their tie with the land."

Jeffrey Soule, director of the American Planning Association's outreach and international programs, regards the challenge as "one of heritage preservation in the context of globalization".

Soule says that as the preservation targets not only a scenic attraction but a culture of humanity, a key element to the success of the project is the level of public participation. People have to be clear about who will benefit from the preservation, he says. (Source: China Daily)

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