Lily Zeng, PhD

2014 TRI Fellow in China

Dai holy hills: sanctuaries of biodiversity in Xishuangbanna, SW China

Holy hills, sacred forests protected by indigenous Dai people, have garnered great interest for conservation potential in Xishuangbanna – a prefecture spanning two biodiversity hotspots, as well as containing the world’s northernmost tropical rainforest and China’s richest biodiversity.

 Xishuangbanna’s rainforests are disappearing at alarming rates due to the proliferation of rubber plantations, leading to significant losses of habitat for many species. Outside state-owned nature reserves, holy hills are often the only remaining rainforest fragments, and they have been documented to contain endangered species and rare ecosystems. However, holy hills are contested grounds for the well-being of Dai communities: maintaining these sacred forests for appeasing ancestral spirits is understood in Dai culture as necessary for the individual and community health, while converting holy hills for increased rubber production provides material security and a means for improving Dai social value during a post-Mao era when they are responsible for their own development.

Focusing on changing roles of holy hills among indigenous Dai communities in Xishuangbanna, this research relies on ethnographic and ecological data to ask: 1) How do changes in Dai ethnic identity and their connection with sacred nature influence land use practices? 2) What are the ecological consequences of this evolving relationship?