These images illustrate some key issues and trends in interior China where I have done research.
Click on an image to go to a slide show with full captions.
The complex mosaic of land covers–villages, forests, cornfields, tree plantations, roads, and the river running through it all.
In the summer, the waters of the Lancang (known outside China as the Mekong) churn with silt washed down by monsoon rains. In winter, it flows a serene opal. Several places where I do research stand beside this river. As dam cascades are completed, its churning will slow.
The Returning Farmland to Forest Program is literally etched into the landscape. One end of every bridge bears a reminder that you are in an area where RFFP has been implemented.
The first wave of walnut planting came under the Returning Farmland to Forest Program, with the government paying farmers to retire farmland and plant trees to control erosion in areas like this. The use of walnuts highlights how the Chinese government has tried to meet both environmental and socioeconomic goals in the face of the difficult trade-offs those goals present.
Walnuts are transforming agricultural landscapes.
But some walnut plantings haven’t turned out so well.
With a stick, one of us knocks ripe walnuts down. The rest gather fallen nuts, then knock the fruity skins off. Great ancient walnut trees mark the area. In recent years, government programs have planted walnuts on thousands of hectares of cropland, transforming the landscape. Locally, walnuts have become a source of cash more than oil and protein.
A community leader guides a team of student research assistants, measuring trees in community forests and plantations.
The fruit of the lacquer tree, cultivated within upland forests, offers another source of cash to those who are ready for a climb.
Far above the river, people clear fern thickets to plant costus root and runner beans. As roads have opened the way to market, high-elevation cash crops have inverted the usual concentration of commercial agriculture in valleys, enriching people in the highest-up villages.
Although hybrid maize has taken over most fields, residents still grow local landraces in small patches. Each one has a flavor and consistency suited for particular dishes.
Rice harvests can still be seen in communities whose members keep up terrace irrigation systems, though farmers increasingly turn to other crops to sell for cash, then buy rice.
A hired worker tosses turnips onto a drying rack. In the winter, it will be fodder for yaks.
A middleman weighs matsutake mushrooms. A delicacy in Japan, the matsutake brought northwest Yunnan back into global trade circuits. Where it can be found, people camp all summer to gather it, while middlemen hurry to transport acceptable specimens overseas within days.
In one of those communities, residents take newly delivered bricks to work on a house addition.
Government programs have brought new roofs and solar lights and water heaters to communities with activist leaders.
Mao and other figures, political and traditional, remain present across rural China, often gracing parlors like this one.
Kawakarpo, the highest peak in Yunnan Province, has for centuries called to itself pilgrims from across the plateau, who take an arduous two-week trek around the mountain.
Butter tea–butter, bitter brick tea, and salt– is a staple of diets and identities across the Tibetan plateau. It provides ample nutrition for days on the farm or pasture, or for the two-week journey around the mountain.
Pilgrims increasingly share the route with tourists and the local residents who serve as guides and porters. Like mushrooms and cash crops, tourism has transformed the communities it touches.
Marvelous creatures live in and outside these national parks.
Tourism planners size up a community. Charged with turning places into high-netting attractions, they visit in teams to take the lay of the land and reimagine places as attractions.
Tourism has also brought residents opportunities to carry passengers between tourism sites. These drivers travel the region, transporting not only people but news and opinions.
One after one, places where communities had organized tourism services convert to higher-volume tourism operations to service the ever-growing stream of people who wish to leave cities and see scenery and presentations of rural life and ethnic identity.
Across Northwest Yunnan you can see evidence of China’s investments in wind energy.
Not a tourist attraction nor a time-honored tradition, bullfighting festivals have spread across the region as newly rich entrepreneurs have hired residents to raise fighting bulls on mountain pastures with the milk cows. People come from miles around to watch the tournaments.
Back in the city, orderly fences are a sign of civilization.
A firecracker explodes at a New Year celebration.