To many in the Global North, the concept of rewilding Nature is a noble cause, a necessary and long-awaited counter-balance to the impact of two centuries of industrialization and development. But when demarcated national parks and protected forests overlap with traditional lands of Indigenous peoples, conserving endemic flora and fauna can come at the cost of ancient customs and cultural morês.
In the fifth episode of Zhao Rongjie’s ethnographic docuseries Seeds & Seeds, the conflict between tradition and modernity plays out once again in the highlands of Yunnan Province. The director brings us to Chihengdi Village located in the heart of the Three Parallel Rivers (Salween, Mekong, Yangtze) Protected Area, an isolated pocket of rich biodiversity in southwest China. Only a few generations ago, the Lisu lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle in Gaoligong Mountains, hunting and gathering according to the seasons. As families settled into permanent villages on the promontories above the Nujiang (Salween) gorge, they turned to subsistence farming and began cultivating small tracts of arable land. In recent years, the construction of government roads and unchecked logging stripped the land of its root systems and left Lisu communities at risk of mudslides.
The tenuous economic and environmental conditions in the Nujiang region prompted the government in Beijing to initiate efforts to stimulate local industry while preserving the critical wild lands. This led to the relocation of Lisu families from their old mountain hamlets to newly constructed riverside villages en masse. Today, no longer are men permitted to hunt in the nearby forests with bows and arrows; instead they stage shooting competitions in the village using standard bulls-eyes. The 150 year-old cathedrals have also been abandoned. The church remains the centre of communal life—where locals practice an old form of Catholicism infused with animism—but no longer do the spirits dwell in their villages and forests.
During a recent conversation, Rongjie revealed that Chihengdi was the hardest place to film during her six months of travels. It wasn’t the remoteness, but rather the fragility of cultural survival and the precarity of hope that permeated the community. It is for that reason she considers this episode to be perhaps the most meaningful included in the Seeds & Seeds docuseries.