Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Transformations of Indigenous Identity and Changing Meanings of Sacred Nature in Xishuangbanna, China
by Zeng, Lily, Ph.D., Yale University, 2018, 336; 13851934
Abstract (Summary)

Sacred groves (forests with religious significance) are revered and protected in many, often indigenous, cultures around the world. Since the 1980s, sacred groves have received increasing attention from scientists and environmental advocates for their conservation potential. Viewed as a means for protecting dwindling tropical rain forests, sacred groves also seem to hold great potential for supporting social benefits, given that they are often maintained by indigenous peoples through what is generally understood as traditional ecological knowledge. Efforts to promote sacred groves thus promise to protect ecosystems while allowing for human management, which some environmental scientists see as an alternative to "fortress conservation" approaches that have largely dominated protected area management. Yet scholars have observed that the recent promotion of sacred groves among conservationists nevertheless tends to assume the preservation of a static brand of indigenous culture. In reality, indigenous peoples have long negotiated the meanings of sacred nature and maintenance of sacred groves with other forms of land use shaped by state and market pressures.

Ethnic identity and sacred nature deserve ongoing discussion in conservation because they provide frameworks for negotiating people-environment interactions, the results of which produce tangible ecological and political consequences. During my fieldwork in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China, I noticed that cultural identity for indigenous (or in China, "ethnic minority") Dai people is closely tied to protecting ancestral spirits in sacred groves called "Holy Hills." Conservationists are interested in Holy Hills because they have been documented to contain rare species and ecosystems underrepresented in nature reserves. Moreover, Xishuangbanna contains the world's northernmost tropical rain forest and China's richest biodiversity, much of which is threatened by expanding rubber monoculture managed in both state-owned plantations and Dai smallholdings. Concurrently, Dai people are increasingly being portrayed as the vulnerable and often unreliable protectors of disappearing but crucial knowledge for harmonious people-nature relationships. Thus, in addition to the attention they receive from international conservationists, Holy Hills and Dai people have become objects of interest to the Chinese state as part of national policies for environmental protection and sustainable development.

To inform well-intentioned but sometimes harmful conservation and development efforts, this dissertation seeks to understand when, how, or if community and conservation goals are aligned for protecting sacred groves; to confront problematic narratives that have plagued this research area; and to view sacred groves and their associated communities in context of their dynamic ecology, political history, and ongoing relationships with hegemonic powers. Chapter 1 provides theoretical and contextual background to frame this research. Analyses of plant diversity and regeneration in Chapter 2 highlight the dynamic reality of sacred grove forest ecology, much of which is obfuscated in academic literature and conservation practice by narratives of purity and timelessness surrounding nature and culture detailed in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 explores the relationship between Dai identity and the Chinese state in the context of environmental concerns and development goals under new sustainable development policies. Whereas Chapter 3 focuses on deconstructing the boundaries associated with assumptions of purity and timelessness embedded in environmentalist portrayals of Dai culture and identity, Chapter 4 redirects our attention away from the edges and towards the idea of centers. In thinking of culture and identity as center-oriented instead of bounded entities, we become less concerned about policing the edges of purity and authenticity, and instead more concerned with what makes of the heart of a culture vibrant. Chapter 5 builds on these arguments to explore the policing of cultural purity through nostalgia, demands on Dai communities to fit the ever-shifting role of the ideal development object, and potential for and barriers to collaboration given differences in nostalgia visions and development objectives. Chapter 6 summarizes these ideas and suggests directions for future inquiry.

Holy Hills and Dai communities, like many sacred groves and indigenous groups around the world, are connected through not only spirituality, memories, and lifeways, but also the ways in which they are misunderstood by outsiders. Through botanical surveys and interlocutors, I show how static, pure, and nostalgic misperceptions of nature and culture are valuable to the state, conservationists, developers, and other outside powers as tools of governance and control under the guise of protecting the environment and traditional cultures. Thus, this dissertation questions and reframes conventional conservation science and development orthodoxy surrounding sacred groves and indigenous peoples. An accurate and nuanced understanding of dynamic people-nature and political relationships is crucial to inform effective conservation policy that can support both conservation and local agency for cultural self-determination, which is an ongoing struggle in conservation projects worldwide.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Dove, Michael R., Peters, Charles M.
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-B 80/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Ecology, Environmental Studies
Keywords: Conservation and Development, Indigenous Peoples, Land Use, Political Ecology, Sacred Groves, Xishuangbanna
Publication Number: 13851934
ISBN: 978-0-438-98361-8
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