The Agroecosystem of the Lisu
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Lisu life must be understood in the context of the physical environment inwhich the people lived. The Lisu, like many other people who live in themountains of Southeast Asia, practiced a form of farming called swiddeningor shifting cultivation. Swiddening uses little in the way of tools or capital inputs. Nutrient inputs come from the forest itself.Household heads selected fields on the basis of soil and vegetation qualitiesas well as the direction of slope, to ensure sufficient sunlight and rainfall.At the end of the dry cool winter, in March, Lisu families cut down thetrees and brush and left it to dry through the hot season in April. The headof the household made offerings to local spirits of the land, stream, and forestto placate offended spirits who affected the productivity of the field. Burning and then planting occurred in April. Often, villageelders regulated the burning of the swidden fields to ensure that winds didnot cause uncontrolled fires. While swiddening sounds destructive, it is in fact an ecologically sustainablemethod of farming, as long as population densityremains low to avoid overuse of thin mountain soils. Organic matterbreaks down quickly in the heat and moisture of the tropics; the heavy rainsquickly leach nutrients away from the top soil, making it unavailable forcrops; soil is easily washed away on mountain slopes. Trees bring those nutrientsback up into their trunks, branches, and leaves. Cutting and burningthe trees release the nutrients in the ash, thus fertilizing the fields. The firealso destroys weed plants and seeds, with the result that the crops plantedin the ash-fertilized field do not have to compete with weeds for a year ortwo; in fact, after two to three years when weeding became too much workfor the women, the field is abandoned to grow back into forest. This is avery long fallow system; fields were reused every twenty years or so. Themountain minority peoples who practice swiddening are often labeled “nomadic”because they moved on a regular basis to find forested areas suitablefor swiddening. Lisu, Hmong, and other opium growers tended not to returnto a site—and have been labeled “pioneer” swiddeners. Before the late1970s, a village rarely existed for more than ten years (Dessaint 1972). Thissubsistence-oriented agricultural system generally did not produce a surplus.Similarly, land was claimed by labor, not owned. While people maintainedrights of first refusal over land they had once cropped, they did notown it; land could not be accumulated or inherited. Technology was simple(digging sticks, hoes, machetes; seed stock locally propagated), within thereach of all, and the main input to agriculture was labor. Households ownedthe labor and the crops produced. No one was dependent on anyone else toget access to the means of production—land—to feed themselves and theirfamily. This was an egalitarian social system. As Lisu repeatedly told me,“You work, you eat; you don’t work, you don’t eat.” For young people, this systemwas highly significant. Their energy and their ability to labor meant thatall they really needed to make a start for themselves in life was a machete,willingness, a spouse, and an open piece of land—and there was plenty ofland.The profound egalitarianism of this system was heightened by the plantingof opium poppy. Opium had been introduced as a cash crop to northern mainland Southeast Asia by the 1820s. While the opium trade was oncewidely believed to have been forced on the Chinese people, in fact peasantand tribal farmers in the far southwest of China had embraced this profitablecrop well before the First Opium War (1832–1849). Opium was the perfect cash crop for independent small-scale farmersbecause the poppy could grow in marginal environments; opium wasstorable, and lightweight; and there was always a market for the product.82в•… /в•… Kathleen GilloglyOpium gave people movable wealth, providing a small but reliable incomefor upland farmers. It allowed people to weather periods of scarcity.Lisu could save the opium or save the profits from opium as silver—silvermade into heavy necklaces or decorative bullet-shaped pendants sewn onthe clothing of young people and displayed at New Year. Opium broughteconomic wealth and stability to Lisu families by tying them into regionaland global markets.This new source of wealth and economic stability had consequences forLisu populations and their marriage practices. The main form of display ofwealth for Lisu is payment of bridewealth, in which a groom’s family pays asubstantial amount of valuables to the bride’s family to claim her productivelabor and the children she will bear in the marriage. Bridewealth serves asa marker of their own status, and establishes an alliance with their in-laws,the bride’s family. Wealth display also occurs in the marriage feasts. Historically,with access to greater (relative) wealth from opium, earlier marriagebecame possible because it was easier to accrue the bridewealth silver. Asa result of the introduction of opium as a cash crop, there appears to havebeen a population increase (earlier marriage led to more babies; a better subsistencebase meant greater likelihood of children reaching adulthood). Thisappears to have fueled the significant population movement of Lisu and relatedgroups southward from Yunnan (China) into Burma and Thailand bythe late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In practical, everyday terms, opium funded the autonomy of individualhouseholds. The cost of bridewealth might otherwise have meant that boyswere completely dependent on their parents to fund their marriages. Butyoung people started their own fields to help fund their own marriages. Insome cases, girls helped their boyfriends accumulate the silver needed forthe boys to pay for the girl’s bridewealth. After marriage, young coupleswere not dependent on their parents for land or capital. All a young coupleneeded to do was to open a new field, planting rice and corn as food cropsand opium as a cash crop, to become a free and autonomous household (usuallywithin two or three years after marriage; they lived with parents untilthen). Even young families with several small children (consumers) and onlytwo working adults (producers)—usually the poorer type of household—compensated by hiring laborers from neighboring ethnic groups to weedopium fields. Young couples also supplemented their household livelihoodby using the forest: they kept livestock that grazed in the forest; they huntedwild pig and birds; and women collected firewood and vegetables. As a result,young couples were able to become independent from their parentsvery quickly after marriage. These factors counteracted the relations of debtand dependency that might otherwise have existed between a young coupleand their parents. We can see this in that lineages did not reside together.1In the days of the opium economy, when villages broke up and people migratedin search of better land, young couples were as likely to go with the bride’s parents as with the groom’s, or to go with a group of siblings (especiallysisters) and cousins, or an aunt and uncle, or even an ally or patronrather than their lineal kin. Young couples were independent of lineage kinship obligations.

 

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