A fire in China’s Bulang Mountains in Yunnan province last week has destroyed around 90% of the TianZi Biodiversity Research & Development Center, home to a revolutionary rainforest farming system. More than 3.5 million seedlings, 6 tons of seeds and hundreds of thousands of orchids were wipes out and hundreds of families – who have formed a food community in Slow Food’s Terra Madre network – have lost their livelihoods.
The TianZi site was launched around five years ago by the late German biologist Josef Margraf and his Chinese wife Minguo, who pioneered a “rainforest farming” technique with local communities to recreate a species rich habitat on land that had been previously cleared for a rubber plantation.
“This is a heartbreaking setback for a project of crucial importance to the living heritage of Xishuangbanna region,” said project director Minguo Li-Margraf. “We are deeply distressed at the loss of many years of work, but we must try to start again. It’s too important to give up.”
The project also worked to create income for local small-scale farmers through the cultivation of orchids, tea, honey and other products in the forest. The Mountain Forest Puer Tea food community who grew the unique Pu’Er Tea, a large-leafed tea indigenous to the region, joined Slow Food’s Terra Madre network last year.
“We are deeply concerned for the 586 families that are part of the Terra Madre Mountain Forest Pu’er Tea community, and their farm which was home to many Chinese endemic and rare wild plant species that are constantly threatened by rubber and tea monocultures.” said Slow Food Asia and Oceania project coordinator Carlotta Baitone.
“The destruction caused by the fire certainly represents a severe loss and a defeat in the fight of the community for the preservation of bio-culture, but we are comforted knowing that the community is strong and we will support them in pursuing their efforts to safeguard the region’s biodiversity.”
Pavlos Georgiadis, leader of Slow Food Thrace in Greece, was in the area as part of his doctoral research, and said: “I witnessed the appalling images of the disaster during and after it. More than 30,000 wild tree seedlings were lost, as well as thousands of wild orchid specimens that had been saved from deforested land that was being given over to rubber monocultures.”
As a project designed and implemented with numerous international collaborators, an international delegation of partners, researchers and sponsors who had to make an emergency evacuation of the site are mourning its loss. “Its horrific,” Prof Friedhelm Goeltenboth, of the University of Hohenheim told The Guardian. “This model, which is recognized internationally as one of the most advanced of its type in the world, is now going up in flames.”
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