As dawn breaks on top of a mountain near the China-Vietnam border, hundreds of water-filled rice terraces reveal themselves, clinging to the mountainside in geometric patterns in every direction. The rising sun, reflecting off the water, turns some of the terraces bright shades of orange and gold. Then solitary figures appear, black against the rising sun -- peasants with their water buffaloes hitched to wooden plows.
It's one of the most spectacular sights on earth, and local tourism authorities have capitalized on it by building a series of viewing platforms and a big parking lot. But this morning, three cars are parked there and only six people are on the mountaintop, including one woman, from the region's Hani ethnic minority, selling boiled eggs.
From the Grand Canyon to the Tower of London to Angkor Wat, 878 places around the world have been named World Heritage sites by the United Nations, through its Unesco agency. Each year, the World Heritage Committee names some 20 new sites, whose unparalleled cultural or natural significance makes them "irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration." The designation brings benefits including advice and sometimes funds to help protect the historic, artistic or natural treasures at each site. But fame has its price, and in this case it's the inevitable arrival of tourist crowds, souvenir sellers and exhaust fumes, which can undermine even the most impressive place.
If ever a site deserved World Heritage designation, Yunnan's Hani Rice Terraces would be it. China proposed them for consideration last year, but they haven't been selected yet -- making them a tourist's dream, a majestic setting to view and photograph without a tour bus or trinket seller in sight.
Now I've got to say, this sounds to me like a fascinating a beautiful sight. Not only because of the fascinating geometry of the rice terraces -- like a real-life topo map -- but because it presents a view, to my mind both beautiful and inspiring, of how thousands of human beings have interacted with this area over hundreds of years. These rice terraces are not mere abstract shapes nor are they done for the purpose of artistic expression (though the result is aesthetically attractive). Rather, they represent the collective striving of many individual farmers over many years to provide food for their families. These shapes represent hundreds of years of men and women giving their energy and sweat to provide for their families. And out of it all emerges an order which in a sense expresses the human urge to go out into the world and subdue it in order to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. It is a concretization of the drama of survival -- and a far more attractive one than an overpass or a silicon chip factory.
And yet, much though I would find it fascinating to stand where this picture was taken and look out over the rice terraces, there's something that disturbs me a bit about the idea of preserving this area as a world heritage site. One of the things that is so beautiful about this vista is that it is a living landscape: well kept rice fields, farmers and their water buffalo already at work as the sun rises. And yet, the fact that it is a living landscape means that there are thousands of farmers living at levels barely above subsistence, grinding out a living with primitive technology.
I'm glad that this view is still beautiful, and I don't necessarily like the idea of the overlook being crowded with fast food restaurants and trinket sellers -- and yet the fact is that these farmers' children would be better off in many wells selling trinkets and owning fast food stands than they are now wading through rice fields with water buffalo. And yet, maintaining the view would mean keeping them in the fields while someone else made a better living selling stuff to tourists from the developed world who want to come look at some primitive beauty.
The modern developed world is not necessarily attractive -- though it includes un-thought-of beauties like anti-biotics, hot showers, and houses with a floor rather than dirt -- and there's a certain picturesque quality to a life lived "more in touch with nature." However, being in touch with nature is often a romantic way of describing being in the dirt, and hungry, and prey to sickness and backbreaking work. We should be careful about wanting to see that perpetuated on people who might prefer economic development to an undeniably beautiful view.