Lahu - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Probably most Lahu are still predominantly swidden farmers, cultivating dry rice as a staple, corn for their pigs, and chilies, without which no Lahu meal is considered edible. They interplant leafy and root vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, and gourds with the major crops. Principal cash crops include chilies, cotton, tea, and opium poppy. Several traditionally swidden-based communities, especially in Yunnan, also have irrigated-rice lands in the foothills. Among the Sinicized northeastern Lahu, irrigated-rice farming is the mainstay, supplemented by fruit-tree silviculture, vegetable gardening, and tea cultivation. Yunnan's Kosung combine the gathering of forest products (roots, stems, leaves, and fruits) and hunting (deer, wild pigs, bears, wild cats, pangolins, and porcupines) with a rough form of swidden farming, mostly of maize but also a little dry rice. Vietnam's Co Sung have only recently taken up dry-rice swidden farming, in imitation of their Phunoi and Hani neighbors; before this they were exclusively hunter-gatherers of the forests, subsisting primarily on wild taro. Trade and barter of hill produce, both cultigens and natural, with neighboring upland and valley peoples, has long been an integral part of Lahu village life. Most Lahu farmers are familiar with the use of money, with lowland markets, and with itinerant peddlers. Some Lahu villages boast their own multipurpose provision stores, often operated by a resident Han Chinese merchant who has taken a Lahu wife.

Pigs are the most important domesticated animals, since no major festival is complete without pork. Lahu communities with irrigated-rice fields keep cattle and buffalo as draft animals. Swiddening communities sometimes keep them as capital investment, offering these animals for seasonal hire to irrigated-rice-farming lowlanders, or for sale as meat. Lahu rarely eat beef and generally abhor animals' milk. Ponies and mules are valuable pack animals, but seldom ridden. Chickens are a ubiquitous feature of Lahu villages and are frequently sacrificed. Ducks and geese also may be reared. Dogs are kept principally as guard animals; cats are less common.

Industrial Arts. Most Lahu villages boast at least one blacksmith, who forges knives, hoes, sickles, ax heads, dibble blades, opium-tapping knives, etc., from scrap iron obtained in the lowlands. Blacksmiths are usually part-time specialists, receiving payment in kind or in labor in their fields. Women spin cotton and weave cloth for clothing and shoulder bags.

Division of Labor. Division of labor is limited and based on gender and age. Men alone are the hunters and undertake the heaviest agricultural tasks. Apart from this, men, women, and children from quite tender ages cooperate in all agricultural activities. Women take major responsibility for domestic chores, collecting water and caring for the pigs and fowl. Men mostly take care of the larger animals. Men and women share gathering activities as well as cutting and collecting firewood.

Land Tenure. Among swidden communities, individual households have usufruct rights over their swiddens, and the village headman has final say in land disputes. Rights over irrigated rice fields, by contrast, are individual, permanent, and inheritable.

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