Resource Management

Conceptual Framework for Key Element Identification in Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (IAHS): Case of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces System in China

  • LI Heyao , 1, 2 ,
  • HE Siyuan 2 ,
  • DING Lubin 1, 2 ,
  • MA Nan 1, 2 ,
  • MIN Qingwen , 1, 2, *
  • 1. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 2. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
*MIN Qingwen, E-mail:

LI Heyao, E-mail:

Received date: 2021-01-26

  Accepted date: 2021-04-06

  Online published: 2021-09-30

Supported by

Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences(XDA23100203)


With the continuous emergence of global development problems, the dynamic conservation and sustainable development of Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (IAHS) have been assigned greater importance. However, due to the complex structure, multi-component, dynamic, and open characteristics of IAHS, there are neglected problems which need to be solved in conservation practice, such as component element ambiguity, obscurity of the conservation redline, etc. This study defined the concept of key elements (KE) of IAHS, put forward a conceptual framework of KE identification, conducted empirical research by taking Honghe County of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces System (HHRTS) as an example and analyzed the level of recognition motivations for different stakeholder groups. The following conclusions were drawn: 1) The KE of HHRTS are grain crops, rice species biodiversity, terrace construction and maintenance technique, Hani traditional festivals, Hani traditional foods, and virgin forest; 2) The reasons behind the KE priorities of farmers, businessmen and tourists were at the micro level, the reasons of officers were at the middle level and the reasons of researchers were at the macro level. The empirical study conducted in HHRTS showed that the proposed conceptual framework could identify KE of IAHS effectively, and provided a theoretical perspective for the structuring of and essential need for IAHS research. Moreover, the KE recognition levels of different stakeholder groups reflected their potential action strategies. We should focus on the coherence of policies and measures in both the microscale and macroscale to balance the diversified demands of stakeholders, and to stimulate their enthusiasm for participation in the conservation in order to improve the management level of IAHS sites.

Cite this article

LI Heyao , HE Siyuan , DING Lubin , MA Nan , MIN Qingwen . Conceptual Framework for Key Element Identification in Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (IAHS): Case of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces System in China[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2021 , 12(4) : 522 -531 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2021.04.010

1 Introduction

The development and popularization of petroleum-based agriculture have caused many negative effects around the globe, such as environmental pollution, rural poverty, ecosystem destruction, and others (Guo et al., 2010; Motiram, 2013; Liu and Li, 2017), which have prompted nations and individuals to reflect on the value of traditional agriculture
(Xie et al., 2011, Zhang et al., 2017a). The farming philosophy of obeying and adapting to nature has played a positive role in coordinating local community livelihoods and ecological protection (He et al., 2020), as well as benefiting sustainable agricultural development (Yan, 2015; Min, 2016a). As an important international program to promote the recognition and conservation of global traditional agricultural systems, the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) initiative was proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) in 2002 (Min et al.,2012; Berweck et al., 2013).
Now spanning more than ten years of academic research and conservation practice, GIAHS has offered solutions to global hot topics (Yuan and Min, 2012; He and Min, 2013; Zhang et al., 2016b), and prompted many countries to establish recognition and conservation systems for agricultural heritage at the national level, such as China-NIAHS, Japan-NIAHS, and KIAHS as well as KIFHS in Korea (Min, 2014; Yang et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2017b), which are collectively known as Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (IAHS). As a novel heritage type, IAHS are social-ecological composite systems with outstanding and distinctive characteristics, such as complex structures, diverse functions, high ecological values, complicated elements, and numerous stakeholders (Jiao et al., 2016; Zhang et al., 2016a). These attributes have led to some prominent problems, particularly in the post-application period of IAHS, such as ambiguity of the component elements, interest imbalances among stakeholders, limited special funds of local governments, etc., in the context of theoretical and empirical practice (Li and Wang, 2012; Berweck et al., 2013; Wang et al., 2016). To solve these problems, researchers have conducted studies on aspects of conservation mechanisms (Min, 2014), ecological compensation (Liu et al., 2014), rural livelihoods (Yang et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2019a), landscape features (Rao et al., 2019), as well as values and characteristics, etc. (Li and He, 2019). However, the structure and components of IAHS have not been clarified by existing studies thus far. As such, it is necessary to propose an analysis framework to develop a better understanding of IAHS as a composite system in a theoretical context, and to try to provide new ideas for optimizing management measures in an empirical context. Under the guidance of this line of thinking, the Key Elements (KE) are of enlightening significance for analyzing the structure and functions of IAHS at the element level and for identifying the most influential element for sustainable heritage management.
In general, KE refers to the decisive factors of things and events in the system. It is a crucial perspective for understanding the complex structure, analyzing multiple functions and proposing sustainable measures in recent years (Denney, 2012; Zhang, 2016; Kang and Liu, 2020). KE has been defined mainly from two perspectives. The first was from the structural perspective, which emphasized indicator features such as “network centrality” (Yang et al., 2010; Kang, 2012; Ma et al., 2013). The other perspective was from the functional perspective, which addressed the recognition of target functions of a system (Jeong and Kim, 1997; Bian and Guo, 2013). Furthermore, identifying the KE of a system can not only simplify the system structure but also provide more accurate guidance in the aspects of system optimization
control (Lu, 2016). There are currently two principal branches for KE identification. The first branch is the identification of key nodes in complex networks by applying methods of node contraction (Tan et al., 2006), node importance evaluation matrix (Zhou et al., 2012), etc., to improve the reliability and resilience. The second branch is the identification of key elements in a specific object system. For instance, researchers have made progress in aspects of the CPN simulation model (Yang et al., 2010), social network analysis (Huang and Xiong, 2010), graph theory and matrix theory (Bian, 2013), and so on. At present, KE-related studies are mainly in the fields of laws, economics, management, and education while there is only limited KE research on heritage conservation and management. Accordingly, the KE method has great potential for exploring complex component elements, analyzing multiple functions, and proposing sustainable administrative measures in the theoretical and empirical fields of IAHS.
Besides, multi-stakeholder participation has proven to be an effective conservation mechanism in sustainable conservation and development practices of IAHS (Bai et al., 2014; Min, 2016b). In general, stakeholders can be divided into three groups according to the degree of their behaviors toward IAHS, which are peripheral stakeholders, strategic stakeholders, and core stakeholders (Mitchell et al., 1997; Bacher et al., 2014; Randle and Hoye, 2016). As indicated through case studies in IAHS sites, researchers have found that there are many different stakeholders in IAHS while the factors affecting the conservation of IAHS are complex (He et al.,2019; Min, 2020). Conflicts in the interests among stakeholders were common since they have different interest demands and action strategies. Therefore, it is important to reveal the impacts of the behavior of different stakeholders on the conservation of IAHS and propose sustainable management policies to balance their interest and to unite the motivations of the stakeholders (Zhao et al., 2015; Cui and Shang, 2020). Consequently, it is beneficial to combine the KE method and stakeholder theory to obtain a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of KE and the multiple values of IAHS as a complicated system.
This paper aimed to explore an appropriate conceptual framework in order to identify the KE from stakeholder theory and to apply the framework in HHRTS as a case study. Focusing on five groups of stakeholders, we analyzed their perceptions on the KE under the five criteria of GIAHS and investigated the reasons for their specific sequencing of the KE. Finally, we discussed the benefits and limitations of the conceptual framework and offered some suggestions on KE management for local governments. In the future, the proposed framework is expected to be applied in the aspects of management, monitoring, and evaluation of IAHS through identifying the key conservation objects and clearly delineating the conservation red line.

2 Methodology

Regardless of the consensus on the general concepts of KE or core elements of IAHS, the number of studies about the elements within IAHS sites has been increasing noticeably in this field since 2015. The element research perspective involves a wide range of realms, including economics, ecology, anthropology, etc. Generally, there are two main research directions. The first direction is concept interpretation of KE. With the elaboration of the unique significance and realistic urgency of KE studies, researchers have proposed the rural households (Zhang et al.,2017c), agro-biodiversity (Liu and Zhang, 2019), and sense of identity (Han et al., 2019) as key elements of IAHS. Literature involving statistical analysis has also presented the palpable gap and strong need for KE studies both in academic and administrative fields (Zhang, 2017a). The other direction is element analysis in case areas. Researchers have analyzed the structure and components of unique IAHS sites and proposed component elements in the aspect of Typology (Li and Tan, 2015; Tian et al., 2016). With the deepening of the research field of KE in IAHS sites, scholars are gradually forming a more consistent understanding that KE has a certain theoretical significance because of its opportune response to the conservation objectives of IAHS.
Although some achievements have been made in the study of KE, there are still some deficiencies to be remedied in the theoretical and practical applications. Specifically, the basic concept of KE remains to be clarified, and the identification method also needs to be studied. Generally, KE has stood for those elements that play important roles in sustaining the integrity of system structure and ensuring the operation of system functions. Based on literature review and field research in several IAHS sites, we proposed the definition of the KE of IAHS, which are the elements that could represent the typical characteristics, affect the diversified functions, maintain the long-term dynamic stability, promote sustainable development, and have prominent central characteristics in the element network of IAHS. Furthermore, considering the peculiarity of IAHS, we filled the academic gap by putting forward a conceptual framework of KE identification based on the perspective of stakeholders, in order to cover the opinions of the different groups of people (Fig. 1).
Fig.1 Conceptual framework of KE identification
In the conceptual framework, KE identification was expressed in the interaction process between stakeholders (A) and component elements (B). The component elements constituted the whole system of HHRTS, and HHRTS provided the necessary production and living space for the stakeholders. During the daily interaction process, different stakeholders would take different action strategies (d) according to their diverse demands (f), during which stakeholders gradually had a sense of the meanings of the elements (a) they got in touch with. With the accumulation of time, stakeholders would get the significance perception (b) of each element according to their individual judgments regarding the value of each element, which could guide them to make significance sequencing (c). In particular, the KE identification process (e) was expressed from importance recognition to sequencing behavior. Moreover, the sequencing result was reflected in the daily action strategies of different stakeholders, and on the contrary, those identified KE would influence and correct their strategies constantly (g) to meet their demands of interests and to coordinate with the interests of others (h). Through the two processes of human-nature interaction and interpersonal interaction, the KE identification results might change over time. However, they should be stable normally, and indicate the most highly treasured elements that represent the development demands of locals and require close attention.
Based on the five criteria of GIAHS proposed by FAO (FAO, 2020), all the component elements of IAHS were divided into five categories: 1) Food and livelihood security; 2) Agricultural biodiversity; 3) Local and traditional knowledge systems; 4) Cultures, value systems, and social organizations; and 5) Landscape and seascape features (Table 1).
Table 1 Component element list of IAHS for KE identification
Survey category Component elements
Food and livelihood
security (A)
·Grain crops
·Economic fruits
·Agricultural products
·Agricultural production organization
Agricultural biodiversity (B) ·Agricultural species biodiversity
·Related species biodiversity
Local and traditional knowledge systems (C) ·Farming technique
·Water resource management technique
·Landscape construction and maintenance
·Tools construction technique
·House building technique
·Characteristic livestock feeding technique
Cultures, value systems, and social organizations (D) ·Traditional folklore
·Traditional values
·Traditional organizations
Landscape and seascape features (E) ·Distinctive landscape elements
In the specific case of the identification process conducted in some IAHS sites, the process could be divided into five steps in practice: 1) Make a list of all component elements of the IAHS site according to Table 1; 2) Determine and classify the stakeholders; 3) Design the questionnaire and interview questions for fieldwork; 4) Identify KE employing the method of collecting sequencing results; and 5) Analyze the corresponding reasons for formulating an effective management strategy.

3 Case study

3.1 Study area

The Honghe Hani Rice Terraces System (HHRTS) is located in the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture in the southeastern part of Yunnan Province (102°27ʹ-103°13ʹE, 22°49ʹ-23°19ʹN), largely distributed in Honghe County, Yuanyang County, Lvchun County, and Jinping County, covering area of about 70000 ha (Fig. 2). HHRTS is of international significance since it was selected as one of the national wetland parks in 2007, designated as GIAHS in 2010, and listed in the catalog of World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 2013 (Li et al.,2014; Yuan et al., 2014; Li et al., 2016). It is a complex and diverse system with many natural and man-made elements, and significant characteristics such as extraordinarily picturesque landscapes, abundant rice varieties, profound multi-ethnic cultural traditions, etc. (Lasanta et al., 2001; Fuller and Min, 2013; Liu et al., 2013). Thus, HHRTS has multiple values transmitted over 1300 years, including economic value, ecological value, aesthetic value, cultural and societal value, and scientific research value (Zhang et al., 2016).
Many studies conducted in HHRTS have explored and indicated the development challenges and solutions, such as the population shortage for farming (Gu et al., 2012), loss of traditional knowledge (Yuan et al., 2014), terraced farmland transition (Tarolli et al., 2014), and conservation mechanisms (Zhang et al., 2016). Nevertheless, few studies have focused thus far on the component elements and KE identification of the IAHS site.
In this study, we selected Baohua Town in Honghe County to conduct a questionnaire and interview survey because the total area of the terraced landscape of Samaba Area is the largest among the ten key protected areas proposed by the People’s Government of Honghe Hani & Yi Autonomous Prefecture in 2014. Meanwhile, the traditional culture of Hani and Yi (two minority nationalities of China) is preserved integrally, which would help us to better understand the representative perspectives of different stakeholders.
Fig. 2 The location of the study area Note: HHRTS is the abbreviation of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces System.

3.2 Data collection

Since this study was originally based on Stakeholder Theory and interested in the component elements and key elements at the system level, the questionnaire survey referred to the relevant studies on stakeholder classification and interactions in HHRTS (Shi and Sun, 2017), and covered five types of stakeholders:
(1) Peasants: Individuals who have been living in rural areas of IAHS sites for a long time, and whose livelihood mainly depends on broad agricultural production industries, including planting, forestry, animal husbandry, sidelines and fishery.
(2) Officials: Individuals who have been directly engaged in heritage management at the levels of province, city, prefecture, county, banner, township as well as village in IAHS sites.
(3) Researchers: Individuals who are or have been engaged in relevant scientific research around IAHS sites.
(4) Businessmen: Individuals who have been engaged in the processing of agricultural products, hotel catering, tourism reception, individual retail, etc., and whose main source of livelihood depends on providing related products and services in IAHS sites.
(5) Tourists: Individuals who come from outside IAHS areas for the purpose of sightseeing and recreation.
The questionnaire also aimed to investigate different stakeholders’ perspectives and sequencing reasons for the KE of HHRTS through analyzing the sequencing in each group. Specifically, the main contents of the questionnaire are: 1) General information on the respondents, including age, level of education, and family composition; 2) KE sequencing based on significance perception in five groups, in which respondents were required to use numbers to express their preferences from “1” to the number of each group, with smaller numbers representing more significant meanings; 3) The reasons for the selected KE.
The questionnaire and interview surveys were conducted in Honghe County in October 2020 with the great assistance of the Hani Terrace World Heritage Administration Bureau of Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture as well as the Hani Terrace Administration Bureau of Honghe County. A total of 110 questionnaires were collected, 102 of which were valid, for an effective rate of 92.73% (Table 2).
Table 2 Sources of samples in the questionnaire survey in Honghe County
Type of
Number of
Number of
valid samples
Peasants 58 52.7 55 53.9
Officials 18 16.4 18 17.7
Researchers 10 9.1 10 9.8
Businessmen 16 14.5 14 13.7
Tourists 8 7.3 5 4.9
Total 110 100 102 100

3.3 Results

3.3.1 Identified KE of HHRTS

Based on Table 1, the component elements of HHRTS were collected by consultation with relevant scholars and local administrators, reorganized by using secondary data in published books, reports, and papers, and used for local stakeholder sequencing (Table 3).
Table 3 Questionnaire design for the KE perception of stakeholders
Survey category Component elements
Food and livelihood
security (A)
·(A1) Grain crops
·(A2) Economic fruits
·(A3) Agricultural products
·(A4) Agricultural production organization
Agricultural biodiversity (B) ·(B1) Rice species biodiversity
·(B2) Vegetable species biodiversity
·(B3) Fruit species biodiversity
·(B4) Animal species biodiversity
·(B5) Botanical species biodiversity
Local and traditional
knowledge systems (C)
·(C1) Terrace construction and maintenance technique
·(C2) Water resource distribution technique
·(C3) Water resource utilization technique
·(C4) Terrace farming technique
·(C5) Farm tools construction technique
·(C6) Other tools construction technique
·(C7) House building technique
·(C8) Buffalo domestication technique
Cultures, value systems and
social organizations (D)
·(D1) Hani traditional festivals
·(D2) Hani traditional foods
·(D3) Hani traditional dance
·(D4) Hani traditional clothes
·(D5) Hani folk music
·(D6) Hani traditional literature
·(D7) Hani patriarchal clan culture
·(D8) Hani religious customs
Landscape and seascape
features (E)
·(E1) Virgin forest
·(E2) Water system
·(E3) Villages
·(E4) Terrace
In the category of food and livelihood security (A), the outstanding significance of grain crops (A1) was approved by 94.54% of peasants, 100% of officials, 100% of researchers, 63.64% of businessmen, and 80% of tourists (Table 3). Moreover, the agricultural products (A3) were selected by the majority of each group consistently, which meant that the different stakeholder groups all shared the common sense of maintaining and protecting the basis of their livelihoods for generations. On the contrary, the economic fruits (A2) and the agricultural production organization (A4) were regarded as two less important elements (Table 4).
Table 4 Sequencing results in the food and livelihood security category by stakeholders
1 A1 (94.54) A1 (100.00) A1(100.00) A1 (63.64) A1 (80.00)
2 A3 (58.18) A3 (66.67) A3 (70.00) A3 (35.71) A3 (80.00)
3 A4 (23.64) A4 (38.89) A4 (70.00) A2 (50.00) A2 (100.00)
4 A2 (45.45) A2 (66.67) A2 (60.00) A4 (64.29) A4 (100.00)
As for the category of agricultural biodiversity (B), the rice species biodiversity (B1) was selected as the key element by all stakeholder groups. Specifically, 90.91% of peasants, 88.89% of officials, 80% of researchers, 78.57% of businessmen, and 60% of tourists voted for B1. For the second most important element in category B, apart from the animal species biodiversity (B4) chosen by researchers, the vegetable species biodiversity (B2) was selected by the other four groups because of its prominent edible and economic values (Table 5).
Table 5 Sequencing results in the agricultural biodiversity category by stakeholders
1 B1 (90.91) B1 (88.89) B1 (80.00) B1 (78.57) B1 (60.00)
2 B2 (100.00) B2 (38.89) B4 (20.00) B2 (50.00) B2 (60.00)
3 B5 (21.82) B4 (33.33) B3 (60.00) B3 (42.86) B5 (60.00)
4 B3 (38.18) B5 (50.00) B5 (60.00) B4 (57.14) B4 (40.00)
5 B4 (23.64) B3 (44.44) B2 (70.00) B5 (50.00) B3 (40.00)
In terms of the category of local and traditional knowledge systems (C), the KE identification results were mainly concentrated on the terrace construction and maintenance technique (C1). However, 64.29% of businessmen believed the water resource distribution technique (C2) to be the most significant form of skill for maintaining HHRTS, which was also approved by 58.18% of peasants as well as 55.56% of officials as their second key element. The water resource distribution technique (C2) and the terrace farming technique (C4) were also regarded as important elements by the majority of stakeholders because they are close to the agricultural production process as well as local livelihoods (Table 6).
Table 6 Sequencing results in the local and traditional knowledge systems category by stakeholders
Businessmen (%) Tourists
1 C1 (45.45) C1 (55.56) C1 (80.00) C2 (64.29) C1 (60.00)
2 C2 (36.36) C2 (61.11) C4 (60.00) C4 (14.29) C7 (40.00)
3 C3 (25.45) C4 (44.44) C2 (60.00) C3 (21.43) C4 (60.00)
4 C4 (36.36) C3 (55.56) C3 (70.00) C1 (50.00) C2 (60.00)
5 C5 (36.36) C5 (61.11) C5 (70.00) C7 (42.86) C3 (80.00)
6 C8 (29.09) C6 (38.89) C7 (70.00) C5 (50.00) C6 (80.00)
7 C7 (40.00) C8 (38.89) C8 (50.00) C6 (42.86) C5 (80.00)
8 C6 (38.18) C7 (44.44) C6 (60.00) C8 (50.00) C8 (100.00)
In the category of cultures, value systems, and social organizations (D), the KE identification results showed a certain degree of relative discrimination among stakeholder groups. While 38.18% of peasants, 60% of researchers, and 64.29% of businessmen chose the Hani traditional foods (D2), the Hani traditional festivals (D1) was regarded as the most influential element by 66.67% of officials and 60% of tourists. Therefore, the identification results for category D were D1 and D2 (Table 7). Moreover, Hani traditional clothes (D4) and Hani folk music (D5) were also given a certain degree of importance because of their close relationships with daily agricultural production scenes and festival customs (Table 7).
Table 7 Sequencing results in the cultures, value systems, and social organizations category by stakeholders
Businessmen (%) Tourists
1 D2 (47.47) D1 (66.67) D2 (60.00) D2 (42.86) D1 (60.00)
2 D1 (38.18) D2 (38.89) D1 (50.00) D1 (57.14) D2 (60.00)
3 D4 (27.27) D8 (11.11) D6 (60.00) D4 (57.14) D4 (80.00)
4 D5 (27.27) D6 (16.67) D4 (80.00) D5 (50.00) D5 (80.00)
5 D3 (23.64) D3 (44.44) D3 (50.00) D3 (57.14) D3 (20.00)
6 D7 (36.36) D4 (16.67) D8 (80.00) D7 (71.43) D7 (60.00)
7 D6 (43.64) D5 (11.11) D7 (80.00) D8 (50.00) D6 (40.00)
8 D8 (34.55) D7 (22.22) D5 (80.00) D6 (57.14) D3 (60.00)
As for the category of Landscape and seascape features (E), the virgin forest (E1) is thought to be a KE by stakeholders living within HHRTS with the common sense of basic ecological logic. However, 60% of tourists sequenced the terrace (E4) in the first place (Table 8). The reason why the sequencing results were remarkably correlated to the region was that the locals shared common knowledge that the virgin forest is the source of all things. The water system is generated by the forests and nourishes the terrace and village afterward. This philosophical wisdom has been inherited by generations for thousands of years and tested by modern ecology theories. By contrast, tourists chose the terrace because they were directly attracted by the terraced landscape for sightseeing.
Table 8 Sequencing results in the landscape and seascape features category by stakeholders
Researchers (%) Business-
men (%)
1 E1 (85.45) E1 (90.00) E1 (90) E1 (57.14) E4 (60.00)
2 E2 (54.55) E2 (55.56) E2 (90) E2 (50.00) E3 (40.00)
3 E4 (32.73) E4 (38.89) E4 (80) E3 (64.29) E1 (60.00)
4 E3 (47.27) E3 (44.44) E3 (80) E4 (71.43) E2 (100.00)

3.3.2 Individualism and collectivism of stakeholder opinions towards KE

With the investigation and qualitative induction by experts, the reasons elaborated above could be sorted into three levels or scales to present different identity characteristics as well as orientations of different stakeholder groups (Table 9). The opinions of peasants and businessmen were chiefly from a personal scale, but they still had a common sense of solidarity as a member of the community. Officials and researchers were accustomed to identifying KE from a broader view of collective interests and public welfare. Tourists generated sequences mainly from personal experiences since they would usually stay only a short time in HHRTS and knew less about HHRTS than the other stakeholders. As such, officials and researchers tended toward collectivism, while peasants, businessmen, and tourists were inclined to take actions from a perspective of individualism.
Table 9 Levels of the reasons for selecting specific KE by different stakeholder groups
Category KE Peasants Officials Researchers Businessmen Tourists
A A1 + ++ +++ + +
B B1 + ++ +++ + +
C C1 + ++ ++ + +
D D1 ++ ++ ++ ++ +
D2 + ++ ++ + +
E E1 ++ ++ +++ ++ +

Note: The symbols are occupied to classify different levels of the collected reasons of stakeholders in each of the groups. For the symbols, “+” stands for reasons at the micro level, such as interests or merits of the individual or family; “++” stands for reasons at the middle level, such as the interests or merits of the village or patriarchal clan; and “+++” stands for reasons at the macro level, such as the interests or merits of the entire system, nation or country.

The different groups of stakeholders often had conflicts of interest because of their diversified demands, which brought risks to the sustainability of KE. Consequently, the survey results provided important implications that should be considered in refining management strategies to balance the demands of stakeholders for the dynamic conservation of IAHS. The tendency toward individualism should receive more attention to more precisely understand the major demands of the interests of specific stakeholders. Then, policies should be formulated to coordinate and guide their demands in combination with the conservation and management objectives of IAHS.

4 Discussion

In response to several theoretical and empirical problems, such as component element ambiguity, interest demand imbalance among stakeholders, and limited special funds of local governments, this study drew from the field of system science, referred to the definition and method of KE (Jeong and Kim, 1997; Denny, 2012), and proposed the definition of KE of IAHS, and a conceptual framework of KE identification. Thus, it fills the current research gap, helps us to understand the structure and functions of IAHS more clearly, and identifies the elements most influential to the sustainability of the whole system. Moreover, in the process of KE identification, there is a need to collect more information from different types of stakeholders to improve the integrity and representativeness of the results because the stability of IAHS component elements is closely related to their daily actions and interactions (Shi and Sun, 2017). Therefore, it is appropriate to combine the KE method and stakeholder theory in proposing the KE identification framework of IAHS. From another point of view, since the proposed framework mainly applied the qualitative research method to conduct data collection and comparative analysis in the case study, the identification process and KE expression could be improved further by means of quantitative methods such as centrality analysis.
Significantly, HHRTS is a kind of typical agricultural area, and agriculture is in essence the pillar of local economic development (Zhang et al., 2019b). Realizing the agricultural production function of HHRTS helps to maintain the sustainable existence and coordination at the system level, which is fully reflected in the identification results. Different groups of stakeholders share a common sense on the utmost significance of those elements related to agricultural production and traditional Hani culture. These elements not only support the livelihoods of locals at the individual level, but they also constitute the sustainability and resilience of HHRTS at the system level, contributing to the living inheritance of the heritage over thousands of years. The identified list of KE is consistent with the existing research results (Liu et al.,2014; Shi and Sun, 2017; Zhang et al., 2017d). Through the case study, the framework is operable and applicable to a certain extent to other IAHS sites apart from HHRTS by adapting the contents of the component element list and determining the relevant groups of stakeholders.
Furthermore, the discrepancies of recognition levels among stakeholders reveal their actual positions in the local community as well as potential action strategies in the daily interaction process. Due to the pressure of livelihoods, individualism is the most direct perspective of peasants and businessmen when determining KE. However, they also have apparent and implicit altruistic behaviors in their daily interactions with other groups of stakeholders and the whole system because of their shared values with the others. On the contrary, component elements are imbued with significant meanings in a broader view, characterized as collectivism, by officials and researchers because of their job characteristics and professional ethics. As for tourists, since their retention time is quite limited and their knowledge about HHRTS is deficient, it is understandable that they are inclined to choose elements that are close to their immediate needs as KE.
Management enlightenment can be drawn from the results of the sequencing of KE and underlying reasoning. Local officials should focus on the demands and interests of peasants and businessmen, and formulate well-directed policies and measures at the KE level to ensure and improve their livelihoods, balance their interests with others, and encourage their participation in the conservation and development of IAHS. In this way, the management goals at the macro level are effectively coordinated with individual needs at the micro level. For example, red rice is a representative crop that was identified as one of the KE of HHRTS. Local governments should make targeted policies and measures to ensure a stable price level of red rice, such as raising the floor price for the purchases, connecting terraces with restaurants and supermarkets to promote grain circulation, encouraging cooperatives to further expand sales channels, and so on. Although different stakeholders have diversified demands, they are all parts of the same interest community. In particular, asthe important participants as well as the ultimate beneficiaries, the beneficial demands of ordinary farmers are often not fully satisfied during the heritage conservation process of KE which indicates an urgent need for effective policy mechanisms to guarantee them. Meanwhile, local officers should play a more active role in guiding salesmen and tourists to fully recognize the key elements and the characteristics of IAHS. Researchers should build more interactive relationships with farmers, salesmen and tourists.
Therefore, the line of thinking on policymaking should be to look for win-win points instead of trying to solve problems group-by-group. Additionally, targeted policies and measures not only balance the interests of various stakeholders but also allocate the management resources directly to the KE themselves, accomplishing the maximum administrative efficiency in the conservation and development of IAHS.
In the future, the identification and management of KE will serve as an effective method to be applied in other IAHS sites to offer a new approach for the monitoring and evaluation of IAHS, to further enhance the scientific level of management, and to enrich the connotation of multi-stakeholder participation mechanisms in the context of IAHS conservation.

5 Conclusions

This study proposes the scientific conceptual framework for KE identification of IAHS in line with the five criteria of GIAHS and the principles of a multi-stakeholder participation mechanism. The component element list of IAHS consists of five categories and can be adjusted according to the specific situation of any IAHS site. The KE identification results of HHRTS are grain crops, rice species biodiversity, terrace construction and maintenance technique, Hani traditional festivals, Hani traditional foods, and virgin forest. The application of this framework in HHRTS proves that it can identify the KE of IAHS effectively, so that it provides a clear and suggestive reference for conservation and management. Moreover, different stakeholder groups originally have different reasons motivating their sequencing of the KE, which can be classified into the micro, middle, and macro levels. These levels show their actual positions in the community, and the potential strategies they tend to adopt in their daily interaction process with the component elements. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the coherence of policies and measures at the micro scale and the macro scale to achieve a better balance among the diversified demands of different stakeholders and to stimulate their enthusiasm for participating in the conservation of IAHS.
We would like to express our sincere thanks to the Hani Terrace World Heritage Administration Bureau of Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, and the Hani Terrace Administration Bureau of Honghe County for their support and collaboration throughout this study. Moreover, we would like to especially thank Prof. Zhang Hongzhen, Mrs. Zhang Yu, and Mr. Zhang Weiyun for their professional help during the fieldwork.


We would like to express our sincere thanks to the Hani Terrace World Heritage Administration Bureau of Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, and the Hani Terrace Administration Bureau of Honghe County for their support and collaboration throughout this study. Moreover, we would like to especially thank Prof. Zhang Hongzhen, Mrs. Zhang Yu, and Mr. Zhang Weiyun for their professional help during the fieldwork.
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