Building communities and saving the environment

Local knowledge is helping conservationists protect the fragile ecology of northwest China’s grasslands. Feng Yongfeng reports from the village of Cuochi on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.

On July 18, the herders of Cuochi village in northwest China’s Qinghai province launched the “Ecological Culture Festival”. At the same time, Wang Dajun, a professor at the Peking University School of Bioscience, made a speech in Bejiing to the Green Journalists Salon (founded by Wang Yongchen and Zhang Kejia) where he described the charms of Cuochi, its joy and its fears.

Cuochi lies at the centre of a wild animal reserve in the Three River Source Nature Reserve, which covers an area of 2,124.5 square kilometers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, at an average elevation of 4,200 metres above sea level. Its highest point is 4,800 metres, and Cuochi is one of the highest herding villages in China.

The first-time visitor to Cuochi will be struck by its peaceful air and the sense that the village is removed from the stresses of everyday life. The scenery is picturesque, its people are kind and welcoming. However, visit more often and it becomes apparent what huge changes are taking place. Roads have been built, cutting the journey from Golmud to Cuochi from three or four days to a half-day. The villagers now ride motorbikes instead of horses. Some own digital cameras and similar electrical devices, which they recharge at a new, solar-powered electricity point.

Quick, convenient travel and the exchange of products and information have given the villagers modern comforts. But there have also been negative consequences. Cuochi – like many places in China – once prided itself on the harmony it achieved between people, and between people and the environment; a harmony that has gradually been disappearing. One example is to be seen in the deterioration of Cuochi’s grasslands. However, the village has started to come up with its own ways of reversing this trend.

Haxi Zhaxiduojie, known to locals as “Zhaduo”, is deputy secretary of the local environmental protection committee. He won an award this year from China Central Television for his work improving environmental protection and helping community cohesion. His work is popularly called “community management”, and Cuochi Village has been its main testing-ground.

Under the community management scheme, villagers were mobilised to study the environment – its recurring natural phenomena, flora, fauna and geography – at the same time as they tend to their cows and goats. Zhaduo believes that environmental protection is ultimately a question of community cohesion, of turning selfishness into public-mindedness. Some people think this can only follow once people have become rich. There are many places in China where the attitude to environmental protection is “pollute first, clean up later”. But as the saying goes, we should not wait until the patient is near death before administering the cure; better to help the patient stay fit in the first place. “People are always saying that we need money before we can start conserving the environment,” says Zhaduo. “But money does not bring wisdom, or a sense of the public good; sometimes it can even erode these.”

Lü Zhi, the head of the China office for Conservation International and a professor of conservation biology at Peking University, leads a team that has strengthened Cuochi’s research capabilities. Lu and Wang Dajun help villagers to design experiments, devise methodologies and analyse their results. Says Wang: “The herders are highly sensitive to their environment; they have accumulated far more knowledge than us about the environment over the years. Our research is aimed at mobilising and building on this knowledge.”

“In Qinghai today,” says Wang, “pikas are being killed in huge numbers. Cuochi is the only area that does not kill pikas, because they discovered that grassland deterioration is not caused by the pika; the animals only appear where the grassland is already degraded. It’s the same with marmots. Marmots are valuable these days; people come from outside to hunt and kill them indiscriminately. But like pikas, they are an important part of the ecosystem on the plateau. If numbers decline, how will the wolves, brown bears and birds of prey survive? If they are all killed, will the grassland ever be able to recover? In many areas, parts of the grassland are now being sectioned off for protection, and this is very popular with the herders. However, we are trying to remind them that carving up the grasslands, which are supposed to be interconnected, is not going to be a sustainable option.”

This research is also work for the public good, and this is why it can become a new force for community cohesion. Zhaduo, Lü and their colleagues are looking for ways to get villagers interested in research and public works. They hope that a greater appreciation of the relationships between people and nature will help them withstand the negative effects that an invasion of commercial products brings. “People aren’t afraid of transport links and material goods,” says Lü. “What they’re afraid of are the effects these things can have on people and nature. Community management, and the research that goes along with it, can help foster a spirit of public works, and help to slow down or prevent community breakdown.”

With this in mind, the Ecological Culture Festival hopes to help prevent the loss of the area’s unique charms, while creating a sense of community belonging. For almost 10 days, the village became a site of constant activity, from performances of local songs, dances and storytelling, to lessons on recognising flora and fauna, and a photography competition.

Zhaduo says that the festival fits in with elements of Tibetan tradition. It ensures the continuation of local traditions, while adding to environmental ideas. Environmental films, costume performances and horse-racing all add to the experience. Together, the activities hope to foster a positive spirit among the villagers, awakening an enthusiasm to take part in conservation work.

Conservation International sees the festival an important part of training for its workers, encouraging them to put their environmental knowledge into practice, particularly with regard to the environment of the plateau. Its staff can learn a lot about community conservation from the herders. Sun Shan, director of the Conservation International project, says that the festival stirs up feelings of happiness, mixed with concern about the future. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s us helping them, or them helping us,” says Sun. “Maybe we’re all just working to save ourselves”.

Yongfeng Feng is a Beijing-based environmental journalist

All pictures courtesy of Conservation International