Dams and Landslides

Environmentalist protects threatened watersheds

China Daily
October 2, 2000

Yu Xiaogang has been honoured for ‘his efforts at helping communities at Lashi Lake and other watershed regions [in Yunnan] to gain more say in the decision-making process,’ China Daily writes.

The Yulong (Jade Dragon) Snow Mountains are one of the most attractive sites for tourists heading for Lijiang in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province.

But the growth in tourism has brought an unexpected side effect. Roars of motor vehicles and sounds of tourists have driven many bears that used to live in the Yulong Snow Mountains deep into the mountains surrounding Lashi Lake, which is about 20 kilometres from the old town of Lijiang.

As their habitat becomes smaller and food more scarce, the bears have begun to affect the lives of the local Yi people. Once, the bears ravaged some 100 domestic goats.

The Yi people used to take great pride in bear hunting. But instead of going after the bears, villagers sat down this time to discuss the situation with local officials. The bears are under State protection and Lashi Lake has become a nature reserve. Fishing and hunting were banned in the reserve, starting in 1998.

The local government couldn’t afford compensation. But negotiations resulted in the government forking out 10,000 yuan (US$1,233) to build a pipeline network to solve the drinking water shortage for both villagers and livestock.

Meanwhile the locals decided that nobody, whether villagers or outsiders, should hunt the bears.

Each year, more than 40 goats are eaten by the bears, but locals say the existence of the bears is a result of their protection effort and the bears do not pose great harm to them.

“As the local people were active in making the decision, they were eager to carry it through,” said Yu Xiaogang, director of Green Watershed, an environmental non-governmental organization based in Kunming of Yunnan.

Public voices heard

But things were quite different in 1998, when Yu was carrying out surveys for his doctoral thesis and came to Lashi Lake. He found the locals were hunting wild birds and fishing at night.

In the winter, the fish grow fat and fetched good prices at Lijiang. Traditionally, the local people, mainly of Naxi and Yi minorities, went fishing in the winter.

The area is also an important winter ground for well over 100,000 migratory birds of 165 species such as the black-necked crane, bar-headed goose and ruddy shelduck.

In 1998, the Yunnan provincial government set up the Lijiang Lashi Lake Plateau Wetland Nature Reserve to preserve the wetland ecosystem.

But the 65-square-kilometre reserve is still home to some 300,000 people.

Winter fishing was forbidden to guarantee a food source for migratory birds. Instead, fishing in spring was allowed. But another problem soon appeared: Although the birds have left, spring is a season for the fish to breed.

To aggravate the problem, a project completed in 1998 directed water from the lake to the old town and the new urban centre of Lijiang. The dam inundated local farming land. And the small subsidy wasn’t enough to provide a new means of earning a living.

“The area faced the typical problems posed by watershed’s development in the country,” Yu said. The interests of the upper stream communities, comprised mostly of farmers, were sacrificed for the economic gains of downstream urban centres.

Yu said the decision-making process concerning dam constructions or nature reserve establishments had not included listening to the local people’s voices. Feasibility studies did not include analyzing the effect of the constructions upon the lives of the local people, the ecology and environment.

In 2000, the Green Watershed, also known as the Participatory Watershed Management Research and Promotion Centre, began to work with the local government and residents in seeking sustainable development for Lashi Lake.

The Lashi Lake Region Management Committee was set up with government and village committee representatives, as well as individual villagers. Through meetings and written forms, local residents were included in the decision-making process and helped gain the capacity to make their own decisions on local development.

Two years later, the ban on winter fishing was lifted and the fishery resource has slowly recovered. Then in 2003, when a new project to direct water was proposed, the local government turned it down after the residents voiced strongly their serious concerns.

The Lashi Lake project is acclaimed as one of the top 10 sustainable development projects in the country.

“There are several kinds of involvement for the local residents,” Yu explained. “When they only contribute labour, they feel they have little to do with the projects. But when they are engaged intelligently, they will abide by the final decision even though they are not paid.”

Because of his efforts at helping communities at Lashi Lake and other watershed regions in the province to gain more say in the decision-making process, Yu was among six international environmentalists to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize yesterday in San Francisco, California.

Founded by Richard N. Goldman in 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize is the world’s largest prize programme honouring grass-roots environmentalists.

“Dr Yu is committed to working with the disadvantaged, and has given them a voice in the development process. His approach will help China achieve economic progress without sacrificing its natural resources or people,” said Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, one of the first thinktanks to focus on the global environmental situation who nominated Yu for the prize.

Founded in 1974 by Lester Brown as an independent research organization, Worldwatch offers discussion of environmental and social issues by analyzing them from a global and interdisciplinary perspective.

Optimistic man

Yu was born in Beijing but moved to Yunnan when very young with his parents, who are senior journalists with the Xinhua News Agency.

The years of living in Yunnan left him not only with a light accent and deep sun tan, but also a passionate love for the province, home to 25 minorities each with a population of more than 5,000.

Although he majored in Chinese literature history at Yunnan University, Yu’s work in the Ethnology Institute under the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in the late 1980s took him to many minority regions.

“Many of these regions have become nature reserves thanks to the local residents’ tradition of preserving the ecosystems,” Yu told China Daily on the eve of his departure to the United States. On the contrary, many better-developed areas have depleted the ecological resources.

Yu was puzzled by his negative findings when chance brought him to the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand in 1991. During his 10 years of shuffling between Southeast Asian countries and Southwest China, he completed master’s and doctoral degrees in natural resource and watershed management and planning.

“The 10 years were decisive for the direction of my career,” said Yu. “My studies showed that the minorities’ traditional cultures could be an alternative of our development and conservation. The diversities of biology and culture are equally important.”

When asked how he plans to spend the US$125,000 awarded by the Goldman prize, Yu said he would try to find an appropriate way to face the risks brought by his work.

Among the eight staff at Green Watershed, there are three retirees, one volunteer and four formal staff members.

They often drive along roads built on cliffs threatened by constant landslides. When there’s no road, Yu and his colleagues hang on cables suspended on mountains and throw themselves across the torrential rivers. If they enter the heart of nature reserves, where it is easy to get lost and the hope of rescue is scarce.

A source of comfort, or satisfaction, for his work, has been the gratitude and friendship with the local residents he has helped.

In 2002, Yu and his colleagues carried out a survey at the Manwan Hydropower Station whose first phase was completed in 1993 in the middle reaches of the Lancang River.

His report on the social impact of the Manwan Dam was made known to former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who ordered the local government to tackle the poverty issue of the local people as soon as possible.

As a result, the Yunnan government allocated 70 million yuan (US$8.6 million) in additional resettlement funds to help the people.

“The local people continue to call me even today to express their gratitude and invite me to their new homes,” said Yu.

In 2002, Yu attended the International Conference on the Conservation and Management of Lakes in Japan. He was deeply impressed by the passion of the local people for Biwa Lake, where the meeting was held.

Local monks joined protests when the lake suffered from pollution from local industries. A musician composed a song for the lake and taught children to sing it. An American oil painter also went to the conference, demonstrating the paintings he did over the three decades for the lake.

“Such passion was rare in China,” said Yu. “That is why we promote the comprehensive watershed management on both governmental and grass-roots levels so that local communities can participate in the watershed management more effectively.”

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