In Focus, November 2005
by Ben Jolliffe
Stretching over 2.6 million square kilometers – a quarter of China’s landmass – the Tibet-Qinghai plateau rises to over 5,000 meters, and is the largest and highest alpine grassland region in the world. It is home to the world’s highest mountains, the sources of three of the world’s longest rivers and, as of this month, the world’s highest railway, which rises to 5,072 meters as it runs from Golmud in Qinghai to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Until recently, the vast distances, inhospitable climate, and lack of roads meant the plateau was a relatively unpopulated wilderness. However, rising temperatures, the new railway, and increasing exposure to the outside world are bringing growing pressure to bear on the region’s fragile ecosystem and the unique fauna that inhabit it. Soil erosion, desertification, poaching, and habitat degradation are widespread.
Yet in some areas, local people continue to protect what remains in this important part of the Mountains of Southwest China Hotspot. Their efforts are aided by organizations such as the Snowland Great River Environmental Protection Association (SGREPA), which has been working since 2001 to raise awareness of the current situation and to engage the area’s residents in conservation.
Green Community Network
Funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), SGREPA (named after the three mighty rivers that rise in the area: the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong) has been developing a “Green Community Network” in five areas in northern Sichuan and the southern counties of Qinghai over the last year and a half.
Working in two villages and with four monasteries, the Network links community organizations, local government, and Buddhist leaders in grassroots conservation activities by celebrating elements in traditional Tibetan culture that contribute to a more sustainable way of life.
The annual yak herders festival in the remote village of Diqin, for example, is one of the few opportunities during the year for local nomads to get together- and they come dressed accordingly. The wearing of fur to these festivals– to combat the harsh environment and ward off evil – is a well-established custom, but in recent years a fashion has developed for decorating the traditional long-sleeved sheepskin coat, the chuba, with the fur of threatened species such as otter, leopard, and tiger.
This year, SGREPA met with religious leaders and village heads and encouraged them to form a grassroots organization, the Nomad Volunteers' Association for the Conservation of the Source of the Lancang River. (The Lancang is the main tributary of the Mekong.) Together they mounted a full program for the festival, emphasizing the Tibetan peoples’ traditional recognition of the interdependence of all living things.
“It is Actually Protecting Ourselves”
SGREPA Director Zha Duo worked closely with the monks of the nearby Rili Monastery and in particular the monastery head, Lama Zhuga.
“Conservation suits the ideals of Buddhism and our traditional culture,” Zhuga said at the opening speech of the festival. “We should protect our environment on our own initiative, as it is actually protecting ourselves.”
The monks spread the word before the festival that the increasing demand for furs across Tibet is endangering species in their native habitats across Asia, and as a result, not one of the 1,700 nomads who attended the festival wore fur. Rituals, prayers, meditations, and talks on the wildlife trade were held over the five-day festival, at the end of which vows were taken before the Lama, including commitments not to hunt, use wild animal products or wear their fur.
Conservation in Sacred Lands
Here, and elsewhere in this remote area, the mountains and rivers around monasteries have been held sacred for many generations. Since the 1980s when religious freedoms were expanded in China, many monasteries have developed written or oral agreements on wildlife and forest protection with county or township forestry agencies, with designated people in charge of protection.
Some monasteries involve local communities in patrolling sacred sites, checking, for example, that valuable medicinal herbs are not over-harvested, and may even offer payments for the service. These monasteries are therefore ideal conservation partners for SGREPA. Zha Duo has been working on environmental education campaigns with monks at the Saikang monastery and others at the Gadojuewu Ecological Culture Association, named after the holy mountain complex that dominates the area.
By educating the monks about the critical state of the region’s biodiversity, they can effectively reach many more people and encourage them to play their part in mitigating threats to natural areas and species populations, one of CEPF’s key strategies for conservation in the area.
Education and Research in the Villages
SGREPA also has a mobile educational unit that visits villages across the region, running classes in schools and distributing books and leaflets to residents. One such village, Cuo Chi in Qumalai county, lies in the core conservation zone of the vast Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, close to the new railway.
SGREPA has been training the residents of Cuo Chi with basic skills in wildlife observation. The villagers have already conducted two horseback surveys in the area and collected data on the populations, birthplaces, and migration habits of wildlife found in the area, including the Endangered Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) and globally threatened species such as wild yak (Bos grunniens), snow leopard (Uncia uncia), and white-lipped deer (Cervus albirostris).
The surveys, which ran for five days in both January and May this year, revealed that the wild yak habitat was fragmenting. Numbers of antelope were also down, due to illegal hunting to meet the demand for luxury shatoosh shawls in the west. Some observers claim that the railway is also affecting population numbers, because antelope are reluctant to cross the railroad tracks when they migrate north to give birth.
The Wild Yak Organization, an NGO and also a member of the Green Community Network, is now carrying out further studies to determine the cause of the habitat fragmentation and population decline in the area.
Keeping it in the Community?
The area’s critical importance as a watershed for the more than 500 million people who live downstream in China and Southeast Asia has meant that increasing amounts of public funding and official land protection are being made available. The formation of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in 2000, for instance, was an important step towards preserving the area’s resources on a national level.
In September, the Chinese government launched its largest ever ecological rescue package, promising $925 million to be spent on habitat restoration, wetlands protection, and “eco-migration,” a strategy aimed at moving people away from the area known as “China’s Water Tower.” These and other measures are designed to restore ecological balance to the country over the next five years.
Having worked in the region for the last 10 years, Zha Duo is relieved that the government is putting so much money behind efforts to conserve the area. His key goal now is to integrate the model of engaging communities in preserving sacred lands, pioneered over the last 30 years, into the government’s wider plans.
He acknowledges that this will become more challenging, however, as many of the peoples’ traditionally close ties with nature, and other elements of local culture, are gradually changing.
“In several areas, some young people no longer know how to read or speak Tibetan,” Zha Duo said. “And while Buddhism teaches us how everything in life is in flux, the traditional approach to life here shows us how we can live in harmony with nature. It’s a simple model that works, encouraging fauna and flora to thrive while also providing great strength to local communities. Hopefully, we can find a way to give it new life in this time of great change.”
For further information:
Tibetan Nomads Enjoy Greener Grassland Festival
Yellow River Source Under Threat
Snowland Great River Environmental Protection Association