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Buddhist Leaders Protect Woodlands

In Focus, January 2005

by Ben Jolliffe

At the foot of Kawagebo, one of the most sacred Tibetan mountains, successful sustainable land use and religious practice have gone hand-in-hand for the last 700 years or more. But as this remote area deep in the heart of the Mountains of Southwest China Hotspot has become more accessible, tourists and pilgrims have posed new challenges.

The Kawagebo Culture Society, backed by a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), has drawn government officials, schools, and religious leaders together to counter some of the new threats by building on traditional practices.

According to traditional belief, the higher reaches of Kawagebo, which means "White Snow Mountain" in Tibetan, are home to a fierce warrior deity on whose well-being the health and prosperity of the whole area depends. He cannot be disturbed by local inhabitants but further down the slopes, centuries' old boundaries mark out different areas that the villagers may use for grazing and gathering wood.

So effective has the system been in maintaining a balanced environment that these religious boundaries have been codified into conservation law, with public forests managed by the state on the upper mountain and community use forests below.

One danger that the early lamas and lay officials could not have foreseen, however, was the threat posed by devout pilgrims making their way around the foot of the mountain to gain merit for future incarnations. Some spend months or even years covering thousands of miles to get to Kawagebo and for many, the pilgrimage is the highlight of their spiritual life.

Cedar Trees Harvested for Incense

There are around 50 small villages on the pilgrimage route around the mountain and the whole journey generally takes around two to three weeks. En route, there are three sites where many pilgrims stop to burn incense.

They had been using small branches from the incense cedar tree (Platycladus orientalis), which forms low woodlands in the canyons around Kawagebo. As the name implies, its wood gives off a delicate fragrance when burned and is used extensively in Buddhist ceremonies.

Consequently, these woodlands were suffering from serious overharvesting by pilgrims as well as by local villagers who supply the souvenir trade in and around Deqin, the main town in the area.

Mu Suo, a cultural and environmental activist and a leading member of the Kawagebo Culture Society, grew up in the shadow of the 6,740-meter mountain. Since its inception in 1999, the Society has been working to strengthen ties between culture and conservation in mapping the sacred geography of the area as well as other community-based resource management projects.

Knowing that 2003 was a particularly auspicious year for pilgrimage due to an unusual convergence in the calendar cycle that occurs only once every 60 years, Mu Suo was eager to raise awareness of the problem.

The Kawagebo Culture Society enlisted the assistance of teachers, government officials, and other members of the local community as well as two prestigious Buddhist leaders. Zhaba Buddha, a lama from a local monastery, and Danqu Buddha, a Tibetan lama, are both considered to be embodiments of enlightened figures from previous incarnations and consequently are highly regarded both in Kawagebo and in the region.

Old Beliefs, New Urgency

As part of the project, the two Buddhist leaders used services and blessings as an opportunity to dissuade pilgrims from harvesting incense cedar and to suggest alternatives such as the more common pine or oak.

Although they use a different terminology, their view of the environment as an indivisible whole has a direct resonance with modern ecologists. "These trees are the arms and legs of the sacred mountain," teaches Zhaba Buddha. "Why would you burn them so recklessly on your pilgrimage here?"

The belief that destructive behavior by humans on the mountain will result in natural catastrophe is deeply rooted in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and extends to a ban on mountaineering. The summit is yet to be reached and many believe that should an expedition be successful, the sanctity of the Kawagebo deity would be irrevocably damaged.

Ironically, that same sense of holiness is what draws so many pilgrims to the mountain. Yet by adapting centuries' old tradition and engaging its leaders in raising awareness, the project has been undoubtedly successful.

According to Ma Jianzhong, a project manager with The Nature Conservancy in Deqin who also works closely with the Kawagebo Cultural Society, the use of cedar in Buddhist ceremonies in the area has dropped dramatically.

"It has now fallen to around 10 percent of earlier levels," he said. With nearly 200,000 pilgrims visiting in 2004, the decline has made a considerable difference to the rate of cedar woodland destruction.

But he added, "Many local Tibetans still burn incense at home on important festivals and holy days. We are still working to encourage them to burn the faster growing pine or oak as an alternative. Thankfully, there is no evidence to suggest that we are even close to unsustainable levels of harvesting with these other species."

Joining forces with local Buddhist leaders, government officials, schools and other nongovernmental organizations in the area seems to have worked well for the Kawagebo Culture Society, which recently completed a year-long part of the project.

The initiative is among more than 25 site-related projects led by civil society with CEPF support to mitigate key threats to natural areas and species populations in this hotspot.

Conservation International's Chen Qi, based in Beijing, was particularly enthusiastic about the mixture of the project's participants. "Not only has there been a revitalization of local culture, but CEPF's commitment to developing leadership and administrative skills is crucial for building civil society capacity in China."

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© The Nature Conservancy, photo by Bob Moseley
Kawagebo is one of the most sacred Tibetan mountains.

© CI, photo by Chen Qi
Mu Suo, a leading member of the Kawagebo Culture Society, grew up in the shadow of the 6,740-meter mountain.

The Mountains of Southwest China Hotspot is home to 17 of China's 55 ethnic minority groups, including the Bai, Dulong, Lisu, Naxi, Pumi, Nu, Qiang and Tibetan peoples. Tibetans inhabit nearly 80 percent of the hotspot.

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