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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.

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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

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匿名 | Anonymous



Bad modernity

I was told by a specialist yesterday that mankind and nature used to be in perfect harmony back in China's era of agricultural society, when nature itself had the capacity to accomodate and dissolve energy consumption and carbon emissions. However, ever since we learned industrialization from the West, energy consumption and carbon emissions have been increasing so rapidly that nature's environmental capacity can no longer deal with it. Human demands for energy are expending day by day. If we don't bring it under control, it will eventually lead to exhaustion of resources, extreme deterioration of the environment, or the collapse of the whole of society. Modernization is like a poison to mankind. It leads all the way to our extinction.

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匿名 | Anonymous



Energy consumption as poison

High levels of energy consumption are poisonous.

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匿名 | Anonymous



It seems that...

It seems that Green Journalists Salon is founded by Wang Yongchen and Zhang Kejia.This article missed Wang's name?

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匿名 | Anonymous



Re: comment 3

Absolutely right. We have corrected the article accordingly. Sam (cd)

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匿名 | Anonymous




I think that American people should be more self-critical towards the global warming issue.
All the people coming back from the United States became used to have their air-con on all day long, and when is really hot outside, inside the rooms it’s so cold that they have to wear a heavy coat . They don’t even have the habit of turning off lights and they will keep it on even it's a really bright day. Moreover they like driving big cars, while air pollution is already bad. If they’re going to Cuochi village, Tibet’s glacier will soon disappear.

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匿名 | Anonymous

邪恶的现代化? 未必

一楼, 所谓在农业社会的时候天人合一,只是当时人类不知自己无知, 这和现代工业时代, 人类知道自己无知后, 探索真正天人合一的道路是两回事.

人类探索追求真理精神是人类存在和发展的根本. 不能因发展中出现的问题而质疑现代化建设. 真正的问题在于西方经济文明崇尚的个人自由与奋斗精神同时滋养了人类的私欲与短视,对已知的宁愿当作不知.

如何把现代文明带给整个大地, 又同时保持她们的个性与和谐, "社区共管"做了有意义的尝试.


Evil modernity? not exactly

To comment 1, the whole story behind the so-called human-nature harmony back in the agricultural society is that people at that time didn't know how innocent they were. It is totally another issue when we, as members of modern industrialized society, pursue the true human-nature harmony with the sense of innocent in place. We can't doubt modernizatioin simply because it causes problems along the way. The real story is that the western focusing on individual freedom and fighting also nurtures our selfishness and short-sightedness. We'd rather ignore stuff, though we in fact know about it. How can we let modernity spread to the whole territory and at the meantime maintain individual characteristics and harmony? "Community Co-management" is a meaningful trail. Tianming

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匿名 | Anonymous



the author's opinion is too extreme

To say modenisation is evil while enjoying all the benefits from it sounds a like lack of sensible reasoning.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



On bad modernity

I think we can exaggerate the story of past agricultural innocence. If we look at where Chinese society began, more than three thousand years ago, on the Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River, and we look at that region now, it's obvious that there was no harmony: it is now desert and has been for a long time. This is not the result of industry but of unsustainable agriculture. If man and nature were really in harmony, the Loess Plateau would still be green. And in more recent time, look at Manchuria: it was thickly forested until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty because the Manchu did not allow other peoples to settle there. Once they lost the power to keep them out, their ancestral lands were quickly deforested. This is a more complicated story than just the loss of some fictitious arcadian past.

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冯永锋 - 关于 Green Beagle



Stuart Krantz
[email protected]
Parkland FL USA

Feng Yongfeng - Green Beagle

Can you please share with me how to build your pollution reading device?
I need something cheap (hopefully) to measure the pollution loads near my child's schools.


Stuart Krantz
[email protected]
Parkland FL USA

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What is Cuochi's height above sea-level?

In 2010 information from a Sanjiangyuan Association representative stated that Cuochi's average height above sea level is 4600 meters. This article states that Cuochi is 4200 meters above seas level. Which is it?