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Ecotourism to save nature
( 2003-11-14 08:40) (China Daily)

SHANGRI-LA, Yunnan: Shangri-La is an imaginary paradise on earth, according to many English dictionaries.

But the place offers more for nature conservationists Li Bo and Xie Hongyan when they look back at the three years they spent in a village hidden among rolling mountains of Shangri-La County, Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

They have shed sweat and tears, experienced gains and losses, and shared much joy and sorrow.

While their work is having a profound impact on the life of local villagers, it has already changed their own lives.

Peaceful haven

They arrived in Shangri-La County in the autumn of 2000, when they joined a community-based agro-biodiversity conservation project in the northwestern part of Yunnan. The project was jointly initiated by the Yunnan provincial government, the Global Environment Facilities (GIF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Jisha villagers gather for a ritual ceremony to pay tribute to the holy hill near the village. [File photo]
Li, 35, was a graduate student majoring in Natural Resource Management at Cornell University in the United States. A native of Yunnan, he had spent several years working with various environmental conservation institutes in the province before his further studies in the United States.

Xie, 30, has been an ethnic botany researcher at the Kunming Botanical Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She worked for the project as a volunteer.

When they first set their foot in Jisha Village, "I thought I found a place very similar to 'Taohua Yuan (a haven of peace in ancient Chinese literature)'," Li told China Daily.

Located at Xiaozhongdian Township, Shangri-La County, Jisha rests at the foot of Qianhu (Thousand Lakes) Mountains and faces three snow-capped mountains, Haba, Yulong and Tianbo.

In autumn, highland barley is ripe in fields; sheep and yaks graze on the range. Forests of birch, aspen and spruce trees grow on the mountain slopes, while over 100 pristine lakes dot the Qianhu Mountains.

The alpine lakes and several hills of the mountains have been considered sacred by the local Tibetans.

Man-made threats

Throughout their investigations in Jisha, they uncovered threats and pressures being imposed upon the dreamland and the lives of the local villagers.

A local from Jisha Village transports timber to the constration site of the guesthouse.
People had been destructively logging in the area from the 1960s to the early 1990s. At its peak, more than 1,000 lumber workers, mainly from Northeast China, were stationed there and cut down 400,000 cubic metres of timber a year.

In a bid to shake off their poverty, the locals joined the logging army in the late 1980s.

Over the years the primeval forests were replaced by a second growth. Animals hid deep in the mountains and many sacred hills were destroyed.

To preserve the forests and wild animals and prevent further soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, China banned logging in the primitive forests and natural woods in 1998.

Jisha Village is within this protected zone. But as a result, around 400 local people lost their major source of income from logging.

Worse still, an outside company came in, on a contract from the local township government, to develop mass tourism in Jisha and the surrounding Qianhu Mountains.

The villagers were unhappy because they had neither been informed and consulted. Nor were they included in the development.

The villagers started to worry that the outsiders' activity and the rubbish the visitors left behind might spoil their holy hills and lakes.

"After learning all this, we felt we couldn't simply walk away with our data," Li said.

They started to design and develop an eco-cultural tourism project managed by the villagers.

"Ideally, it will keep the protection of community resources and development of livelihoods in balance," Xie said.

Helping hand

They submitted their proposal for an ecotourism project in Jisha to GIF.

Although GIF's funding did not materialize, the Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK), a non-profit academic organization based in Kunming, learned about their proposal and decided to give a hand. The non-governmental organization raised 250,000 (US$30,488) from a Dutch development institute to finance the project.

So after graduating from Cornell in September 2001, Li Bo turned down a job offer from an international conservation organization and returned to Yunnan and became CBIK's Jisha project co-ordinator.

Twists and turns

He returned to Jisha in February 2002.

Villagers still remembered the first meeting with the young man from the city.

Li was full of enthusiasm, talking about building a Tibetan-style guesthouse.

The guesthouse would be the common property of the village, Li said. Income from tourism would belong to the villagers and the villagers themselves would decide how to divide the money. Neither he nor the CBIK would claim a share.

But some villagers thought Li was only bragging.

"We had never met anyone who help us without asking anything in return before," said Lamu, 32.

Others said that the project would destroy the sacred hills and lakes and bring disaster to the villagers in Jisha. Some even suggested that the CBIK fund be distributed on the spot to each household.

Li said he was thankful that quite a number of villagers believed in him and were ready to help.

"I told them 'what Li Bo said was like to give us a hen'," said Dogya, 52. "The hen can lay many eggs for us and we can eat eggs. How stupid we would have been by suggesting killing the hen now."

The heated debate among the villagers lasted until midnight, but this was just the start of many debates and conflicts.

In March, Xie Hongyan arrived at Jisha. On March 28, the second meeting of the village was held to elect members of the village's project administration committee.

Debates turned into quarrels. Topics shifted from the project to the former village chiefs' unfair treatment of the other villagers and under-the-table financial dealings. Hidden conflicts that had gone back years were brought out into the open.

During the debates, Li Bo learned of the fact that the destructive exploitation for the past 20 years had profound impact not only on the local environment, but also on the relationships between the local villagers, he recalled.

"I had to cool down my initial enthusiasm," Xie Hongyan said. "Facing the complicated social relationships in the village, I knew the work ahead would be hard."

Eventually, seven members of the committee, including two village chiefs, were finally elected, although the two village chiefs were reluctant to support the project.

In April, two French architects came and completed the design of the new guesthouse after some field research on traditional Tibetan houses in the region.

In June, Li and Xie went ahead and signed an agreement with all residents of the village, including those who initially opposed the project.

Against all their expectations, the company, determined to develop masstourism in Jisha, returned in August and began to persuade the villagers to sell the rights to exploiting the Qianhu Mountains to the company. It promised to give the village 50,000 yuan (US$6,045) per year for three years.

Li Bo and Xie Hongyan were told that several villagers signed a contract with the company, though many of them are illiterate and didn't know the exploitation rights actually lasted of 40 years.

The two village heads who favour the company's mass tourism project, openly criticized the project Li and Xie were trying to develop and some villagers also began to raise questions.

"I was exhausted and frustrated," Xie admitted. When she had to leave for a training programme in Germany, she was in tears on the way out of Jisha.

They must change their approach.

"We felt there would be no result if we just kept explaining and persuading," Xie said.

They asked those willing to participate in the construction of the guesthouse to sign their names and put their fingerprints on an agreement.

Even as owners of the guesthouse, the villagers who helped build it would be paid.

On August 20, one-third of the families in Jisha decided to join. In the following week, the number exceeded 50 per cent.

Work started on the project in October 2002. When the villagers working for the project were actually paid, Dogya said, over 80 per cent of Jisha villagers began to believe that they could benefit from the project.

"The change of their attitude is beyond my expectation," Xie said. "I can feel their confusion and hesitation while facing the issue of development and conservation, struggle for survival, and hunger for every penny."

Becoming a tourist

The villagers say they've benefited more than just a guesthouse from the project. In August this year, 12 villagers led by Li and Xie travelled to neighbouring Sichuan Province as tourists. They came from both the pro and anti groups in the village.

"We hoped that they could know why people tour and get a feel of being a tourist," Li explained.

They carefully planned the itinerary. Both well-developed ecotourism sites and run-down mass-tourist scenic sites were included.

Lamu was one of the four members of the con-group to make the trip to Sichuan.

For the first time in her life, the Tibetan woman left her hometown and rode on a train as a tourist.

Though she had to suffer from carsickness and found travel "sometimes more exhausting than housework," she said she enjoyed the trip.

"We were afraid of walking in the streets of Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province), (as there were) too many cars," she said.

"It is a pity for Hongkou (a scenic site near Chengdu which suffers from overdevelopment in tourism) to leave so many well-built houses empty and dilapidated," she recalled.

"Wanglang (an ecotourism site in western Sichuan) is the best, (there are) so many big trees and it is so quiet.

"We didn't feel very well when staying at the Baima (a Tibetan village near Wanglang where most of families offer homestays to visitors)."

During their stay at the Baima Village, Li Bo explained, an old man of the village passed away. But almost no one stopped his or her business to pay a visit to the family of the dead.

This has never happened in Jisha, Lamu said.

After the trip, very few villagers still oppose the project, said Larong Peiqu, 42, a village carpenter. Above all, the villagers have become aware of their own limitations.

"Without knowledge and experience, we cannot manage our own guesthouse," said the carpenter, also a member of the tour group. "We'd better invite an outside expert to help us take care of the business and then, we will learn how to do it slowly."

As the construction of the main structure of the guesthouse was already completed, Li, entrusted by the villagers, has begun to look for a devoted professional or a responsible company to manage the facilities and operate ecotourism in Jisha. Meanwhile, little has been heard of the mass tourism project.

Concept change

Having gone so far, Li Bo said that he is not sure whether he would devote another two or three years to the project.

"I might have to move on something else," he said.

In the past three years, he said, his original expectation to develop a successful ecotourism project in Jisha has changed.

"It has been changed into a research topics - to gain an insight into the relationship between grassroots democratization and governance of natural resource in China," he said.

"I feel it has already been partly realized."

Having walked out of the books by participating the project, Xie Hongyan said, she knew that the future of the project is still an uncertainty.

"But I don't look forward to an ideal result as I did three years ago," she said. "I just want to stick out till there is a result, no matter what it is."

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