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    Tibetan women shield heart of Yunnan

2006-03-18 07:22

SHANGRI-LA, Yunnan: It's a jarring contrast. The resplendent greenery of Bazhu, perched at the top of a valley in the heart of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is like an oasis amid the bare mountains that surround it.

"Seeing dead tree stumps overwhelms me with sadness," said Tseji with firm conviction. "I want to stop people from cutting our trees down."

As she speaks, her companions gather around and nod in solemn agreement.

Tseji is the leader of what you can call Mother Nature's guardians. Armed only with the weapons of negotiation, persuasion and persistence, she and an all-female forest patrol team shield the heart of Yunnan Province against poachers and loggers in Shangri-la County of Deqen Prefecture in northwestern China.

Over the years, people from surrounding communities have plundered their trees as the demand for timber soared. Now, Bazhu stands almost alone in its conservation of its precious trees, something that is the envy of those around them. Bazhu exemplifies the wonder and splendour of an area that is the focus of so much conservation work. The community's 21 villages sit amongst acre after acre of forest, with trees that have been growing for hundreds of years.

Though her conviction to protect their natural habitat is a universal feeling shared among many members of the local community, in Bazhu, all the forest patrollers are women. "This is because we're much better at patrolling than the men," said Tseji with a wide grin.

Every week, Tseji and the female patrol group make the rounds in sections of the 22,000-acre forest belonging to the Bazhu community.

The patrols can last from up to five hours at a time, which the women are willing to undertake although they have other responsibilities at home.

Tseji's comments aren't bravado. Ever since the women took on the patrolling duties, there's been a significant increase in logging protection. Fewer trees are now being cut and the chances of repeat offenders have also diminished.

"When we started the patrols in the mid '90s, we would often see the same people time and again cutting down the trees," Tseji added. "Now, if we catch people, we never see them again."

Although respected for their high success, women weren't considered as the first choice for the patrolling work. "Initially, we had men going on the patrols." explained Ben Chong, one of Bazhu's community leaders. "But this proved to be unsuccessful, as many of the patrollers would know the loggers socially, and either feel too embarrassed to report them, or else they would all sit down together and get drunk, and the patrollers would neglect their duties. This never happens with the women, and besides, we've found them to be much better negotiators than the men."

So how do these women protect themselves? Are they the Tibetan GI Jane's, armed to the teeth with guns and knives? Tseji looks aghast when asked this question.

"Oh no, we don't carry weapons of any sort," she insisted. "We prefer to talk to the people instead and try and persuade them that what they are doing is wrong."

A mischievous grin then breaks out on her face as she added: "But we do confiscate their tools!"

But what if the loggers aren't exactly accommodating to the patrollers' demands? Another wide Tseji grin: "It sometimes happens, but they're usually just stubborn about things. We are more stubborn, and can usually persuade them. And if we can't, we'll go back and report them to the village."

There is good reason for the Bazhu residents to be so conscientious in their efforts to protect their natural resources. Bazhu residents fear that the planned removal of the logging ban in China after 2008 could spell a renewed attack on their precious forest coverage. Hence the need for the ever vigilant forest patrols.

"I believe that part of the reason our community has kept our natural resources intact is down to our cultural background," explained Chong, one of Bazhu's community leaders, as he poured the assembled group another round of butter tea. "Bazhu is one of the few remaining communities in this region that has retained strong roots to our cultural past. In Tibetan Buddhism, a respect of nature is an absolute must, as we believe in the interdependency of all things. Damage one element, and you damage the whole."

Emphasis on education

Bazhu residents view education as a vital tool to keep this belief in nature alive. With support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the conservation organization, they have built a Community Learning Centre in Bazhu's largest village. The centre acts as a focal point for the community to participate in activities related to the benefit of the community as a whole. Tibetan classes are regularly held there (of which the women are attending in ever greater numbers) as well as other training according to the communities' needs.

According to Liu Yunhua, director of WWF's Education Programme, environmental protection requires the extensive participation of local communities if they are to be effective and sustainable. In turn, effective and meaningful participation can only be achieved when communities are truly empowered and their capacity is strengthened.

"The Community Learning Centre is a great place for bringing people together to share ideas, make decisions and take action to protect their cultural and natural heritage," she added.

But Bazhu residents also realize that in order to maintain the fragile balance between humans and nature, they must adapt to the ever-changing world that surrounds it. With an adult's expected annual salary of around 500 yuan (US$60) a year, staying above the poverty line is a daily challenge for all the families in Bazhu.

Efforts are already being made to diversify income sources away from traditional agricultural methods and embrace the greater markets of consumer products.

A fruit candy using local produce is currently undergoing testing, and plans are also in the works to sell village hazelnuts to the local markets.

But the village elders are clear that such initiatives will not survive on their own. Support is needed for all the community residents, especially for the women.

Hence the need for the centre and its multitude of training opportunities, including in handicrafts, and the sustainable use of non-timber forest products, especially mushroom and medicinal herbs.

For Tseji, such training opportunities are an exciting future for her, as she'd like to expand her opportunities to help her family.

"Besides, the extra knowledge could help me in my patrolling work," she added. "I might gain better powers of persuasion!"

(China Daily 03/18/2006 page9)


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