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A Holy Place in China Fights for Its Life, Body and Soul

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/11; June 11, 2001.]

The New York Times
June 10, 2001.

YUBENG, China - The 133 residents of this remote mountain hamlet know they live almost in paradise.

In the spring the old-growth forest, one of China's last bits of raw nature, twinkles with the pink rhododendrons that grow in astounding profusion - one of many reasons why biologists call the area a "hot spot" of biodiversity.

In the fall, flaming maples and oaks illuminate the spruce, fir and pine. Bears, monkeys and the occasional snow leopard roam these mountains; golden eagles cruise the valleys while giant squadrons of green parakeets hunt for pine nuts.

The villagers, ethnic Tibetans in a stronghold of traditional culture, take spiritual as well as aesthetic comfort from the landscape. Commanding the valley and protecting the village is 22,107-foot Kawagebo, the second-holiest mountain in Tibetan Buddhism, which tens of thousands of pilgrims circle each year.

The hillsides abound with sacred forests, a sacred waterfall and other holy sites that are marked by gaily flapping prayer flags - places where the faithful can deposit their worries or seek good fortune.

"My spirit and soul are here," said Aqianbu, a 30-year-old Yubeng man, as he watched horses placidly grazing in the village meadow, against the unreal backdrop of glacier-draped pinnacles. "We worship the nature around us."

But if this is almost paradise, that "almost" contains a world of sorrows the people of Yubeng could do without.

Mr. Aqianbu matter-of-factly gave an example. He, his younger brother and the wife they share, in the polyandrous triangle common to the region, have watched three of their four babies die - a result of the near- total lack of modern medicine, the poor sanitation and nutrition and, ultimately, the poverty and isolation of a village that is an arduous six-hour hike from the nearest dirt road.

They are proud of their surviving daughter, but they are not happy that to attend school beyond the third grade she must make that same hike over a high mountain pass, then stay at school for two weeks at a time, paying dormitory fees that are a terrible strain.

Today, the Yunnan provincial government is aggressively promoting tourism and other development, in part to replace the huge revenues lost when logging - the former mainstay of counties surrounding Yubeng wherever roads had made it feasible - was banned in 1998 to protect watersheds.

Now the people of the region, especially in more pristine places like Yubeng, are facing a challenge that many other parts of China have already failed: finding a way to prosper, while preserving their unique environment.

To solve this problem, the people of Yubeng are engaged in an unusual dialogue about their future - part of a collaboration between the Yunnan government and the United States- based Nature Conservancy, one of the largest private international conservation groups.

"The goal of the Nature Conservancy is to protect biodiversity," said Rose Niu, a 39-year-old member of Yunnan's Naxi minority group who has a master's degree in resource management and directs the conservancy's China project.

"But here, it's very clear that you can't protect nature unless you work together with local communities and preserve the culture too," she said. "We especially need to promote the traditions calling for harmony with nature."

In this ethnic Tibetan zone of northwest Yunnan, some families and temples keep discreet pictures of the Dalai Lama and the exiled leader is revered, but the political atmosphere is less tense than in parts of Tibet proper. And the Yunnan government has supported the rebuilding of temples and the controlled promotion of Tibetan culture, if nothing else as a way to draw tourists.

Ms. Niu is not Tibetan, but from the ancient Naxi town of Lijiang, a World Heritage Site to the south, which the conservancy is also working to preserve.

Lijiang's old quarter, she noted, remains quaint but is already overrun with tourists and now has crime and prostitution.

"In China I don't know of any place that is a good example of eco-tourism," said Ms. Niu. Especially since the logging ban, many counties in northern Yunnan are desperate for quick money, she said, but she hopes the region can pursue "a long-term, sustainable kind of tourism."

Two refugees from Washington politics are also living in Yunnan and advising the project on behalf of the Nature Conservancy. Ed Norton, a lawyer, was a leading environmental advocate and his wife, Ann McBride, was president of Common Cause, the campaign-reform lobby, before the two became entranced by the possibilities and moved here in 1999.

Their endeavor is called the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, reflecting yet another spectacular trait of the West Virginia-size region it covers. The upper reaches of four of Asia's mightiest rivers - the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween and the Irrawaddy - flow in parallel within a band of 55 miles, separated by high mountain ridges,

The drastic elevation changes, the rainy summers and the region's latitude - at the transition from temperate to subtropical - fostered an explosion in biodiversity: northern Yunnan is home to 10,000 plant species, including 162 species of rhododendron and 120 species of primrose.

The region is a prime source for Asian medical herbs and for matsutake and morel mushrooms, which are picked by villagers for export, offering badly needed cash income to supplement their subsistence farming and possibilities for sustainable enterprises in the future.

"It's unbelievable," said Bob Mosely, a botanist from Idaho who is helping with research and strategy in the Yubeng area, part of the range known in Chinese as Meili Snow Mountain. "You turn a corner, and you see three or four different species of plants."

Mr. Mosely is working with local experts to map the "sacred geography" of the area, the zones that are largely protected from cutting and hunting already because of animist beliefs, as an aid to demarcating future reserves.

The cutting of trees for home heating and cooking, as well as home construction, is a growing threat to the region's forests and must be confronted soon, said Mr. Norton, who also noted that longtime supposed nature reserves were inhabited and heavily exploited.

The local government is experimenting with biogas, using animal and human waste to create cooking fuel, and in Yubeng there is talk of expanding the current mini-hydro plant, which now generates just enough electricity to light a few 15- watt bulbs in each home.

"We have to find a way to hook the villagers into the stream of benefits," Mr. Norton said as he hiked the rugged trail to Yubeng. "How can they, and not outsiders, capture most of the revenue?"

Still-remote places like Yubeng are ideally situated for small-scale eco-tourism, Ms. McBride said, attracting visitors who want to hike and explore both nature and Tibetan culture. "Villagers need to gain the skills to guide visitors and teach them about the environment and the religion," she said.

Even before the current aid project started, Mr. Aqianbu, the village man, had a similar vision, borrowing money from relatives two years ago to build a small trekker's lodge. But so far, he says, he barely gets by - unable to save enough to pour cement on the dirt floor or even to build the latrine that is essential if a surge in visitors is not to pollute the sacred land.

"I have many dreams but I don't have the means to realize them," Mr. Aqianbu said, explaining why he and fellow residents of Yubeng desperately want the road that has been proposed in regional plans, but that some experts say may never be economically feasible.

Life in Yubeng is not so bad for the people, said Amu, 41, one of two appointed village chiefs, "but it's hard for the cattle, which can't find enough grass to eat."

"I would never leave this place," he said. "I love the environment, and Kawagebo peak protects us."

Mr. Amu noted, however, that Yubeng and neighboring villages had already clashed over rights to collect wood and mushrooms, that the valuable mushrooms were getting harder to find and that bears and deer stole a good share of the corn crop.

Mr. Amu declined to count how many children have died in Yubeng, only saying "there have been many." When people get sick, he said, they usually "let it go the natural way," though in some cases - if they can borrow enough from fellow villagers to pay the high fees - relatives may carry patients to the hospital in the county seat of Deqin, a dawn-to-darkness ordeal over two high ridges.

"Of course, all of us are looking forward to a better life," he said. "We need a road most of all, and we need a bigger hydropower station to give us steady electricity for cooking."

"We see tourism as our best hope," Mr. Amu said. "We welcome more tourists here, but those that bring destruction will not be allowed."

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