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Great Rivers of Yunnan: Conservation in a Changing China

By Ron Geatz

"Be careful. There is danger in wildness," warns Quan, my newfound Chinese friend, as my train departs Beijing. I'm off on the overland route to Hong Kong, where I'll join a delegation setting out to explore firsthand The Nature Conservancy's initial efforts in China--in the wilds of the southwestern province of Yunnan. I carry with me three basic questions: Why China? Why the Conservancy? And why now? As my train crosses the flood-ravaged Yangtze River, I am reminded just how dangerous "wildness" can be. And I'm given a clue about 'Why now?'

China is changing. That bit of facile wisdom hit me earlier on my first hot and smoggy day in Beijing. As testament to the rapidity of change, I had met Quan, my Beijing host and a high school English teacher, on the Internet--but I am the first foreigner he has ever met face to face. He and his family take me on a car-clogged highway to the Great Wall, where I see thousands of Chinese families on holiday, some in Calvin Klein T-shirts and neon lycra, others chatting away on cell phones. My decades-old mental image of bicycling masses in Mao suits is shattered. This change--the growing prosperity, increasing mobility and resulting strain on natural resources--makes conservation an imperative for the new China.

Day 1: Vikrom's Sense of Snow

Flying in from Hong Kong and other connecting cities, my travel group takes form in Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, known to the Chinese as "the city of perpetual spring." It's a welcome relief from August in Beijing. Hunger and my curiosity about this project's origins are sated at an opening banquet. As we pluck sautÈed mushrooms, fried locust and braised duck feet from a swirling lazy Susan, I'm introduced to Vikrom Kromadit, the unlikely father of the Yunnan Great Rivers Conservation Project. A Bangkok real estate developer of Chinese descent, Kromadit has the good looks and smoothness of a young Ronald Reagan, his professed hero.

"It began with the snow," he tells me. Kromadit initially ventured to Yunnan in 1993 in the hope of developing a ski resort near the renowned Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. At the time, the economy was booming, China was opening up and increasingly prosperous Asians in steamy cities like Bangkok were hungry for nearby recreational escapes. Kromadit's company, AMATA, retained Steve Mikol of the Colorado-based Conservation Development Corporation to conduct a feasibility study for the proposed resort. After careful analysis, Mikol concluded that the area's altitude, climate and related factors would not support a ski resort.

But recognizing the region's abundant natural resources, lack of protection and likelihood of eventual indiscriminate exploitation, Mikol--a developer known for his conservationist leanings--boldly recommended the establishment of a national park. He envisioned venues for ecotourism and compatible economic enterprises, and urged involving a group like the Conservancy to help protect the park's biological and cultural treasures.

"I had been a Conservancy member for many years," Mikol later tells me from his Denver office, "but I didn't even know if the Conservancy had an Asia/Pacific program at the time." After many calls to Conservancy offices all over the country, fate put Mikol in the hands of Carol Fox, a 14-year Conservancy veteran based in Hawaii, who just happens to have lived in China and elsewhere in Asia earlier in her career.

"We get calls all the time from people wanting us to take on their pet projects," claims Fox, now the Conservancy's China project director. "And we have to say no to most of them. But the more research we did, the more we were intrigued by the area's incredible cultural and natural diversity." Kromadit ultimately persuaded Fox and other Conservancy staff to make a site visit--on his dime.

"People who come here become enchanted," Kromadit explains. Neither he nor Mikol--nor the Conservancy, it turns out--could walk away from Yunnan. Kromadit withdrew his company's resort plans but made a six-figure donation to encourage the park's start-up. "I have many things--material things," Kromadit volunteers. "Now I want to do something for generations beyond me." From such an improbable genesis, the Yunnan conservation effort snowballed. Discussions with local officials ensued. By March 1997, the Conservancy's Board of Governors gave staff the go-ahead to proceed as advisors. In November, China's first international environmental nongovernmental organization, the Institute for Human Ecology, introduced the Conservancy to China's top officials in Beijing. There they invited Conservancy board member Wendy Paulson and her husband, Hank, co-chair of the Conservancy's Asia/Pacific Council, to be speakers at China's first International Forum on the Environment.

A month later, Yunnan Vice Governor Niu Shao Yao requested and received permission from China's State Planning Commission to pursue the project. And, in June 1998, Conservancy President John C. Sawhill traveled to Kunming with more board members to formalize a partnership with the Yunnan Provincial Government, including a commitment to raise $2 million, which, matched by $3 million from the provincial government, would support the launch of a new system of parks in northwest Yunnan. Specifically, the agreement calls for Conservancy assistance in three key areas: strategic guidance, technical expertise and assistance in tapping international funding.

"Initially, I was skeptical about the Conservancy getting involved in such an ambitious project in a country where we had not worked before," says Sawhill. "But the role we were being asked to take on was exactly what we do best internationally: managing a strategic planning process, helping build internal capacity and attracting international resources. It was impossible to say no to such a historic opportunity in such an important country."

Now, two months later, I find myself participating in one of seven bilateral delegations conducting the groundwork necessary to jump-start the conservation process. For the next 10 days, our delegation will tour sites within the designated project area--66,870 square kilometers, slightly larger than the state of West Virginia. We will get just a glimpse of the full grandeur of this vast landscape, including places likely to become wildlife preserves, sites where environmentally benign enterprises may be encouraged and those where conservation measures are failing or succeeding.

Composed equally of Chinese and Americans, the delegation includes scientists from Yunnan's institutes of botany, geography and zoology, led by Yunnan University Professor Ou XiaoKun (pronounced oh shau koon), known affectionately by all of us as "Dr. O." On the American side are Conservancy staff representing expertise in conservation science, fund raising and program management, along with prominent U.S. specialists on national park management and indigenous peoples' issues.

Leading us is Carol Fox, whose fluency in Mandarin, ability to navigate the Chinese system and years of Conservancy experience make her a logical and formidable negotiator. Niu Hongwei, who goes by the Western name of Rose Niu, assists her. Charming, petite and Naxi (pronounced nah-shee)--one of Yunnan's ethnic minoritiesóNiu's delicate appearance belies her strength and ability to cut through mountainous red tape and commandeer a caravan through Yunnan's treacherous mountain passes.

Recruiting Niu as Yunnan project coordinator is an achievement for which Carol Fox is justifiably proud. "Rose and her young family had emigrated to New Zealand," explains Fox. "But when I read her master's thesis about building sustainable ecotourism for her native Yunnan, I knew she was the one, and hoped that I could persuade her to return home to fulfill her dream." Niu became the Conservancy's first employee in China.

Days 2 & 3: The Lay of the Land

Visits to Kunming's scientific institutions give us a broad overview of Yunnan's special nature. Geology and climate make it a global hot spot for conservation. Here, four of Asia's great rivers--the Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze--come together, and three flow parallel within 75 kilometers (44 miles) of one another before diverging to the far corners of the continent. Separating the rivers are steep and isolating mountains, on whose slopes stand some of China's last remaining primary forests, as well as the Northern Hemisphere's southernmost glacier. Warm, moist air flowing up this trough from the Indian Ocean creates a wide range of habitats, from tropical to alpine. The utopian idea of Shangri-La was born of this rich convergence of natural forces, and legend places it among these mountains.

The biodiversity superlatives mount quickly. Nearly 10 percent of the world's bird species are either resident or migrate through this corner of the planet. Tea and the rhododendron family of plants originated here, and 40 percent of the plants used in traditional Chinese medicines are still harvested from the upper watersheds of these great rivers.

At the Zoology Institute, jars of preserved native fish and drawers of indigenous birds and insects fill the rooms. In the vertebrate specimen vaults, we see a sobering zoo-of-the-dead, where stuffed native snow leopards, Yunnan golden monkeys and lesser pandas attest to the region's diverse, but dwindling, bounty. The sad fact is that we are unlikely to confront much wildlife on this trip beyond the stuffed variety with their blank stares. Today, more than 30 animals native to the Yunnan project area, including the black-necked crane, are listed as endangered.

Days 4 - 6: Approaching the Jade Dragon

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain hovers over Lijiang like a great mythical beast, its rocky spine emerging as an apparition from distant clouds. It lends credence to the Naxi belief that all works of nature--rivers, winds, mountains--have souls. Lijiang is the magical city at the Jade Dragon's feet and our base for venturing into the heart of the planned Great Rivers project area. Like most Chinese cities, Lijiang is growing fast, and the result too often is American-style strip-mall blight. But at the core of this bustling urban jumble is a well-preserved 13th-century "old town" that seems right out of Lost Horizon, with winding stone streets, tiled-roof cottages, meandering aqueducts and rosy-cheeked merchants in traditional cross-hatch vests. Still unknown to most Western tourists, Lijiang's old town, called Dayan, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.

Here we see the cultural diversity that complements Yunnan's biodiversity. The province is home to 25 of China's 56 ethnic minorities--with a panoply of native costumes, bone structures, family traditions, architecture, cuisine and languages. The Naxi, based in Lijiang, even have their own pictographic system of writing, the last one in the world still in use.

In stark contrast to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution--which sought to erase differences--China now seems willing, if not eager, to safeguard the cultural as well as natural diversity of Yunnan. Lijiang's old town, badly damaged by an earthquake in 1996, is being restored. Cultural preservation is a key concern in the Great Rivers project, and the government hopes that related tourism will generate jobs and income for Yunnan, one of China's poorest provinces.

For the Great Rivers project sites, tourism will be both a blessing and a challenge, as it is at national parks in the United States. People are more apt to protect a place they know and love, but without proper planning and control, sheer numbers of people can love a place to death. It's no coincidence that Ed Norton, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and David Getches, an environmental attorney specializing in indigenous peoples' issues, are part of our delegation. Both are founding board members of the Grand Canyon Trust, where they have negotiated compromise solutions to the tourism dilemma for 20 years.

In China, a prospering population of more than 1.2 billion people is already overwhelming some travel destinations, as I witnessed at the Great Wall outside Beijing. And here we see early warning signs of distress at a hastily developed site at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain itself. Makeshift kiosks, hawking everything from green tea and yak jerky to jade and endangered-animal parts, line a snaking queue of largely domestic tourists waiting to board a chairlift carved into the mountainside.

"What you see here is the result of not enough exposure to international tourism standards," suggests Rose Niu, as she doles out our chairlift tickets. The lift deposits us onto a boardwalk winding through a lush, wet forest to Yunshan Meadow with the majestic Jade Dragon as its backdrop. But in this alpine meadow, infrastructure collapses, and the hundreds of daily visitors are left to trample the landscape into an oozing field of mud.

The next day we venture farther from Lijiang and glimpse what the future could hold. A hiking trail leading to rustic trekking cabins awaits yet-to-materialize adventure travelers. From a dirt road through hillsides blanketed with wild azaleas that burst into profusions of violet, red and fuchsia each spring, we hike slower as the five-kilometer, steep and stony trail reaches 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). Enveloping us is an eerily beautiful landscape of towering pines draped in cascading lichens and a constant, cool mist. A rich, damp carpet of emerald moss and multicolored fungi covers the forest floor. Although we know the chances are slim of spotting them, rare bears and monkeys inhabit this mysterious forest.

The development here is gentle on the land and designed to accommodate low-impact, high-return tourists. Such ecotourism can be both a protection tool and an employment source for local communities previously dependent on mining and logging. What the ambitious endeavor lacks is strategic, international marketing, something the evolving park plan must incorporate.

Days 7 - 9: An Ecoregional Plan

Our four-wheel-drive convoy makes its way along the upper Yangtze and its tributaries. We hear of flood devastation far downriver--made worse by the deforestation in these higher elevations--but even up here, farmland is inundated. We are delayed several times by sudden mud and rock slides that cut off riverside roads. Our planned visit to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a famous natural landmark, is curtailed because of rock-slide deaths the day before. I think back to Quan's train station warning.

Our destination is Zhongdian, a growing frontier town near Yunnan's border with Tibet and known as Gyalthang by its Tibetan residents. The town center is a cornucopia of contrasts, with streetside vendors in Western garb selling music cassettes side by side with ancient Tibetan women and their portable pharmacies of folk remedies and mounds of yak cheese. As we approach the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, each of us is draped with a white silk scarf as part of our Tibetan welcome. Owned by a colorful Tibetan-American rug merchant and local hero, Kesang Tashi, the Tibetan-style inn is growing into a regional center for ecotourism. Local government officials and Tashi's staff greet us with a traditional lilting song and shots of potent, worm-enriched liquor.

Creating jobs that rely on and, therefore, encourage healthy ecosystems is key to the conservation initiative's success. One day we visit a fledgling flower farm that may become an early part of the experiment. With Zhongdian's first airport opening soon, the favorable climate and abundance of cultivated native plants--medicinal and ornamental--could turn Yunnan's botany into an appealing export commodity. McKinsey & Company, the international consulting firm, has volunteered its services to assess world markets and identify appropriate, viable products that can be produced in an environmentally compatible manner. The next day we forgo our planned excursions, choosing instead to hole up at the hotel to begin project planning in earnest--and, in the process, resolve a rift that has developed among the scientists. Dr. O hints at the Chinese delegates' growing but unspoken frustration with the American approach to protected-area planning. The Nature Conservancy's scientists want to involve everyone and question every assumption. Chinese academics are reluctant to speak out of turn or step outside their disciplines.

As an observer, I'm fascinated to watch the debate unfold. Two American ecologists, intentionally or not, end up playing good cop/bad cop to coax the previously taciturn Chinese to be more vocal and participatory. During a heated argument between the Americans, the Chinese delegates watch wide eyed. Soon, seeing that disagreement and passion are both acceptable from all team members, the group breaks into a boisterous debate.

Over the next 48 hours, the released energy and insight result in the framework for the Great Rivers project's ecoregional conservation planóChina's first. The final evening concludes with a celebratory banquet with lots of local beer and many, many potent toasts to the team's--and the project's--success.

DAY 10: Lucky Charms

On the daylong bus ride back to Lijiang, we stop for a roadside break near the historic First Bend of the Yangtze River. I hang out with Mei Zhang, a Yunnan native with a Harvard M.B.A., on loan from McKinsey's China office. Mei spots something unusual in the grass. She plucks and proudly displays a four-leaf clover--the first she's ever seen. I marvel that the good-luck symbol transcends international boundaries, and we all take it as a sign of good karma for the project.

Back in Lijiang, we are treated to a final evening banquet by He Duan Qi (pronounced huh dwahn chee), governor of Lijiang Prefecture. Following the lavish feast, Ed Norton makes a point about the interconnectedness of environmental and economic health by citing the Western tale of the goose that laid the golden egg, to which Gov. He responds, "I will never kill that goose." With a smile, he adds, "And I will ask her to lay many more golden eggs." Gov. He concludes with a toast that moves us all: "It may be a kind of fate or arrangement from God, but Joseph Rock came to Lijiang, and President Theodore Roosevelt toured this place. Now these Americans follow the footsteps of those that came before. Together we are doing conservation from our hearts. The Earth is not so large; it is really very small. It is our home--all today and all tomorrow. To the Great Rivers project, I will never say no." Vikrom Kromadit's claim at the beginning of our journey becomes fact: Those who come to Yunnan indeed become enchanted.

# # # #

Author's Addenda

*On September 1, 1998, in response to the devastating Yangtze River floods earlier that year and in recognition of the role that deforestation has played in exacerbating the floods, the Chinese central government announced a halt to logging of all primary forests in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

*From September 8 to 20, a delegation of top Chinese officials toured U.S. national parks to observe American models. Their trip report identified the Great Rivers project as the pilot for strengthening China's protected area system. After a related U.S. trip, Lijiang's director of tourism corrected the infrastructure deficiencies at Yunshan Meadow.

*Following our trip, Ed Norton agreed to become the Conservancy's senior advisor for the Great Rivers project. He and his wife will be moving to Kunming as this issue is going to press.

Ron Geatz is editor-in-chief of Nature Conservancy. In 1997, he wrote about the Conservancy's initial efforts in Papua New Guinea.

Joseph Rock: An American Explorer in Yunnan

"The Face of Conservation" usually features a private citizen whose present deeds support conservation in places where The Nature Conservancy is active. In this issue, we break with tradition to profile a man of the past, probably unknown to most readers, whose influence on a new conservation endeavor in China is undeniable.

Joseph Rock was an uncommon man. Viennese by birth, he became American by choice. A self-educated botanist without formal training, he built world-class plant collections still important to scientists today. He was among the first Westerners to explore China's mountainous southwest, under the aegis of the National Geographic Society, from 1922 to 1935.

Although he lived until 1963, he was a man of another era. His expedition essentials included a portable rubber bathtub, a folding wooden bed and dining furniture, table linens, china and a battery-powered phonograph with opera recordings. And he knew how to make an entrance. Dressed in white shirt, tie and jacket, he often arrived before local chiefs and rulers on a sedan chair, carried on poles by "coolies at 80¢ a day," according to his meticulous records. "You've got to make people believe you're someone of importance if you want to live in these wilds," he explained.

By current standards, he was autocratic, egotistical and maybe even racist. But even today, he is a hero to many people living in those places he explored. In the villages at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in Yunnan Province, there are those still living who remember his generosity, his medical treatment of their family members and his dedication to Naxi culture.

Rock's name was invoked constantly during our delegation's stay in Yunnan. Some there credit him with inspiring James Hilton's vision of Shangri-La in the 1935 novel Lost Horizon. Reporters quizzing me about plans for this feature wanted to know my angle. After all, hadn't Joseph Rock written the definitive treatise on Yunnan's natural history? I conceded: He had.

Dr. Xuan Ke, the famous director of the Naxi orchestra in Lijiang, today works proudly on Rock's old roll-top desk. His orchestra's octogenarian musicians remember Rock personally--and fondly. The Conservancy's Carol Fox delighted local officials with the ultimate hospitality gift: original editions of National Geographic magazine from the ë20s and ë30s, with Rock's reports and photographs.

Joseph Rock brought the West to Yunnan, and he clearly brought Yunnan to the rest of the world. Thousands of black-and-white prints and more than 600 color photographic glass plates survived the journey back to Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. His views appeared in a series of illustrated essays in National Geographic magazine over a decade. Among them are breathtaking images of Himalayan vistas, exotic wildlife, Tibetan monks--and the shot above of Rock himself, in a now-politically incorrect hat made of a lesser panda pelt. "No white man had previously had a glimpse of many of the scenes here photographed," he wrote in 1926. It was another time.

With the advancing Communist revolution, Rock eventually fled his beloved Yunnan. He occupied his final years with studies of Hawaii's unique plant life. His scholarship from his years in China lives on through a posthumously published Naxi dictionary and in his collection of pictographic Naxi manuscripts now housed at the Library of Congress. In addition to the 60,000 botanical specimens--and more than 1,600 zoological specimens--that he collected, and that are now held by the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University, many of the nearly 500 varieties of rhododendron he shipped back continue to thrive in U.S. and British gardens. And there are, of course, his writings and photographs, deep in those dusty stacks of old National Geographic magazines in your local used-book store‹or in The Complete National Geographic: 109 Years of National Geographic Magazine on CD-ROM, available online at www.ngstore.com.

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