Local autonomy and environmental protection: a case study from remote and rural China

Preserving the habitat and traditional ways of living of the minorities in Yunnan, in Southern China

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By Asmita Sarkar

Yunnan is a southern province in China, rich in minority groups maintaining their own way of life, practicing their own religion, producing their own art, craft and music. Yunnan is relatively underdeveloped compared to other regions of China, but this region is not protected from rapid and sometimes unplanned industrialization. A concern now is to figure a way out to preserve the habitat and traditional ways of living of the minorities in Yunnan. Their livelihood and cultural practices are deeply linked with the local ecology. Since the new generations in China are waking up to the dangers of pollution and climate change, they are also now acknowledging the link between environmental protection and the protection of ethnic cultures.

As a result, a few non-profit organizations led by enthusiastic and dedicated locals have come into existence in China. One such organization is Green Watershed in Kunming.

This NGO works closely with the rural community and their main aim is to empower them and put up effective resistance to dubious government policies. A few high-impact government projects, involving dam and irrigation systems, innocuous at first glance, can destabilize the eco-system of an entire region.

Such could have been the case in Lashihai Wetland, a beautiful region hosting a variety of species of birds and animals. Its local population is composed of the marginalized Yi minority group, residing in the nearby villages.

If the eco-system of this region gets destroyed, their very existence may also be under threat. But during the last decades the situation changed dramatically. Their way of life is secure now and the economy of the region is also improving, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of a few concerned citizens and students, who chose to volunteer in China’s environmental sectors. Lashihai wetlands have now become a hotspot for eco-tourism.

Tourists are flocking to see rare water fowls migrate afar from the north, among which there are some engendered and protected birds, such as Black Storks, Black Neck Cranes, and Chinese Mergansers. The locals are thriving economically, a perfect example that shows that economy and ecology can thrive together. Apart from tourism, this region has witnessed major development in its sustainable areas.

A snapshot of Lashihai wetlands

Now there is a Lashihai Fishery Association that works in collaboration with the government to negotiate their terms of commerce. Locals also play an active role in the management of water-bodies. Xihu village is one small village that is now prospering and increased the annual revenue from its fruit orchards. It is amazing to see that how with a reasonable degree of autonomy, minorities such as Naxi, Yi and Nu are actively improving the environment on which they are symbiotically dependent. Perhaps with more autonomy, they may be able to avert imminent environmental disasters.

About the author: Asmita, apart from being a regular contributor of Whatagreenlife, also works as a project associate in Minds Abroad, an educational organization conducting cultural immersion programs, language classes, volunteering and interns in Asia. Minds Abroad has close relationship with several environmental non-profit organizations in Yunnan, China.

For more information go to: http://www.mindsabroad.com/

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