Will China lead us to a greener future? The answers may be found in the roadless backcountry of Yunnan Province, a corner of China endowed with exceptional biodiversity and many ethnic nationalities.
By R. Edward Grumbine
After 25 years of wildlands conservation work in the U.S., I thought I knew a thing or two about biodiversity, endangered species, and nature reserves. But China showed me something new; after hiking deep into the southwest corner of the country in Yunnan province, many of my most cherished American ideals were turned upside down.
I first traveled to Yunnan looking for dams. What I encountered instead was China’s richest treasure trove of flora, fauna, and human cultures.
Upper Nujiang (Angry River) valley.
Photo courtesy of R. Edward Grumbine
Only two times larger than California, Yunnan harbors more plants and animals than the entire United States.
Living amidst this biological splendor are many ethnic nationalities: Tibetans, Dai, Naxi, Nu, Lisu, and a host of other groups representing over half of all the peoples that call China home. And weaving together all this biocultural richness are Yunnan’s three parallel rivers, the Yangzi, Mekong, and Nu, flowing through the heart of a protected area more than two times the size of Yellowstone.
Visiting the Nu (Angry River in Mandarin), I immediately learned that I needed to check my American assumptions about China at the door. Difficult to access and running through a region where Mandarin isn’t the dominant spoken tongue, the river is the only major undammed watercourse in China.
But local officials had a plan—build 13 huge hydropower structures up and down the Nu to tame its monster rapids, forcefully relocate 50,000 poor ethnic peoples, and then sell the electricity to burgeoning Bangkok and Hanoi for profit.
Then something unprecedented happened. Bowing to national and international environmental outcry, Beijing declared a moratorium on all dam building on the Nu. For the first time, China’s one party regime responded to its citizens and halted a major development project.
The Nu moratorium shattered my assumption that China’s authoritarian government never listened to its citizens. But a moratorium is not a ban. And China emits more carbon dioxide than any country on Earth; clean hydropower can help to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Dams on the Nu are likely a matter of when, not if.
I had to visit the Nu before it was gone.
So after two days of bone-jarring bus travel, I found myself up a steep-walled side valley of the Nu in Dimaluo village.
Dimaluo has been inhabited since people moved south from Tibet at least a thousand years ago. Today, almost everyone grows corn, buckwheat, and barley, and grazes cattle, yaks, and goats. Life is not so easy in a land where poor soils and steep slopes are plentiful, and peoples’ incomes average less than U.S.$2 dollars a day.
Located at the end of all roads, Dimaluo was my trailhead for a trek into backcountry Yunnan. It didn’t take very long to find the newly opened guesthouse run by Alou, a local Tibetan guide—it was the only place to stay.
On the trail near Dimaluo village.
Photo courtesy of R. Edward Grumbine
“Nice to meet you,” Alou greeted me in halting English. Smoke drifted out from under the eaves of his cookhouse–there was no chimney. Alou’s wife was making dinner with the help of her mother and young daughter. Several chickens and a piglet scrounged in the corner; kitchens in Dimaluo were open range.
Alou offered to take me after dinner to Bai Hu Luo village, three miles up the mountain from Dimaluo. He had a meeting with Shen Shicai, a worker from the Chinese NGO Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge. Shen and Alou were talking with villagers about how to improve crop yields and deal with the government’s newly declared nature reserves.
Narrow footpaths, clouds hugging ridges, after recent rains, all the streams were roaring. The trail climbed up and up through young forests of Yunnan pine, scrub oaks, twisted rhododendrons. Bracken fern and wild ginger thrived in the late-summer understory. These mountains mixed subtropical and temperate vegetation in a botanical blend that was almost unimaginable.
The first thing I noticed upon entering Bai Hu Luo was a large satellite dish. The second was a concrete basketball court. We were miles from the nearest road and 1,500 feet up a steep ridge. No village hereabouts had indoor plumbing. I knew that the government had promised to electrify every village in rural China, but why did TV take precedence over sewage treatment?
Shen Shicai wasn’t going to answer my question. “Every village has at least one TV,” explained Shen. “Basketball is big here, too. I don’t know when people put the courts in, but everyone plays. Just say ‘Yao Ming’ to anyone.”
Shen outlined the issues the villagers confront. “The government wants more stock animals raised, roads for tourism, and, of course, the Nu dams. And they want villagers to stay out of the nature reserves.”
There were other problems. Shen described a classic rural cycle: nutrient-deficient soils resulting in low yields, and local people too poor to purchase better seeds and fertilizer, leading to an exodus to nearby towns for cash jobs.
“And neither the big dams nor the nature reserves are going to solve these problems,” Shen concluded.
If you prefer to hike into unknown territory with maps, native language skills, and a detailed itinerary, don’t come to the Nu. Alou wouldn’t even tell me how many days our trek would take, though he did confirm that he had enough food for us.
My goal was to explore deep into the Nu watershed hiking up into the Bi Luo Snow Mountains through a big chunk of roadless country before descending to the Mekong River. The route might function as a biological corridor linking the two rivers to protect biodiversity over the long term.
Given that the Nu was a biodiversity hotspot, my conservation biology background led me to expect that such a plan was already underway. But the reality is that no scientific studies have ever focused on this area.
A few miles outside of Dimaluo, the trail steepened and thick forest closed in. The trees were tall and centuries-old, bearing dense layers of ferns and epiphytes. I recognized relatives of plants from all over North America, genera from Tennessee, California, New England, and British Columbia. This was one of the most species-rich forests on Earth.
Yet despite being half a day’s hike from any road, people were everywhere. We passed through a Lisu nationality hamlet with its mixed plots of corn, amaranth, and chiles. A huge difference between China and the U.S. was dawning on me; nobody knows how many millions of poor rural people live inside Chinese protected areas.
After seven hours of hard hiking, Alou led me across a stream up into a clearing where a run-down wooden shack stood in a weed-choked pasture.
Village hearth, backcountry Yunnan.
Photo courtesy of R. Edward Grumbine
“It’s dirty, but this is camp tonight,” Alou announced. Confirming his assessment, two large pigs scooted from the doorway. We swept out the shack, laid sleeping bags on wood planks off the dirt floor, built a fire, stewed fresh pork shoulder with wild greens, and ate.
“We walked along the route of the new road today,” Alou volunteered.
I couldn’t believe it. We had just scrambled all day uphill through a series of steep canyons, leaving the last village 3,000 feet below. The villagers didn’t need a road. Nobody owned a car.
“The government wants to link the Nu valley with the Mekong,” Alou said. “It will bring more visitors, like you. We’ll have a better economy.”
“Do you want cars driving by your house every day, Alou?”, I asked quietly. “Do you want a bunch of tourists taking pictures of you hoeing your corn?”
Alou looked into the fire and thought about it. “It might not be too bad, I don’t know. Anyway, the government’s going to start sometime soon. Take about three years.”
Dams, roads, poor people living inside protected areas—I was beginning to realize that I couldn’t judge China by American standards. In fact, it was clear that the more I looked at Yunnan through American eyes, the less I would be able to comprehend China on its own terms.
But over the next five years of trekking all over Yunnan and talking with many Chinese villagers, academics, and activists, I began to piece together a path toward a new vision for nature in China that wasn’t based on foreign ideas. Maybe China could create a more sustainable map to the future, a conservation with Chinese characteristics. But with dams and roads pushing in to the backcountry, millions of villagers still living in poverty, and carbon emissions rising, I knew there wasn’t much time.
R. Edward Grumbine chairs the Masters in Environmental Studies Program at Prescott College, Arizona and also teaches in the undergraduate Environmental Studies Program. He is the editor of Environmental Policy and Biodiversity and the author of Ghost Bears: Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis and Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River: Nature and Power in the People’s Republic of China (www.angryriver.org), published by Island Press April 2010.