Monday, August 11, 2008

Visit to the NGO: Green Watershed

The weekend was busy. The day after my meeting with the professor, I met with Green Watershed—a non-governmental organization that helped me as a liaison to Lijiang during my grant-proposal-writing-process. Once again, I learned a great deal even though my time at their office was short. I detail my learnings here…

Green Watershed, founded by rockstar Yu Xiaogang (a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize), is located in Lashi Lake, a water source to Lijiang. One of their staff members—a young Social Worker who is just hands-down awesome—accompanied me to their office. After a bumpy one-hour ride, picking up villagers as we made our way (geez, with 70-year old grandpas in the back gripping to the edges of the minibus-turned-pickup-truck), we arrived at the home-converted-office, just on the edges of beautiful Lashi Lake—a watershed on the Wetlands of International Importance list.

Talking with the staff (shown here) was stimulating. All were young, mostly in their twenties, perhaps one in his early thirties. And, most were students or graduates of Social Work. I think it's wonderful how interwoven social work seems to be with environmental issues here. It makes sense—being invested in the needs of communities goes hand and hand with environmental protection, even here in China.

In a 1998 drought, over 300 cities in China found themselves without water. This alarming situation elevated the water issue in the country, kick-starting a heightened need for watershed management. In 2000, Green Watershed, also known as the Participatory Watershed Management Research and Promotion Center, stepped up to the plate. Eight years later, they continue to do amazing capacity-building work, which is utterly community-based.

Recently, much of Lashi Lake has been dammed, disrupting the local people’s way of life. To combat this, Green Watershed works to restore the residents’ livelihoods in a sustainable manner, and educates them to know their water rights. As the context of Lashi Lake represents a multitude of problems to be learned from, Green Watershed implements a diverse array of pilot projects in the area. They hope to learn from their experimental capacity-building projects, to then replicate them in similar situations across the area and country. Start small, grow bigger, smarter—a wonderful idea.

Green Watershed’s programs are multifaceted. They involve Watershed Management Programs, including a Water Resources Protection committee and Fishers’ Association, Microcredit Programs for the women of the area, and Education Programs also for women and children. The programs are participatory and community-based. Over and over again, the staff mentioned the words capacity, capacity, capacity, the local peoples’ voice, voice, voice, the local people making their own decisions, decisions, decisions. They do not assume that each village surrounding the lake is the same; each has their own priorities on what they want to protect. And so, Green Watershed makes sure the local people decide for themselves what they want to do. By increasing the people’s capacity for decision-making, increasing their awareness for local environment protection, and increasing their strength to SPEAK OUT for their personal and environmental rights—Green Watershed comprehensively works at capacity building.

One such fabulous example is a pilot program in Xihu Village. The dam on Lashi Lake flooded their land, forcing them to move uphill for living and cultivation. This uphill land was not as fertile, not as rich as their previous soil. Likewise, by cutting down trees to make way for their new environmental-refugee'd home, their deforestation prompted landslides, disrupting the ecosystem and destroying their new homes.

All in all, a lose-lose situation.

In response, Green Watershed helped them plant fruit trees along their hills (though the people themselves could decide what fruit trees they wanted to harvest), so that they could make a healthy income while protecting their area from landslides. In doing so, the NGO hopes the local people understand the grand intersection between livelihoods, protection, and development—showing them that they can protect their environment while still making money. It seems to be working pretty well.

So… where does Lijiang come in?

In 1994, Lijiang found itself without water—in a big, fat drought. To prevent such a situation from occurring again (common, tourist money depended on it!), they dammed Lashi Lake and diverted water through newly built aqueducts to Lijiang’s Old Town. THAT was why the people of Lashi Lake had their lake dammed, their homes flooded, their livelihoods changed. Because of the tourists. The dam flooded the local Naxi and Yi peoples’ land, forcing them to move uphill and disrupting their way of life. The damming changed the environment, so much so that it changed the people’s interactions with their environment—it changed their livelihoods, their tradition, their culture.

So—my tourist self, and the millions of other fellow tourists that frolic here, destroyed the people of Lashi Lake’s way of life. Great.

Now that their homes have been flooded, as a result of this booming tourism in Lijiang, people have adjusted their livelihoods—but they are not as productive as they once were. Further, many villagers move to the Old Town, trying to make a living off the booming tourism industry. Young girls come to work in this Disneyland, perhaps relinquishing their education to make money. Life just isn’t the same; Lijiang has profoundly impacted the Lashi Lake Watershed, and all the people living in the surrounding area. Lijiang’s water problems, thus, are not isolated—they are wide-reaching, and thus all the more alarming. Once again, the unknown scale of impact due to Lijiang’s actions is frightening. No scientific studies, according to a staff member at Green Watershed, have been done of the Lashi Lake Watershed. How long will the ecosystem continue to survive against these changes? We don’t know. And that is scary.

Tradition and New Livelihoods

I asked a staff member about the significance of water to the Naxi people. Did Green Watershed take into account this traditional importance of water within their projects? Yes, and no, was the answer. There have been attempts in collecting the stories of the villages’ Elders—most specifically in a really great Children’s Book (that they gave me a copy of!) entitled “I Love Lashi Lake.” The illustrated storybook was written by local elders, detailing traditions and stories for the younger generation. The hope is that children in schools will read the book, and learn about their great inheritance. But, unfortunately, this is really not the case. These stories of elders are not getting passed on very well; the keeping of tradition is very weak. “Isn’t that SAD?” I asked. Sad, the staff member replied, but REALISTIC. Despite attempts to preserve traditional culture, it is not remembering the past that will put food on the table, that will prevent their land from continuing to be flooded as Lijiang needs more water. Time must be spent on supporting livelihoods, not revering what once was. Again, the same idea as from Helpful Professor #1: an acknowledgment of culture’s importance, a try at preserving it, and an eventual relinquishment to focus on more strategic ways of moving forward. Sigh. It’s realistic, but still depressing.

So, while Helpful Professor #1 said that “perhaps tradition still works in the villages, but not in Lijiang”… I don’t really see this to be the case. Even here in the villages, tradition is getting lost. Even here.


michael bird said...

Am enjoying your posting and telling of your adventures and research in China. Danielle (your aunt, my daughter) let me know of your blogging. Still have a few more of the ones in the middle to read. I find it fascinating as you apparently do as well. Well done, young lady.

La Redecouverte said...

Hey, I am doing my undergrad senior thesis on China's environmental movement and have definitely been looking at green watershed's work. When I googled them your blog came up. If I cite you, can I reference your experience and your observations? Also, I love reading about your time both in Lijiang and with Naxi people. I went to Lijiang in 2007 and stayed with a Naxi family for a bit. Hands down, the best time of my life. Let me know about the reference.