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Green Camel Bell recently held the first meeting for environmental organisations in the Maqu area to get to know one another, share conservation experiences, and discuss the issues facing the grasslands.
Six grassroots organisations from around the region attended the successful meeting, moderated by GCB. Although many of them were only established in the last 2 years, their real enthusiasm and commitment to the local environment was overwhelming. The meeting heard some well considered discussions about the problems that they need to tackle as a group.
As consumerism and tourism to the area grows, the issue of litter has become one of the worst problems in Maqu. A local resident told me, ‘the most noticeable difference to our land in the last 15 years is the build up of rubbish everywhere along the roads’. As a result, most of the organisations have largely focussed their efforts on clearing litter in their local areas.
The magnitude of the problem lead to a heated debate on approriate waste management in the Maqu. Whilst most believe that incineration is the best option currently available, some groups protested about the pollutants emitted during incineration, objecting that while it may reduce visible pollution, they risked greater harm to the environment.
Unfortunately, litter is not the only environmental problem facing Maqu today. The grasslands are in severe danger of desertification, with patches of desert already visible amongst the fields, and the wetlands are being destroyed. The growing demand for the medicinal Caterpillar Fungus is damaging their ecosystem and reducing food sources for livestock.
A number of more local issues are causing other serious challenges to the simple agricultural lifestyle in Maqu. A Wan Cang is suffering an endemic problem with Pikas: small, rabbit-like rodents that burrows under their land, turning grazing land into unusable, shallow fields of soil.
In Ni Ma there are 6 or 7 gold mines; extraction has meant heavy mercury pollution in the air, and in the town of Wu La there have been rumours that new mines are to be opened.
As the threats to Maqu’s environment increase, it is imperative that interested parties come together to share their knowledge and support one another’s efforts.
GCB’s Jinba, leading the meeting
In addition to environmental conservation, the group also discussed conservation of the Tibetan culture. According to the official 2000 census 51% of the Gannan population are Tibetan, and it has a noticeable impact on the area: almost everyone we see in Maqu wears a Tibetan ‘Chuba’ coat and speaks the local Tibetan dialect.
It is important for the local groups to preserve their customs, religious beliefs and language. Beyond cultural significance, Tibetan folklore has a positive impact on the environment and biodiversity too: children are taught not to harm fish or frogs for example, as doing so will anger the God of Water who can inflict sickness and floods. These beliefs have kept Maqu the beautiful a landscape as it is, but the older members of society see the traditions slowly disappearing. They hope that greater education of the young could help reverse this, and protect the Tibetan identity.
The meeting was passionate, comprehensive, and hopeful. All of the attendees left with positive feedback for the GCB team, and a clear plan for future meetings which will be held twice a year, focussing on one topic each time.
When asked the question: ‘what is your vision of Maqu in the future?’ the answer was unanimous. Everyone looked to clear blue skies and world reknown natural beauty.
This may be only the first meeting for Maqu’s environmental organisatoins, but the collaborative atmosphere was encouraging. Through their combined effort I am sure that their dream will be realised.
Attendees from the 6 organsations in Maqu, along with GCB staff Jin Ba, Hu Yu, and GCB friend Shao Jun
Co-operation in Maqu
The Maqu grasslands are breathtaking, with meandering rivers that carve through olive-green fields (bright green in the summer), rising into folded mountains with snowy peaks.
They are also key to Green Camel Bell’s environmental and developmental work in the Gansu province. GCB helps to educate local residents about the dangers of desertification for their way of life, and how they can protect their land, amongst other activities.
Maqu grasslands and snow-capped mountains, seen from A Wan Cang
On this visit, GCB went to help a local group of Tibetan farmers register their specialised farmers cooperative.
The farmers were incredibly ambitious, hoping to sell all variety of Yak products (including yak’s fur, milk, butter, and meat), open a motorcycle and car repair shop, open a guest host, sell local delicacies to tourists, and even open up a small diner.
Chinese Government regulations restrict what a farmer’s co-operatives can sell however. The Green Camel Bell team consulted local authorities and laws, and advised the farmers, who agreed to specialise in producing and selling yak products.
Registering the co-op turned out to be a lengthy bureaucratic hurdle – local government edicts do not seem to correspond with central government rules, the number of required members is unclear, and it was difficult to find the right officials to answer our questions.
The complexity of setting up a co-op may discourage vital local conservation efforts: the farmers know how to care for the land, and more than anyone they know that they must maintain the grasslands in order to maintain their income.
In fact, Maqu is under serious threat of desertification caused by changes in the climate, over grazing, and mismanagement of the grasslands. Protecting the grassland is crucial to ensure food security, and the local farmers are in a good position to do this if they can make a credible living from their farms.
Empowering local residents through co-operatives can achieve a more responsible and environmentally sustainable form of economic growth in one of China’s most beautiful areas. If this is achieved here, Maqu could become an example for the Chinese countryside, and for the country.
Ah Gan Zhen is a bleak coal-mining town close to central Lanzhou, largely unvisited and unknown by the residents of the city. Although it is a small town it endures terrible pollution from a variety of sources. A Green Camel Bell staff member and 2 volunteers went to survey the residents about the coal pollution in their town.
Coal mining first began in Ah Gan Zhen during the Ming Dynasty and has continued to this day. Large-scale industrial mining was introduced in the 1950s, increasing productivity but depleting the town’s coal reserves.
Ah Gan Zhen had proven reserves of over 5,760 million tons of coal of which 4,378 million tons have been mined to date*. It is projected that the coal resources can only be maintained for another 10 years if mining continues at the current rate of 30 million tons per year.
The town is reinventing itself to find sustainable revenue, investing in the agricultural and tourism industries. Forests, temples and beautiful scenery are all easily accessible from Ah Gan Zhen, making it an ideal base. However, with current levels of pollution, attracting tourists won’t be easy.
The river in Ah Gan Zhen, which flows into the Yellow River
My first impression upon arrival was of a forgotten industrial town. Bridges span a thin ochre stream, where there should be a river; the riverbed is flowing with plastic bags and rubbish; further heaps of waste are incinerated at the sides of the road, covering parts of the town with a thick noxious plume; old apartment buildings billow yellow smoke. Ah Gan Zhen has been consumed by its industrial industry without regard for environmental quality.
After digesting their surroundings, Green Camel Bell’s team of 3 set about surveying the local residents about the effect of coal pollution in Ah Gan Zhen. We interviewed a total of 30 residents, ranging from 15 to 80.
Two-thirds of the residents thought the main causes of pollution were coal and waste incineration, reflecting what we had seen in the town. There was a consensus that coal was the most polluting energy source, with respondents answering that it affected air quality (23/30), human health (22/30) and water quality (14/30). Of the 30 people questioned, 29 believed that burning coal as an energy source gave them breathing difficulties.
Two women we spoke to agreed that pollution in the town is severe, but shrugged, ‘we’ve lived with it for so long that we’re used to it. For us, it’s just a fact of life’. This attitude demonstrated the attitude of the townspeople at large: there was little interest in changing habits to reduce pollution.
As coal resources deplete Ah Gan Zhen will need to find a new, hopefully greener industry to sustain the town. With more information and community education perhaps the residents will look to improve their own environment, for their own health and for the good of their town.
*according to Baidu
Video Link: http://vimeo.com/album/2123440/video/52026603
Keynote talk at Environmental Affairs Symposium of Lewis & Clark College.
TIME Magazine “Hero of the Environment” and prominent Chinese grassroots leader, Zhao Zhong, recently spoke at The Asia Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco on working with governments and corporations to increase accountability in order to protect China’s rivers. Zhao Zhong is the Pacific Environment’s new China program coordinator based in Beijing. While he was in San Francisco, In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with him to discuss the role of environmental NGOs (ENGOs) in China, the challenges he faced starting the first ENGO in Gansu province (called Green Camel Bell), and China’s balance between growth and the environment. Continue reading