Keeping the natural magic of Shangri-la

Posted: 19 May 2003

In 2002, the Chinese government officially renamed the breath-takingly beautiful county of Zhongdian, in Yunnan Province, as "Shangri-la". It did so as a tribute to a place which is known as the original Shangri-la. It was also intended to boost the growing flood of tourists into an area to which outsiders were long forbidden entry. Here Caroline Liou reports on these tourist pressures and one project which is helping local people to deal with them.

On the edge of the Tibetan plateau is a place of such stunning beauty that it is claimed to be the inspiration for Shangri-la, "the spiritual land of peace and perfection". Not that long ago, this region was off-limits to the world. But now it's an easy 45-minute flight from Kunming's international airport in southern China. And the tourists are pouring in.

Tourists flock to Shangri-la to seeits cultural and natural wonders,such as Meili mountain.© WWF/Li ChaoIt's not hard to see why. Bounded by the Himalayas to the north and Myanmar to the west, China's Zhongdian county has incredible diversity. Snow-capped mountains tower over the plateau in the north, feeding the Jinsha (Golden Sand), Lancang (Mekong), and Yangtze Rivers that carve their way through the plateau, which is still covered by large tracts of pristine montane forest and alpine meadows.

Located in the northwest of Yunnan province, Zhongdian (Gyalthang in Tibetan) county is part of the Deqin Tibet Autonomous Prefecture. As well as Tibetans, the county is home to 12 other ethnic minorities, including Lisu, Naxi, and Yi. The region is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, including the endangered Yunnan golden monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti), snow leopard (Uncia uncia), and clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), as well as ancient pines, oaks, and rhododendrons.

The numerous freshwater lakes on the plateau support rich fish, amphibian, and aquatic plant life. Because of its remoteness, the area remains one of the most intact and biologically diverse parts of China. Indeed, two of WWF's Global 200 ecoregions - a science-based ranking of the world's most biologically outstanding habitats - are found in this small area.

Tourist paradise.

The rich cultural and biological diversity adds up to a paradise for tourists. In the last year, over 128,000 tourists visited this area, a rise of about 10 per cent over the previous year and more than double the county's entire population. The official change of name is bound to boost tourism even further

This used to be good news for Dakpa Kelden, an ethnic Tibetan, Shangri-la local, and professional guide who makes his living from tourism. But now, this once-remote frontier is starting to burst its seams, and the trade in which Dakpa has found success has become a threat to local communities. Dakpa Kelden and local villagers from Trini.© WWF/Ramy InocencioOfficially, increased tourism - and the income it brings - is good news. Last year tourism brought in Y3,882,900 (US$474,000) to the main city of Shangri-la, Zhongdian town, a rise of 37 per cent from the previous year.

But in reality, much of the growth is driven by outsiders who have the money and skills to work in tourism. "Big companies are moving in. They want to build cable cars up one of our sacred mountains, and plant tulip fields (which don't naturally grow in the region) for tourists," says Dakpa. "Fake homestays are being set up, where people dressed in Tibetan costumes sing karaoke and do modern dances nothing like traditional Tibetan dancing."

Poorest people

Meanwhile, the real Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, who make up the vast majority of Shangri-la's population, are amongst the poorest people in China. In Shangri-la, over 60 per cent of people live below China's poverty line of Y570 (US$70) per year.

For Dakpa, managing inappropriate tourism developments and practices that degrade habitats and threaten traditional culture is becoming increasingly urgent. "Things are developing very quickly and it's affecting younger generations. We need to teach our cultural traditions to them," he says.

In his home village of Trini, Dakpa, with help from WWF, has built a community-based ecolodge and learning centre. The aim of the project is to empower local communities to manage tourism in a way that conserves the environment, maintains cultural diversity, and provides them with an equitable share of the benefits.

A local Trini villager volunteers his timeto help build the community learningcentre and ecolodge.© WWF/Ramy Inocencio"What is unique about this project is that the community takes ownership," says Liu Yunhua, WWF China's Education Programme officer. "The first step is to work with the community to help solve the problems they care about most. We aren't just supplying 'hardware', we aim to provide the 'software' necessary for engaging people in sustainable development. It is an education process through which the local communities are empowered to make decisions and take action for a sustainable future."

Learning centre

Trini's residents have volunteered their time and skills to construct the buildings. "We've used wood from an old house, and will install biogas for energy because wood is scarce," says Dakpa.

The community learning centre will serve both as a place where locals can discuss community issues and as a learning centre for Tibetan language and culture. Funds earned from the ecolodge will support the centre and help rebuild the village school, currently in disrepair.

Sixteen-year old Kelsang Phuntsok, who lives in Trini, is all for it. "Villagers here are poor. This centre is giving people hope that if they work hard, they can send their children to school in the future." Of the 30 kids in the village, Kelsang is one of only two who are able to attend high school in Zhongdian.

Another school in Shangri-la is also helping local communities.

The mostly Tibetan residents of Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve, which covers one-third of Zhongdian county, rely heavily on the area's natural resources. Reserve staff, in charge of protecting these resources, used to come in regular conflict with residents trying to eke out a living. But with the help of locals like Lobsang Choeden and Tashi Gyatso, things have changed for the better. Now, reserve staff are often invited into locals' homes for cups of steaming yak butter tea.

Community school

Lobsang and Tashi are monks, and teachers at the Baimaxueshan (White Horse Snow Mountain) Tibetan Community School. The school is part of a WWF project aimed at motivating local communities to better manage their natural resources. To get locals involved, the project has established two community learning centres and is also working with schools and monasteries in the reserve. The Baimaxueshan Tibetan Community School has received funding from both WWF and the local government to build a new eco-friendly two-storey school building with a biogas system and solar energy, aimed at decreasing dependence on wood for fuel.

Lobsang Choeden, Xiao Lin and Tashi Gyatso in front of the site of the new Baimaxueshan (White Horse Snow Mountain) Tibetan Community School.© WWF/Ramy Inocencio"When we first started our school, local authorities were suspicious because, unlike other schools here that recruit teachers from outside the area and who teach in Chinese, ours was a Tibetan-language school," says Tashi.

"Working with WWF has helped bring the community together with the local government and nature reserve staff. Government officials are now supportive of our school - this collaboration makes us very happy," says Tashi

Planting trees

In turn, the school helps locals to get involved in managing the area's natural resources and is setting examples for the community on protecting the environment. Together with monks from the nearby Dongzhulin monastery, the students have planted 2,000 trees. "Responsibility for the trees is divided amongst the students. They get up early every morning to water them and take care of them," says Tashi. "This teaches personal responsibility, which is an important part of protecting the environment."

In addition, the school curriculum, which teaches Tibetan language and history, also incorporates environmental education, which they see as a fundamental part of Buddhism. "Buddhist teachings tell us to protect nature, animals, and water. This is stressed to our students," says Tashi.

Working behind the scenes of the new collaboration between the community, government, and reserve staff is Xiao Lin, vice director of nature reserve since 1991.

"Back then we were doing a lot of research, and had little time for the community," he says. "We saw our role as disseminators of information about regulations. There were many conflicts with the local community who were poaching and logging illegally." At the time, many people in the reserve were arrested for infringing nature reserve regulations.

Involving monks

After 1996, things began to change, "Through working with WWF, we realized that we could initiate ideas together with the community. So the first thing I did when we began working with WWF was to invite a gexi (a high lama) from Tibet to give speeches in several villages about the importance of the reserve." After that, relations with locals changed for the better.

The next thing Xiao Lin did was to organize an educational workshop for the local community at Dongzhulin monastery. "At the workshop we taught monks about environmental education. We also selected villagers, many of whom were former hunters, to help patrol the mountains for illegal poaching," says Xiao Lin.

Since 2000, no one in the community has been arrested for infringing conservation regulations. "Locals now realize that working together with reserve staff, government, and NGOs is a good thing. Through the schools and community learning centres, they are participating in making decisions and improving their ability to reach out and get help," says Xiao Lin.

Both the new Baimaxueshan Tibetan Community School and Trini's community learning centre and ecolodge will open on 1 June 2003, Children's Day. Tashi, Lobsang, and Dakpa are all excited about the potential their schools and learning centres have to help bring a sustainable future to Shangri-la - and beyond.

Says Tashi: "Three great rivers originate in Tibetan areas, providing water and livelihoods for millions in China and other countries. Similarly, we hope that our actions here will not only benefit Tibetan areas, but those downstream as well."

Caroline Liou is Web and Communications Manager at WWF China.For more information on Global 200 ecoregions, visit WWF ecoregions For more information on WWF China's Integrated Conservation and Development Programme work in the Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve, visit WWF ChinaFor more information on WWF China's work on education for sustainability, visit WWF