Places We Protect: Yunnan Forests

In China’s northwest Yunnan Province, four of Asia’s great rivers flow within a span of just 56 miles, winding their way through a series of high mountains and narrow canyons and valleys, creating unique microclimates and supporting an abundance of wildlife. The region’s old-growth alpine forests shelter more than 30 endangered animal species, including the Yunnan golden monkey. More than three million people representing 15 ethnic minorities call this remote and timeless landscape home.

Massive Forest Benefits and even Bigger Threats

Yunnan’s rivers — the Yangtze, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong — supply approximately one in 10 people on Earth with food, water, transportation and trade. The forests that flank these rivers protect water quality by filtering out contaminants and erosion, and absorbing floodwater during rainy seasons. Up to forty percent of China’s medicinal herbs and 75 percent of Tibet’s grow in northwest Yunnan.

But the forests that have sustained communities since ancient times are now struggling under growing pressure from:

  • Heavy wood collection for fuel and building supplies
  • Loss of habitat due to burgeoning development and increased poverty
  • Animal poaching – including the Yunnan golden monkey – for food and income

Fuel wood collection alone contributes to the loss of 300,000 acres of forest each year in Yunnan. Forest loss and degradation also robs people of non-timber forest products such as medicinal herbs and valuable mushrooms.

Hope for a Sustainable Future

Launched in 1998, The Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan project is not just about preserving the region’s rich biodiversity. We are working with partners to help people in China’s most remote and impoverished communities make environmentally sustainable choices that preserve and improve life. Protecting the region’s forests and freshwater resources will also benefit hundreds of millions of people living in urban areas downstream.

Working with Chinese partners, our strategies include:

Increasing protection for preserves and national parks
The Chinese government has designated more than 2,500 nature reserves covering 15 percent of China’s total land area, yet little of this land has been well managed. The Conservancy is helping identify and manage the most sensitive areas and create ecotourism opportunities in areas that can safely be enjoyed. Following the successful national park model in the United States, the Conservancy recently assisted China in establishing its first national park – Pudacuo National Park. The natural wonderland of Pudacuo contains endemic fish, black-necked cranes and rare and beautiful orchids. More national parks are in the works.

Science-Guided Action
Conservancy and partner scientists, in partnership with local government agencies, undertook a rigorous study of the region and selected five high-priority Conservation Action Sites — Lashi Lake Watershed, Meili Snow Mountain, Laojun Mountain, Shangri-la Gorge, and the Northern Gaoligong Mountain. In each of these sites, the Conservancy is working with partners to develop conservation management plans, strategies to reduce threats to biological and cultural diversity, and sustainable ways to use natural resources.

Golden Monkey Project
The Conservancy’s work to protect the highly endangered Yunnan golden monkey is the largest species-focused conservation project in China since the conservation efforts focusing on the giant panda in the 1970s and 1980s. Working with the State Forestry Administration, the Conservancy will complete development of the China Golden Monkey Conservation Action Plan, and establish five community-based refuges to protect all three golden monkey species in China.

Alternative Energy
To reduce overharvesting of wood for energy, the Conservancy and local government agencies are providing joint subsidies and technical assistance to install energy alternatives ranging from household biogas furnaces and fuel-efficient stoves to solar power and integrated energy systems at schools. Since 2000, the Conservancy and our Chinese partners have installed more than 12,000 alternative energy units in homes and schools in 420 villages. We plan to install units in at least 9,000 more households.

Green Village Credit
The Green Village Credit program, a Conservancy partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, provides villagers with loans to pay for alternative energy installations and training in income-generating activities such as animal husbandry, cash crop cultivation and ecotourism. The program, which has already made more than $300,000 in loans to over 600 households, equips villagers with the tools to not only pay back their loans, but also improve their livelihoods.

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities
The Conservancy is creating community-based conservation programs to engage and educate local villagers, and encourage alternative energy and green building projects in at least 100 communities in northwest Yunnan.

Environmental Education
By developing community-based education programs on alternative energy, energy-efficient building and alternative livelihoods, the Conservancy is fostering community participation and improving environmental awareness for protecting the natural resources of the Yunnan forests.

The Conservancy intends to build on our successes and momentum in Yunnan Province to launch similar programs in Guangxi Province and kick off new efforts in several additional provinces, including Qinghai and Inner Mongolia. With the help of our partners and supporters, we can forge a sustainable future for nature and people.

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