She Greens Rural China, Village by Village
At under five feet, Cun Yanfang doesn’t cut a very imposing figure. But the 31-year-old Chinese villager is proof of the influence that the little people can have on the environment even in the middle of a massive environmental crisis. A member of the Naxi tribe from western China’s Yunnan province, Cun has focused on saving the Yunnan golden monkey, which numbers only around 1,500 and has suffered largely from the illegal logging that continually plagues the region. (The golden monkey happens to love leafy heights -- it lives at the highest altitude of any primate, 10,000 feet.)
With funding from the Nature Conservancy and Rare (and a keen sense of humor and marketing acumen), she travels across the area drumming up support for her campaign, which has installed biogas feeders and solar panels to reduce the local need for firewood.
With visits to schools, village quizzes and prizes for green-themed performances at local festivals, her campaign also seeks to educate locals about the monkey and, more so, to build a sense of responsibility among them, all while appealing to their entrepreneurial instincts. As she tells the Christian Science Monitor this week:
The CSM quotes He Xuefan, headmaster of Shitou's elementary school: "People here now have the sense that they should protect the environment, which they didn't before. There are some guys who go on hunting and logging, but now they come in for criticism by other villagers."
"We want to use people's pride in their hometowns to make them responsible for their own places," explains Cun. "It shouldn't be because of law enforcement."
Building respect for ecosystems among locals is a tactic also embraced by those NGOs trying to build eco-tourist destinations in China. An appreciation for nature amongst visitors is important, but building pride among locals is just as important—and key to ensuring the co-management that will keep such sites green.
In China, bred on Confucianism and communism, I find that it is sometimes more a sense of obligation to the community, not law enforcement, that keeps society running smoothly. Until the country can implement laws and policies from the national to the local level, environmental protection is going to need to depend more than ever on community bonds, public shame, and person-to-person influence.
This is a lesson not just for local leaders like Cun but also for domestic and international companies operating in China. If they can recognize their obligations to local communities and act accordingly, they can play a large role in cleaning China's rise, currying favor with locals and the government.
NGOs like Rare are already playing a strong part. The US-based charity that funded Cun's work in Yunnan has recently launched a new initiative with China's State Environmental Protection Agency to train local leaders. It is a nice coincidence that the chair of Rare's board, environmental educator Wendy Paulson, is wife of Henry Paulson, the Treasury Secretary. His leadership on the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue has provided a rare channel for discussion and ideas on sustainable development in both countries.
Similarly, local environmental leaders in China aren't just improving their communities but providing examples that can be replicated across China -- and in the U.S. As Cun Yanfang prepares for a two-year master's program in natural resource management and policy at Cornell University, funded by the Ford Foundation, companies and NGOs (and local governments) in China might help by finding ways to help other homegrown leaders like Cun -- there are many more like her who could use the assistance. We could all use it.