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Rooted in Nature

In Naren, a village hidden in virgin forests in northwestern Yunnan, locals try to maintain their connection with the environment despite encroachment from the outside world

By Wang Yan Updated Mar.1

An overview of Naren Village, Yunnan Province, October 2020. The village has a monastery on its central hill and it is also building a nature education center

Some 200 kilometers to the east of Dulongjiang, in the domain of the World Natural Heritage Landscape of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, there lies China’s most intact virgin forest landscape. The small village of Naren nestles in the mountains between the headwaters of the Langcang and Jinsha rivers, which downstream become the Mekong and the Yangtze.  

In late October our correspondent walked in the virgin forest surrounding the village with Lu Rong, 56, a Naren villager and forest ranger employed by Baima Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve. They observed hares, pheasants and wild birds with bright plumages - yellow, blue or red. They smelled the fresh moist air mixed with the scent of fungi, pine needles and towering fir trees, and felt the soft soil covered with fallen leaves, fern and mosses.  

Lu looked up at the verdant mountain forest with an average altitude of over 3,500 meters, and said that every August, a group of over 450 Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys migrates from the nearby reserve and stays in the forest for a couple of months.  

The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, a species famous for its red lips and pink face, is indigenous. It has been classified as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species with a total population of less than 3,500. Its habitat is the mountains bordering Yunnan Province and Tibet Autonomous Region at 3,000 meters above sea level.  

Endangered Monkeys
Baima Reserve in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province was set up in the late 1980s specifically to study and conserve this unique monkey species. According to Sina Cili, one of the reserve’s managers, there are three groups of monkeys in the conservation area. One group stays inside the reserve, the other two mainly live in the forests around Naren and the neighboring village of Bamei. “In Naren, the group increased from over 100 in the late 1990s to 450 or so because of all the efforts by the reserve and its neighboring communities,” Sina told the reporter in late October 2020.  

Due to large-scale commercial logging over the past few decades in northwestern Yunnan, which continued until the late 1990s, the natural habitat of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey has significantly diminished. “They used to live inside the reserve, however the forests were partly destroyed due to road construction, so they migrated to our village where the forests remain intact,” Lu said.  

“I began working as a forest ranger in the late 1990s, and I normally patrol the mountains twice a month,” he said. Lu said he is so enchanted with the monkeys, even obsessed, that he follows them wherever they go.  

During the last two decades, in contrast to the previous over-exploitation of natural resources from the 1960s to the 1980s, the need for environmental protection and biodiversity preservation started to gain ground in most parts of China, including Deqin, the county which administers Naren Village. Now, there are 40 volunteer forest rangers, one from each village household. They take part in twice-monthly patrols to monitor illegal hunting and logging. 
The conservation measures mean that the population of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys has increased from 1,500 in the 1990s to 3,500 today. 

Prayers and Mountain Gods
Every morning, as the sun rises and the village awakens, households in Naren, a remote ethnic Tibetan village, burn incense and juniper on the flat roofs of their homes. As the white smoke curls up and away, Lu Rong throws grains into the air as offerings and chants Tibetan prayers to the mountain gods. “We pray to the three mountain gods of our village and Kawakarpo, our regional lha (god), to protect us wherever we go, ensure our harvests are good, for good weather throughout the year with enough rainfall, and for the prosperity and peace of our village and of all sentient beings across the world,” Lu said. “Every day begins with this ceremony and occasionally the villagers go to the monastery in our village to conduct the ceremony together. It’s a routine passed down for generations.” 

“Apart from its religious connotations in connecting humans with the natural world, burning incense, juniper, pine and rhododendron branches during the prayer ceremonies is a way to purify the air and stop the spread of diseases, a way to harmonize relationships among people. It originated from ancient Tibetan culture thousands of years ago,” said Luo Ga, a Tibetan doctor and herbal medicine producer in Diqing.  

“In the ecological system of Tibetans, any living beings including animals, plants and human beings equally coexist and no species is prioritized, even though some are vocal and some are not,” Luo told NewsChina in late November 2020.  

This traditional belief system was abruptly interrupted in the 1960s through to the 1980s due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and other social turmoil in China’s modern history. In Naren, like other places across the country, hunting wildlife was legal and widespread. It resulted in the near extinction of many wild species. In the late 1990s, as the country started to enforce wildlife protection laws, regional reserves like Baima began to have an effect. In Naren, the revival of Buddhist beliefs as well as teachings from monks and Lamas, who called on villagers to stop hunting, reversed the crisis.  

“Our Lama came to give teachings in the late 1990s, and all the villagers were asked to vow in front of the Lama never to hunt again and prevent outsiders from entering our forests to poach,” 30-year-old Nima, a Naren resident, told the reporter.  

“We started regular forest patrols and cleared away wire traps. Gradually we began to see a recovery in wildlife numbers,” Nima said. Images of many species including the Chinese goral, a type of antelope, and leopards that had not been seen for years were captured again by infrared cameras.  

Since Baima Reserve was established, authorities realized the importance of involving local people, so they encouraged villagers in and near the reserve to help protect endangered species like the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. Environmental NGOs including the WWF, the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International started community-based conservation programs in Yunnan’s northwest.  

Involving local communities in conservation has proved effective in China. For Tibetan communities in particular, the combination of their traditional religion, cultural customs and modern scientific conservation measures has resulted in success stories. Conservation organizations realized that religious and cultural beliefs provide entry points to spread the conservation message.  

One way is participating in local traditions. In late autumn, the reporter joined staff from Baima Reserve to participate in Gedong, a Buddhist festival at Dongzhulin Buddhist Monastery in Deqin County. The main purpose, according to Sina Cili from Baima Reserve, is to cooperate with religious leaders in disseminating conservation concepts and environmental protection among festival goers.  

Lu Rong (center) and other Naren villagers pray and burn incense to their local mountain god, or lha, every morning

Dust rises after a mountain slope is blasted for a dam construction project on the Jinsha River near Sarong Village, northwest Yunnan Province, October 2020. Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys migrate to this area every autumn

A Yunnan snub-nosed monkey photographed by a camera trap in the forest near Naren Village, Yunnan Province

Traditional Governance 
“In the past, we didn’t have widespread commercial logging in our village. It allowed our forests to survive, so today we expect to continue our lifestyle while at the same time continuing to protect our mountain forests,” Lu Rong said. Rules devised by village households mean the utilization of all natural resources from water distribution for irrigation purposes to firewood collection are all strictly and fairly managed, Lu said. This type of intact village governance system is rare now, even in China’s most remote rural areas. Residents share responsibility for building and paying for public facilities, and joint decisions on public affairs are made through full negotiation and the participation of all households.  

“The traditional self-governance system for rural villages is a proven and effective way to manage natural resources and conserve ecology. It can’t be substituted by government and natural reserve regulations,” Guo Jing, a researcher from Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences told NewsChina in early January 2021.  

“For my generation and my son’s generation, we followed the traditional lifestyle by farming and grazing livestock in the mountains, but our grandchildren’s generation has mostly gone to the city for higher education. Their future livelihood is uncertain, and that’s what concerns us most at the moment,” Lu Rong and other villagers said.  

“The core issue is to find substitute livelihoods to ensure sustainable development for local people,” Sina said. Ecotourism has been promoted by Deqin County and hailed as a potential promising industry. “However, there hasn’t been any substantial progress so far. Lack of infrastructure and supporting facilities has hampered the development of ecotourism.” 

Naren has been trying to find its own way. Apart from collecting and selling mushrooms from the forests as a basic source of income, since 2013, villagers have experimented with cash crops, including maca (Lepidium meyeni or Peruvian ginseng), peonies and Paris polyphylla, a medicinal plant.  

“Some were successful for a while, and some failed. We started planting quinoa in 2016, and so far the market is good,” said village leader Ah Song. Young villagers are also contributing. Pin Chu, a villager in his late 20s, returned to Naren after graduating college. He set up a company to create the village’s own brand to sell forest products directly to consumers, which will earn more money for the community.  

One of the most promising initiatives is a nature education center with state-of-the-art facilities targeting nature lovers. The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey has attracted attention from academics and conservationists, so Naren was helped by environmental organizations including Wild China Film and the Shanshui Conservation Center. “Based on the support we have, we plan to train the young generation in plant and wildlife biodiversity, so they will become guides for ecotourism activities in our forests,” Ah Song said. 

Different Choices  
As Naren tries to maintain its close ties with the environment, other villages made different decisions. In Sarong, a village clinging to the mountains in the next valley, over 33 households decided to relocate to a new village on the banks of the Jinsha River in 2017. After each household was offered 155,000 yuan (US$24,010) in compensation for their land, villagers agreed to allow a dam project in the valley which started in April 2020. The dam project has been through an environmental impact assessment and was approved by environment authorities.  

However, problems emerged as soon as the project got underway. Deforestation is causing the Sarong villagers to worry about the pollution and environmental damage on the fragile forest ecosystem. “The scale of destruction of the forests is larger than we thought, but more importantly, the dust caused by the construction is likely to impact the harvesting of the Tricholoma matsutake (a high-priced mushroom), a major income source for local villagers,” said Cili Kezhu, 29, a villager from Sarong.  

“Besides, this dust, if it drifts away and falls on a larger area, may pollute the lichen in the virgin forests, a major source of nutrition for snub-nosed monkeys, which will threaten the monkeys’ survival.  

As the reporter visited Sarong in late November, she witnessed the destruction of a whole forested slope, with plumes of dust blown far and wide. No one knows if the project will negatively impact the endangered snub-nosed monkeys.  

Ci Cheng, a Tibetan novelist from Sarong Village, said that every family had a sacred tree near their home. The tree was protected, and it in turn protected the home and the family. Ci strongly opposed relocating the village, but now accepts the changes in his hometown are unavoidable. Referring to the future development of Sarong Village, he admitted to the reporter during an interview in Shangri-La City, the seat of Diqing government: “I now feel I can’t predict the potential direction of the village, as the situation is so fast-changing and complicated and it is already beyond my imagination and control.” Changes are taking place everywhere, just like the city of Shangri-La itself, initially an imagined fairyland in English writer James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, which has now changed into an unremarkable tourist destination with clusters of concrete buildings, paved roads and crowds of people.  

Villagers in Sarong still hope the environmental remediation promised by the dam contractors will restore the lost forest when the project is finished in 2024, yet no one is sure whether they will fulfill their pledges. Anwu Nongbu, a villager from Sarong showed the reporter a couple of wire snares he found and cleared from the forest in July and August. It is proof that as the villagers moved away from their forests, poachers from outside snuck back in. 

“Almost all the villagers around here decided to relocate to lower altitudes on the riverbank for convenient transportation and a warmer climate. We could get annual government stipends and free houses built by the State, but we choose to stay in Naren where our ancestors have lived for generations,” Lu Rong said. “This is a blessed site with the best forests in Deqin, the real remaining Shangri-La in our minds, and we want to continue living here and protecting these forests.”