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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yunnan River, Part II

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Officials in the western Chinese province of Yunnan are trying to preserve a vast mountain wilderness while also encouraging tourism. In the second part of the latest NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce visits the region, where experts are discovering that conservation can be a mixture of science and faith.

(A rooster crows; a cow moos)

JOYCE: In a Tibetan village you're never very far from your livestock.

(Mooing, crowing)

JOYCE: Your animals are in the front yard, guarded by a big, angry dog.

(Barking dog)

JOYCE: They're also in the back yard under the pomegranate trees.

(A cavalcade of animals)

JOYCE: And they own the first floor of the house.

(Animals, bells)

JOYCE: On every rooftop there are drying ears of corn and sheaves of barley. Sometimes a satellite dish. And a small, earthen kiln. A senior man in the household comes here daily to burn cedar branches and pray. This Buddhist ritual is called Sansat [phonetic spelling].

(A man prays amidst animal calls, sizzling)

JOYCE: Breakfast in a Tibetan home with Guo Jing [phonetic spelling]. He's a Chinese anthropologist with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. He says the Chinese Han people, the majority, have become fascinated with Tibetan culture. They, perhaps like us, feel they're missing something from the past.

GUO: People here think this area is holy area. I think that in the Tibetan's idea, holy mountains is just something like the center of the world.

JOYCE: Tibet symbolizes something spiritual.

(Voices, sizzling)

JOYCE: In China's Meili Snow Mountains, the breakfast table is set as it would be in Tibet. The bowl of samsa [phonetic spelling] or barley flour, dried yak meat, and yak butter tea -- that's tea, salt, and, yes, yak butter -- mashed in a long, wooden churn. Guo Jing [phonetic spelling] is part of a scientific survey team sent here by the Yunnan government and the U.S. group The Nature Conservancy.

(Bird calls)

JOYCE: They're designing a conservation plan for the region. The team's ecologist is Bob Moseley, a lean mountaineer from the Idaho Rockies.

MOSELEY: You get used to being stared at. People always want to see what you're doing, what you're pulling out of your pack, how you use chopsticks. Generally we're some of the first foreigners in here.

JOYCE: Four Asian rivers, including the Mekong and Yangtze, pass through here almost side by side. Mountains fold like an accordion with mile-deep canyons. Of the world's temperate regions, this one is perhaps the most biologically diverse. That's what led Moseley to visit here and then to move here.

MOSELEY: It's an enormous amount of life, different life forms that can be compressed in these elevational zones, from very arid subtropical scrub vegetation on the river through these moist forests, and then up into the Alpine meadows and the rhododendron scrubs and then to above treeline, right on up to the glaciers.


JOYCE: Moseley hikes from village to village to map this remarkable environment. Today he's climbing the mountainside above the village of Ji-La [phonetic spelling].


JOYCE: The villagers graze their livestock in these high pastures, cook and heat with wood. They cut trees for building and slide the logs downhill.

(Sliding; fade to local music)

JOYCE: There's lots of music here. You make your own instruments, your own entertainment. But the simple life is changing.

(TV sounds)

JOYCE: Small dams have brought intermittent electricity and television. The Yunnan government plans to send eco-tourists here. The Tibetans need that money, but they are wary. The environment is fragile. So is their way of life.


JOYCE: We met a young Tibetan named Norbu [phonetic spelling]. He said Tibetans have a special relationship with the land.

NORBU: [phonetic spelling] We must protect the Buddhist, the religion. This is the best way to protect the nature. The best way is you protect the culture. Local people will protect the nature.


JOYCE: In village after village the survey team finds out just what Norbu [phonetic spelling] means. There is a different way of seeing the land here.

MOSELEY: It's pretty exciting. What we found is that there is a zonation of cultural landscapes, of religious landscapes here, that fits very well with conservation planning for biodiversity also.

JOYCE: The lines on Moseley's computer maps begin to take on special meaning.

MOSELEY: There is an area right in here that the Tibetans call mani dron ying [phonetic spelling]. Basically means the natural line. Above that point up on the mountains, it's a very pure, natural place. Essentially no human activity takes place there. And that's where some of their important gods live. Below that, down to the lower village, is also a very natural landscape. They do very little cutting of the forests here, and when they do they say lots of prayers to thank the gods for these things.

(Bells, voices)

JOYCE: Moseley and his colleagues crisscross the mountains, surveying glaciers and couloirs, gullies filled with landslide debris, and streams the color of jade.

MOSELEY: In this place in particular the Meili Snow Range has a very sort of vibrant and robust culture that interacts with that natural diversity in a very intimate way. Their livelihoods and their religions are very closely tied with the land and the use of and the conservation of natural diversity. And that was surprising.

JOYCE: In August the team will deliver conservation plans to the provincial government. Bob Moseley and Guo Jing [phonetic spelling] now realize that any plan to protect an area four times the size of Yellowstone must include both the visible and the invisible.


GUO: [phonetic spelling] I think the first thing we should have record of intangible culture. These mountains and trees are some sacred sites, tangible culture we can see. These are important. But they're not the most important things. The most important things is people's idea about this land.

(Voices, bells, drums)

JOYCE: On our last day we pass a Buddhist monastery called Dong Du Ping [phonetic spelling]. There is a festival going on. Vendors line the narrow path to its wide gates. Inside there is a courtyard. Thousands of Tibetans sit around the edge and crowd along second-story balconies. The scene is medieval.

(Loud voices, musical instruments)

JOYCE: In shaded pavilions monks play 15-foot-long horns, drums, and cymbals. The music is felt as much as it's heard.

(Louder music)

JOYCE: Then, at the top of a grand staircase, a young monk materializes. He glides down into the courtyard, a dagger in one hand, red ribbons in the other. One by one they come until there are 20 monks at least. They balance on one foot and then the other, spinning silently with the utmost deliberation. They form a circle and the circle spins.

(Loud music continues)

JOYCE: Guo Jing [phonetic spelling] says this is a preparation for the new year. Cleansing the land of past sins. It's a window into the invisible landscape, a landscape that for these Tibetans is the center of the universe.

(Loud music continues, voices)

JOYCE: With NPR's Bill McQuay, this is Christopher Joyce for Radio Expeditions in Yunnan Province, China.

(Music and voices continue up and under)

CURWOOD: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.

(Music up and under: Choying Droma, "Om Pana Phem")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues; and the Turner Foundation.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: Turning butts into bucks. The state of Maine considers a cigarette deposit law. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Saint-Saens, "Carnival of Animals")


(Music up and under)



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