Gateway to the Giant Panda: Community-Based Conservation

Part Three of a three-part series. (1, 2)

Community-based conservation is not a new concept, but it is one that takes on a new level of importance in China. Whereas in many western countries, it is possible to find sparsely populated or uninhabited swaths of wilderness, in China it is common to come across communities that have existed for at least hundreds of years. Working with these local communities — many of which are located on or around critical biodiversity areas — thus becomes one of the biggest obstacles and most important issues in Chinese conservation.

In the areas adjacent to the Longxi-Hongkou Reserve, human disturbance remains a major threat to the remaining giant panda population and associated biodiversity. For this reason, TNC aims to combine environmental education and poverty alleviation through introducing new, sustainable economic livelihoods to the local villages.

Sustainable Economic Activity & Working with Local Communities

The two major issues that community conservation overlaps with are habitat loss and local economic activity, which needs to be countered with more sustainable forms of economic livelihood. When working with local communities, It’s important to realize that each individual community has its own values, policies, and methods to maintain economic value. It is thus necessary to be willing not only to choose management priorities, but also to adjust protection goals, plans, and methods that support a high degree of sovereign local management.

In rural communities, the tendency exists to ignore the outside world and focus only on that which concerns day-to-day life. Economic activity that provides for the livelihoods of the local people is thus a prime target for creating change through the promotion and support of more sustainable forms of economic activity. Examples of successful projects implemented in recent years in Sichuan include the production and sale of honey, efficient and sustainable cultivation of local crops like peanuts and walnuts, sustainable construction, and similar methods of eco-industrial development. In this way, community conservation can also act as a platform to connect the community to the rest of the world through the sale of local products via digital platforms and partnerships with external organizations in the private and non-profit sectors.

Transforming the Longxi-Hongkou area into an ecotourist destination also presents new challenges. As with many rural locations in China, most accommodation can be found by staying with local families, who open up rooms of their homes for travelers. In Hongkou Village, most of the current accommodations are not up to standards, or less than satisfactory for the majority of domestic and international guests.

Upgrading these accommodations naturally requires a large up-front investment. It is critical that TNC educates local residents and families on the long-term benefits of upgrading — namely, that it is an investment that will attract higher-quality guests and allow for higher pricing moving forward. It is also critical down the line that they are made aware that their improved livelihood is a direct result of protecting the natural resources around the community. In simplistic terms, they make more when pandas are protected and comfortable.

Naturally, all of these projects require an education component and the introduction of the value of protecting natural resources to the local population. Community-based conservation lies at the intersection between economics, conservation, and education, and TNC is planning for local residents to be some of the first guests to pilot the new education curriculum. Further connection with other successful projects and exchanges with outside entities is also expected to be of great benefit to the community conservation efforts.

Hongkou Village Land Use Case Study

Hongkou Village is composed of 6 small neighborhoods and a total of 880 residents. The community currently has three main sources of revenue: cultivating trees related to Chinese medicine, growing kiwi fruits, and tourism. The challenge TNC faces is to ensure that the development of the Longxi-Hongkou and the new Giant Panda National Park — including any restoration projects — does not negatively impact the local economy. Currently, family income in the community is expected to be about 200–300 RMB ($30–40) per day. Any replacement projects or new economic activity will need to at least reach — or preferably exceed — these totals.

Of Hongkou Village’s three main industries, tourism is the most recently developed. Following the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the government provided some basic funding to help the residents rebuild, as the community was in one of the areas most heavily affected. The community then levied the funds to build more tourism-focused developments, including activities, hotels, and other common amenities.

While lower-elevation communities have the option to depend revenue from tourism and alternative sources, the highest elevation neighborhoods of the village — those adjacent to the boundaries of the reserve — currently depend fully on crops like medicine trees and kiwis for their livelihoods. However, while kiwis are still fetching a stable price, in recent years the price of medicine trees has dropped considerably. Mr. Wang and the villagers are thus considering cutting down the medicine trees, selling what remains, and then planting a more profitable crop.

It became clear through our discussions with Mr. Wang that tourism is his major priority moving forward. The community has been working together to create a network of trails, and have expressed attracting more tourists from Chengdu as an economic priority. One of the ways proposed to do this is to cut down the medicine trees and plant more seasonal flora, like Maple and Gingko trees, that change color during the fall. This, however, presents a new problem. The proposed replacement flora is non-native, and the medicine trees are currently planted in a location which previously housed bamboo and other local flora. When covered in local species, this area provides a natural habitat for giant pandas and other endemic wildlife. Cutting down the medicine trees and replacing them with non-native seasonal trees can only exacerbate this issue. TNC and the forestry department would, naturally, prefer to implement restoration projects to bring back the native flora and preserve suitable giant panda habitat.

The good news in all of this is that Mr. Wang supports the creation of the Panda National Park and is willing to work with NGOs to create win-win solutions. The National Park will be a major tourism draw, and the locals are proud of their community and supportive of the local government. From here, TNC can work with Mr. Wang to implement restoration projects in the Longxi-Hongkou area.

Conclusion

Stories like this are common in Sichuan and across China, and implementing community-based conservation practices, effective forms of environmental education, and solid reserve management are some of the key obstacles facing conservation in China today. Overall, however, this offers China an opportunity to develop new, innovative solutions to conservation problems plaguing the entire developing world.

As China moves to take more environmental responsibility abroad in the future, lessons learned and solutions generated from even the smallest domestic conservation issue can have magnified benefit across the globe moving forward.

It’s our job to support — not lead — China in this, and be open to learning new forms of conservation and environmental protection.

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Medium & Twitter @mikhaelicus for future updates.

Conservation & development with an eye on China.

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