Chinese Researcher Talks Biocultural Diversity Preservation Ahead of UN Biodiversity Conference

an image of a hand spread out with five fingers and the inside of the hand is a field of white and yellow flowers
NewsChina Magazine
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Yunnan Province, China

Chinese Researcher Talks Biocultural Diversity Preservation Ahead of UN Biodiversity Conference

The 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) is scheduled for later this year in Kunming, capital of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province under the framework “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth.”

The progress and problems of biodiversity preservation in Yunnan’s northwest, where NewsChina recently visited, are a microcosm of others found across the country. Northwest Yunnan is among the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, or areas rich in endemic species whose habitat is under threat.

Rather than barring locals from living on nature reserves, China has seen more community-based conservation activities since early 2000. In Sangjiangyuan National Park on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the government has recruited over 17,000 Tibetan nomads to work as forest rangers.

In China, the central government endorsed the role of local communities in its national park system. Internationally, conservationists and scientists have reached the consensus that conservation practices require multidisciplinary approaches, and that the ultimate goal of biodiversity conservation is harmony between humans and nature.

In an article titled “Embracing diverse worldviews to share planet Earth” published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2019, the authors wrote that the cosmologies and spiritualities of many indigenous peoples and other groups are anchored in specific territorial contexts that offer alternative relationships between humans and nature. “Indeed, even the term ‘human-nature relationship’ is itself problematic to the extent that it reinforces a dichotomy between humans and other species. It is perhaps better to talk of a biosocial complex that encompasses all living species and the relationships among them,” continued the article.

Guo Jing, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, has studied cultural and environmental issues in northwest Yunnan since the mid-1990s. In an interview with NewsChina in January, Guo talks of the importance of incorporating biocultural diversity in nature conservation.

NewsChina: How did biodiversity conservation in northwest Yunnan begin?

Guo Jing: In the 1990s, there were two important events in northwest Yunnan involving two snow-capped mountains across the Lancang (Mekong) River watershed: Baima Snow Mountain and Kawakarpo, both sacred mountains for ethnic Tibetans. In the early 1990s, local Tibetan communities protested attempts to summit Kawakarpo by foreign climbers due to the mountain’s cultural and religious significance. One expedition team from Japan and China was engulfed by an avalanche, resulting in the deaths of 17 people. Every expedition in the years that followed was unsuccessful. In 2001, the local government passed laws banning all summit attempts on cultural and religious sites.

On Baima Snow Mountain, the discovery of Yunnan snub-nosed monkey populations led to the creation of a nature reserve in the 1980s. Poaching was rampant across the region at that time, while commercial logging threatened to wipe out the mountain forests of Yunnan’s Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. When the Natural Forest Protection Project was implemented nationwide and authorities endorsed the protection of endangered Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, logging activities on Baima Snow Mountain ceased. The local government was forced to transition its economy from logging to tourism. Suddenly, modern ideas of environmental protection, mountain climbing and tourism, which locals had never heard of before, were everywhere.

[The Tibetan] traditional system of belief does not include environmental awareness. They feel that the environment does not need to be protected. It’s the environment that protects us. This is the source of conflict and intolerance between imported environmental protection ideas and local beliefs. These culture shocks were a turning point for northwest Yunnan.

Previously, local communities maintained their cultural relationship with the land through reverence of sacred natural sites. But in the context of globalization, these relationships could no longer exist in isolation as they did in the past, and they had to face the challenges of modern materialism. Then the concept of nature conservation was introduced. Adapting and merging with cultural understandings of sacred natural sites, this was a catalyst for environmental awareness in local communities.

When Diqing prefecture seat was renamed Shangri-La [in 2001], a utopian image that appeals to Western tastes and environmental protection was developed in step with tourism.

NC: Can biodiversity conservation be separated from cultural diversity?

GJ: I’ll continue using northwestern Yunnan as an example. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) came to Yunnan to conduct conservation programs. However, TNC couldn’t carry out its routine methods of conservation through enclosure in northwestern Yunnan, a place with millions of people from different ethnic groups. To solve this problem, TNC invited over 80 local experts in ecology, botany and ethnology to participate in field research. This led to a fundamental change for local researchers as well as for TNC, who developed a new set of strategies by combining biodiversity, cultural diversity and sustainable livelihoods. I also participated in the research, and in one of my papers I highlighted the idea that a mountain is also a sacred place, indicating that indigenous people imbue their environment with cultural significance, which defines their relationship with nature. When TNC brought these ideas back to the US, they caused heated debate among conservationists. Their work in northwestern Yunnan to incorporate cultural diversity into biodiversity preservation contributed to changes in environmental protection movements worldwide.

In recent years, researchers have promoted biocultural diversity, a combination of biological and cultural research to bridge the gap between nature and social sciences, establish a biocultural perspective and advocate a biocultural approach to environmental protection.

However, in China and in some other parts of the world, neither academia nor governments have sufficiently acknowledged the interconnection between indigenous cultures and environmental preservation. However, I have personally witnessed many successful attempts at integrating the two through local environmental NGOs. During my field research, I observed that systems with local religious and secular organizations are helpful for the management of natural resources. What I’m most concerned about is whether these management systems will continue to exist. If they do, change is possible. But in many places in China, apart from the government, the original management systems have been shattered or even destroyed. I think it’s a very important issue.

NC: While China’s achievements in biodiversity conservation are significant and we have seen the recovery of many endangered species, what do you think still needs to be strengthened?

GJ: I have learned that in some places with rich biodiversity in northwest Yunnan, cultural diversity is depleting faster than the biodiversity of its surrounding forests. In China and around the globe, cultural diversity loss will come earlier than biodiversity loss because the international community has already come to a political consensus on preserving biodiversity. But cultural diversity remains very controversial across the world. Cultural conflicts pose challenges for all countries.

The destruction of cultural diversity involves two main aspects: religious beliefs and traditional community management systems, particularly those in rural regions. In rural China, for example, the traditional self-governance system for rural villages has been effective in managing natural resources and conserving the ecology through the years. It can’t be substituted by government and natural reserve regulations. So I feel the most challenging problem now is maintaining cultural diversity rather than biodiversity.

It is widely acknowledged that China has made many achievements in biodiversity preservation, but the public and the authority do not give enough attention to cultural diversity issues. In particular, policies including ecological migration or relocation programs have resulted in loss of cultural diversity, which in turn affects biodiversity. This is a key problem that we should address going forward.

NC: What’s the difference between views on conservation among indigenous groups and mainstream nature conservation in the West?

GJ: In fact, conservation in the West has changed a lot in recent decades, from the earliest form of fortress-like environmental protection that excluded indigenous peoples, like Yellowstone National Park, to community-based conservation models that integrate the wisdom of local cultures and their traditional mechanisms for resource management. But as you mentioned, the worldviews of local peoples should be cherished and respected. For example, every species of wildlife and plant shares a relationship to humans in traditional Tibetan culture. The vulture serves as a connection to heaven, as the bird plays a crucial role in sky burial (which involves exposing the corpse to vultures). While reading Nyanpo Yutse Chorography, a book on the biodiversity of a sacred mountain in southern Qinghai Province based on field research by local Tibetans from 2010- 2019, I was astonished at how biodiversity conservation is represented in a worldview completely different from the mainstream.

The Tibetan authors introduce the human-nature relationship through the Tibetan system of classification rather than the Linnaean taxonomy, or rank-based classification, which presents existing environmental perceptions through a different lens, a mind-blowing experience when you read it. If the book can be translated into English and presented at CBD COP 15, it would surely cause a sensation.

NC: How do you understand the CBD COP15 theme “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth”?

GJ: Overall trends in biodiversity conservation are to integrate humanity into life on Earth, while changing the contradictory stance of humans versus nature to one of integration and inseparable unity. In my view, all life on Earth should be exemplified through two communities: one of individuals and the environment, or all lives on Earth, and all cultures. A serious problem humans now face is cultural conflict, especially in the past two years, which seems to have resulted in the disintegration of some groups. The two communities are interdependent, and our biodiversity goals won’t be reached without them.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in NewsChina Magazine on 1 March 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: An image from the book Nyanpo Yutse Chorography that illustrates the Tibetan understanding of biodiversity / Credit: NewsChina.

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