News | China - Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice Re-Envisioning the Relationship between Humans and Nature

Chinese activist Deng Yi on his experiences with biodiversity conservation in Yunnan, China



Deng Yi, Sun Wei,

Farmers working the fields in southwest China’s Yunnan province. Photo: IMAGO/Xinhau/Zhang Hongke

The second phase of the UN Biodiversity Conference is running from 7 to 19 December in Montreal, Canada. The first phase of the conference was held online in October 2021 in the Chinese city of Kunming in Yunnan province. The second phase was originally planned to take place at the same location, but was postponed and then moved to Canada due to COVID-19.

Deng Yi is one of China’s first environmental activists. In 2001, he left his position in the government to work for Friends of Nature, China’s first environmental NGO. In 2004, Yi became the Deputy Secretary General of the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology Foundation, China’s first entrepreneur-initiated NGO. In 2009, he moved to Lijiang to set up his own environmental NGO, the Lijiang Institute of Health and Environment, which focuses on biodiversity conservation.

The Yunnan province in southwest China is famous for its biodiversity and particularly its diverse flora. However, this diverse environment faces threats from habitat destruction, pollution, and overexploitation. Sun Wei, Senior Project Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Beijing Office, spoke with Deng Yi, the head of a civil society environmental organization long active in Lijiang, Yunnan province, about the challenges of conservation in the region and the lessons Yi learned from his engagement with villages in remote areas of the province.

Biodiversity in Lijiang

Lijiang City in Yunnan Province is home to three of China’s major rivers — the Yangtze, the Nujiang, and the Lancang — and is rich in biodiversity, as well as being home to a large number of ethnic minorities with rich cultural diversity. The minority villages in this region are located between 2,000 and 4,000 metres above sea level in remote mountainous areas with many people, restricted land, and difficult transport routes.

In 2010, the annual per capita income in this region was less than 2,000 Chinese yuan, according to the village chief, making it an area with a relatively low level of economic development. The ecological, cultural, and economic characteristics of this region are useful for exploring ways to establish a sustainable symbiosis between humans and nature in economically underdeveloped remote mountainous regions undergoing a modernization process. The successes and failures of this region may provide opportunities for other regions of China, even the world, to learn from when addressing similar issues.

In my first visit to a minority village in Lijiang in 2009, I asked the villagers what they needed most. The answer was “money”. Then I asked how they could earn money. Most of the answers were “cutting down trees and selling timber”. Upon further investigation, I found that the villagers’ answers came from the logging industry, introduced here at the beginning of the reforms and opening up in the early 1980s.

Legacies of the Logging Industry

A state-owned logging factory was set up near the village and batches of lumber were shipped out to be sold across the country. Many villagers were recruited to cut down trees. Despite various regulations prohibiting private logging, the example of the logging plant and the lure of commercial interests led many villagers to begin logging and selling trees. Worse still, a consensus was gradually reached among the villagers that the trees were always going to be cut down and if you didn’t cut them down and others did, it was you who lost opportunities. There were a number of clashes between government enforcement officers and villagers because villagers were cutting firewood in the hills.

The flooding at the end of the last century in South China focused the government’s attention on soil and water conservation and the protection of forests and tree planting. The state logging plant that cut down trees withdrew, and the trees were not allowed to be felled. The question of who would protect the woods nearby the village arose. The villagers’ initial answer to this question was that forest protection was, of course, a matter for the state-employed rangers, not for them. This perception is not a historical one but a “modern” one brought about by the modernization process after the reform and development of the economy.

In fact, before modern development entered the village, the villagers had inherited a traditional, even ancient perception of trees and nature. The woods provided fuel for cooking, the trees produced edible fruits and mushrooms, the forest was used to catch game such as mountain fowl, and they believed in tree gods and mountain gods — their beliefs and totems.

While gathering the resources of the mountains and forests to live off, they also maintained a reverential and balanced relationship with nature: trees could be cut down but only in the autumn, some forests such as feng shui forests where ancestors are buried and water supply forests cannot be touched, many branches need to be picked up, some wild boars must be hunted but pregnant animals are left alone, frogs need to be protected and cared for more than golden monkeys because by listening to their calls, farmers know when to plant, fertilize, and harvest, and so on.

Modern logging production, which began in the early days of reform, gradually eroded the villagers’ traditional perceptions and utilitarian thinking based on “self-interest” became prevalent. In the twenty-first century, although national policy has shifted towards ecological conservation and woodland protection, villagers’ perceptions have not naturally reversed on a micro-level, or rather, a “new” perception of the relationship between humans and nature has not yet been established as part of the modernization process.

Changing Villagers’ Perceptions

The first task I undertook when I entered the village was helping to change the villagers’ perceptions, or rather, to build new perceptions of the relationship between humans and nature that are conducive to sustainable development. Based on my experience in other places over the past decades, my organization has come up with four tools or working methods to carry out his work.

The first is to expand villagers’ perceptions via “farmers teaching farmers”. After years of working with villagers, I learnt that a person’s choices are based on their own information and knowledge and that when a person needs to make new choices, they need to expand their knowledge. The question is, how do you expand a villager’s knowledge? In the past, external resource providers, including government, international and domestic experts, NGOs, and others, used to teach their experience or techniques to villagers directly and often the villagers’ acceptance and implementation of this knew knowledge was not very long-lasting.

There is a tension between traditional knowledge and modern knowledge.

My team boldly experimented with the farmers teaching farmers approach, raising funds to organize tours for villagers from Lijiang to places where projects had worked well in earlier years, and to places where external resources had failed or achieved progress after implementation, including Guizhou, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Shaanxi, and even Hong Kong and India.

During these tours, we repeatedly ask the villagers how they made choices between ecological protection and economic development, and more importantly, how things were decided in the village, especially how public affairs were decided, including who decided and by what means. After the tour, the participating villagers return and describe what they have seen and heard to other villagers, setting the stage for the discussion about what they do themselves.

Secondly, the development of a competitive project system motivates villagers to participate in the management of public affairs and to exercise their self-management skills. We invited villagers from dozens of villages to apply for public funds they had raised. At the project review meeting, the villagers’ representative from each project took ten minutes to tell everyone which village they were in, what they were going to do, how many people were involved in the project, how much money was needed, how much they would contribute themselves, and how much money would need to be matched by our NGO. During the project evaluation process, each villager is both an applicant and an evaluator. When a villager has finished talking about a project idea, other villagers will score the idea.

Our organization is also involved in this process, as is the village government, but like the other villagers it has only one vote. The key to the evaluation is the criteria for scoring which is also discussed by the villagers themselves and has developed since 2010, as they reflect on the previous year’s practice and meet to debate.

A notable example is that in order to motivate villagers to cooperate with each other and actively participate in public affairs, each additional participant in a project is given an extra point for that project. Our NGO also had the right to make suggestions and because the lack of a written record of villagers’ discussion usually hindered the efficiency of the discussion, I suggested giving extra points to project groups that kept written records of their discussions, which was eventually adopted by the villagers.

The process of allocating project funds to the village community has become a continuous cycle of the rural community, generating systems for public construction, modifying them, improving them, and complying with them.

A Village Bank for Conservation

Thirdly, the introduction of a village bank has helped villagers establish a public management fund with a mutual assistance nature. When the villagers were thinking about what to apply for, my team and I introduced the village bank project. We promised that each villager who wanted to help the project would contribute a certain amount of money, and we would match with public funds on a 1:1 ratio to jointly establish the village bank. The funds in this bank can be lent to villagers who need a small amount of money and the borrower must pay a certain amount of interest.

The amount of interest and format of using the interest, for instance being allocated to women or holding a banquet for all villagers, are also decided by the villagers. Each year, villagers who invest money in the village bank will receive interest according to the amount invested. In order for the village bank to function properly, villagers often have to discuss how to raise money, how to manage the money, and what to do if the money is not repaid. In this discussion process, each villager is not only the implementer of the system, but also the decision-maker of the system.

In many cases, the villagers’ endogenous motivation is not mobilized, and the projects are inefficient and less sustainable.

Finally, the village bank is closely linked to ecological conservation. When a village wanted to establish a village bank with us, the only additional condition we gave was that the villagers had to establish a commitment to protect the surrounding ecology when they applied to establish the village bank. The villagers discussed what kind of ecology to protect — woods, rivers, flora or fauna, etc. — and how to protect it, including defining penalties for ecological damage. Over a decade, more than 50 protected areas have been created in cooperation with the village bank project. Interestingly, even within the same ethnic group, different regions make different choices about what to protect and how to protect it.

Over time, villagers have become increasingly enthusiastic and capable of establishing conservation areas on their own, improving the ecological environment. For instance, there was a river that ran through eight villages with a constant flow of rubbish, but the villagers developed a system to counter pollution that the eight villages have jointly enforced, including forbidding the dumping of rubbish or fried fish in the river. The villagers’ co-management also extends to wider public issues, including how to deal with the burial of the elderly, and they have even started discussing where to build a public car park in the village.

The Contradictions of Rural Development

Our NGO’s team are like social microbes, community collaborators to act as a catalyst for change in the village. Behind this role is my reflections on the contradictions and interests that present themselves in the development of rural China today, especially in three regards.

First, there is a tension between traditional knowledge and modern knowledge. In the field of ecology and environmental protection, what to protect and how to protect seems to be judged or decided by modern scientists and experts. The residents of the ecological communities who actually work with local plants and animals, although they do not have scientific logical arguments much less the ability to publish research articles, are guarding the ecology around them based on their traditional knowledge, maintaining the balance between the human and ecology. So, the question is: when the balance is disturbed, what kind of knowledge system should we use to improve the ecological environment?

Secondly, there is the question of which resources to rely on, external or endogenous resources. In order to support rural development, the Chinese government, international aid agencies, and domestic public interest organizations have actively channelled various resources, including capital, technology and management experience, to rural areas. However, in many cases, the villagers’ endogenous motivation is not mobilized, and the projects are inefficient and less sustainable. The fundamental question is how to turn the “I was obliged to do it”-approach in rural poverty alleviation development into the “I want to do it”-approach of the farmers’ own choice.

Finally, we have to navigate between an orientation towards personal interest and towards public interest. The village is the smallest unit of villager autonomy under the Chinese political system. However, individual villagers in rural China have long lacked practical experience of participating in public administration.

The planning administration before the reforms gave little room for self-governance in the countryside, while the post-reform logic of market competition made villagers more concerned with their own personal interests and indifferent to public interests. So, we have to ask: what will bridge the gap between personal and public interests for rural development?

I am pleased to have seen, over more than a decade, incremental change in the villagers and villages in Lijiang. For the second phase of the UN Biodiversity Conference, I hope that when similar topics are discussed, not only will agents like experts be invited to discuss them but that more of the villagers, who are working on ecological conservation every day, will be given the opportunity to make their voices heard.