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One Man's Green Dream

In a recent interview with Beijing Youth Daily, Yang Xin spoke candidly about his passion for the environment and wildlife. Who would have thought that this naughty boy who loved to catch frogs and hunt birds would turn out to be one of China's most ardent environmentalists?


Despite his work, Yang, the leader of Greenriver, a non-government environmental protection organization, is still not as famous as the Hoh Xil nature reserve, the Tibetan antelope or the late Sonam Dargyi, his predecessor, all of which were introduced to the media by Yang. But that doesn't seem to bother him or his work.


In June, Yang and his team of volunteers started the fundraising for the NGO's second nature reserve protection station. The main source of funds is sales of books Yang and/or his team wrote.


For this fundraising project, the book for sale is Experience Hoh Xil in Ten Years - The Narrations of the Volunteers. Published in June, it was written by volunteers who built the Sonam Dargyi Nature Reserve Protection Station in 1997. The station has proudly protected the harsh yet beautiful area of Hoh Xil in China's northwestern Qinghai Province for the last 10 years.


Greenriver plans to open the new nature reserve protection station in Minjiang, Yunnan Province.


Yang first pondered the relationship between nature and man in the 1980s, around the time when foreign concepts of environmental protection were introduced to China.


But it wasn't until 1994 that he made the decision to quit his comfortable accounting job to devote himself to the protection of the environment.


What gave him the courage to go full-fledge into environmental protection was the memory of Sonam Dargyi, a Tibetan who died fighting for the rights of the Tibetan antelope. Sonam Dargyi was murdered by poachers in 1994 in Hoh Xil. By the time his body was found, the minus 40 degree temperatures had turned his corpse into an ice sculpture. He was holding a gun and his body surrounded by more than 1,000 antelope skins.


Sonam Dargyi's last wish was to build a nature reserve protection station in Hoh Xil to keep poachers out. Yang sold his book Soul of the Yangtze River, published in March 1997, and used the proceeds to build China's first non-governmental nature reserve protection station. It was aptly named, "The Sonam Dargyi Nature Reserve Protection Station."


Trials and tribulations


For all the work Yang and his team at Greenriver have done, they've received much respect from the public.


But things changed in December 2002.


Two young men were found dead in Hoh Xil in a stranded vehicle belonging to the Sonam Dargyi protection station.


Feng Yong, a 21-year-old volunteer with Greenriver, and Li Mingli, a 26-year-old construction company driver reportedly died of respiratory failure brought about by a combination of hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning and altitude sickness. They were found in an area about 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level.


Records from the local weather center showed that overnight temperatures on the evening of November 30 were approximately minus 30 degrees Celsius.


This unfortunate event was the first involving volunteers and it attracted much media attention.


Questions were asked about the seemingly unnecessary risks the volunteers took.


There were even questions raised about Greenriver's motives. Was it all just a publicity stunt?


Some controversy surrounded the building of a costly watchtower in 1998. Critics claimed it was useless.


Yang said: "The watch tower was a long-cherished wish of Taba Dorje, who took over from Sonam Dargyi as leader of the patrol team. After the protection station was founded in 1997, Taba Dorje said: 'What if there is a watchtower? The station is in the middle of the two entrance roads.'


"The 12-ton, 28-meter-high tower was built the following year to allow us to guard the two roads leading into the reserve, which are about seven to eight kilometers away. But most poachers these days have changed their routes and enter Hoh Xil from Xinjiang, so the watchtower seems useless. But the tower symbolizes an important step for a Chinese non-governmental environmental protection group."


Despite the pressures and heavy criticism they faced -- with Feng and Li's deaths, and the core of Greenriver coming under fire -- Yang and his team managed to complete their report, "The Tibetan Antelope: Their Numbers and Suggestions on Their Protection," in 2002. The report included the findings of 139 investigations, and more than 1,400 statistics. It was presented to the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).


Greenriver also updated their volunteer handbook, and instituted expert training for volunteers. More important, volunteers were required to spend time on a plateau near Chengdu at an altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level.


'Sonam Dargyi, Taba Dorje and Feng Yong inspire me to go on'


In 2004, Greenriver set up special traffic lights along a section of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway to allow herds of Tibetan antelopes make the passage across the highway safely. Each June to the middle of July, more than 10,000 female antelopes migrate north to give birth along the banks of the Zhuonai and Taiyang lakes in northwestern China. They then make the return trip with their young a couple of months later. They have to cross the highway each time.


Timid in nature, Tibetan antelopes are easily frightened. The traffic lights have helped to make their trip less stressful. In addition, they remind drivers and tourists to respect the serenity of the reserve and wild animals in general.


But Yang's work isn't limited to protecting the Tibetan antelope or even to animals, for that matter.


In early 2003, Greenriver and Liu Yuan, an anthropologist, started a six-month program called the "Yangtze River Headstream Anthropology" to study the effects of the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on the lives of people living in the surrounding areas.


In 2005, in cooperation with scientists, Greenriver turned their attention to the shrinking glaciers. Earlier this year, the team erected a stele where glacier meets land as a stark reminder of the effects of global warming. Another four steles are planned for erection over the next four years.


Yang explained that Greenriver doesn't have the resources to do high-tech research. But it does try to make the science easier for the common man to understand, and tries to provide the statistics to back up their claims. Take the glaciers for example. A considerable amount of research has been done on this topic, but many of the reports scientists have prepared are either too technical for the ordinary person to understand or don't reflect the seriousness of the matter in a language that the common man can appreciate. That's why Yang and his team decided to erect steles, to provide the visual impact.


Their methods might not reap immediate results, but Yang is not disheartened.


"I gave a speech in Beijing 10 years ago on the Tibetan antelope and Hoh Xil," he recalled. "Few people knew what or where they were. But now, the two are almost popular in their own right. To me, that's an achievement," he said proudly. 


But he realizes that he can only do so much. Greenriver relies on book sales for funding. Like anybody else, Yang does on occasion feel down and discouraged, and laments the thought that they might be fighting a losing battle.


"But the memories of Sonam Dargyi, Taba Dorje and Feng Yong inspire me to go on," he said.


The blueprint of the second nature reserve protection station


Yang reckons that it will take at least five years for them to raise enough money and build the second nature reserve protection station.


There are 25 major biodiversity areas in Minjiang, Yunnan, where the team plans to build the protection station. The belt from Mt. Meilli in Yunnan to Mt. Gongkar in Sichuan is the only one of its kind in China.


Greenriver chose this location for the protection because the area is in danger of being severely damaged by uncontrolled tourism. After tourism was introduced to this underdeveloped area by the local government, it soon became obvious that the local government had neither the resources nor technical expertise to maintain a healthy balance between business and protecting the natural environment. 


Yang hopes that the protection station will help to keep a check on the exploitation of the belt by the tourism industry.


The station will provide training in environmental protection; they plan to train about 5,000 students every year. They will also provide training for staff of other environmental protection organizations and officials from the various government sectors.


The second function of the station will be to provide information on sustainable development to the local people.


Many locals have turned all or part of their homes into hotels. With more visitors come more waste and pollution. Human waste is just one of the problems. "We will launch a sewage farms project this October. We will teach the local people how to build small-scale sewage treatment facilities. Those who dispose of and treat sewage effectively will be awarded environmental protection logos they can display on their front doors," Yang said.


Yang knows that Greenriver cannot single-handedly change the world. But he said he and his team will keep on working to protect the environment, and hopes that their efforts help to change the attitudes of people, even if only just a little.


Profile of Yang Xin, president of Greenriver (www.green-river.org)


Yang Xin was born in 1963, Chengdu, Sichuan.


1984: Began surveying, exploring and photographing the Jinsha River, the upper stretch of the Yangtze.


1986: Joined China Yangtze River scientific expedition rafting team, as a core member and photographer. Traveled the full 6,300 km length of the Yangtze's mainstream.


1991: Organized the Yalong River Photo Expedition Team (team captain) and surveyed the full 1,500 km length of the Yalong River and its environment.


1992: Joined the forest resource survey team in the upper Yangtze, as a photographer, and documented the forest distribution and the deforestation of the area.


1993: Joined the Yangtze River source area expedition and photography team, as photographer; photographed the natural sights of the Yangtze source area; and discovered a series of environmental problems such as the receding glacial lines, grassland degradation, and extensive wildlife poaching.


1994: Organized the TV crew for "The Mysterious Yangtze Source" (team captain); found the area deteriorating even more, and numbers of the rare Tibetan antelopes on the Tibetan Plateau decreasing further. The animal is on the verge of extinction.


1995: Set up the "Protect the Yangtze Source, Love Our Mother Nature" planning committee, prior to the establishment of Greenriver, initiating the campaign for the protection of the Yangtze River source area, with the goal of improving the ecological environment through grassroots efforts.


1996:  Organized a "Protect the Yangtze Source, Love Our Mother Nature" expedition of scientists and journalists to the Yangtze source area, as team leader, to research and report on the ecological environment of the area, and to call for national attention to environmental protection.


1997: Raised funds by selling his book, Soul of the Yangtze, and organized volunteers to build the Sonam Dargyi Nature Reserve Protection Station at 4, 500 meters above sea level and on the edge of a completely uninhabited region in Hoh Xil. After three years of fundraising and additional construction, the station became a grassroots symbol of conservation in the country and greatly enhanced efforts to protect the Yangtze source area.


1999: Conceived and advocated the establishment of an environmental protection monument in the Yangtze source area, and received a positive response from the SEPA. Former President Jiang Zemin inscribed the monument erected on June 5, 1999. The dedication of this monument attracted national concern to the ecosystem of the region.


2000: Finished editing and publishing, The Source of the Yangtze, with material collected and photographs taken over the last 13 years; launched the project "The Hope of the Yangtze"; and donated books worth more than 400,000 yuan to over 1,000 schools because "children are the future of the Yangtze."


2001: Implemented the volunteer system for the station. Thirty volunteers were enlisted each year and divided into 12 groups, with each group staying in the station for a month, conducting environmental training and wildlife surveys. Some of recommendations in the reports that they've prepared have been adopted by the Tibetan Railroad Construction Bureau.


In the past 16 years, Yang Xin has entered the Yangtze River source area more than 20 times, for expeditions, exploration, photography and a series of conservation efforts, initiating the national NGO campaign on conversation of the Yangtze River source area.


In 2000, Yang Xin received the "Earth Award" from Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong) and the Chinese Environmental Journalism Association. In 2001, he received the first prize of the Ford Motor Company Award for Ecological Conservation from the Ford Motor Company.


In 2002, he received the Second Mother River Environmental Protection Award, which was presented by eight central departments of the Chinese government.


(China.org.cn by Chen Lin, September 5, 2005)

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