Saving the Snub Nosed Monkey: Student Environmental Action in China

A report from U.S. Embassy Beijing November 1996

Summary. Twenty students and ten media people spent a month in Yunan Province in a 'Long March' to stop the destruction of the habitat of the snub-nosed monkey. The students conducted an economic and social survey of the impoverished Tibetan nationality minority , one of the poorest in China, in order to find viable economic alternatives overcutting of forest land which threatens the survival of the snub-nosed monkey. The students discovered that the threat to the monkeys did not come, as they had assumed, from the traditional slash and burn agriculture of the local people, but from the state-owned timber company which clear-cut forests both inside and outside the nature preserve. The students found local officials living in fine homes amid an impoverished local population and the skins of two endangered species hanging in a local state store. in meetings with forestry, conservation and local government officials at the county level and then at the Yunan provincial capital of Kunming, the students found themselves condemned as ignorant interlopers by Forestry officials and praised by environmental officials.

In late 1995, the Deqin County government of the Yunan Province Diqing Tibetan minority autonomous region decided to permit the cutting of 100 km of old-growth forest. The county, one of the poorest in China (annual per capita income of 400 RMB or US$50 is below the Chinese official poverty level of 480 RMB), had not been able to meet its payroll for several months. The area to be cut, just south of and contiguous to the Baimai Xueshan nature preserve, and the nature preserve are home to 200 snub-nosed monkeys. The two hundred snub-nosed monkeys which live in this area are one-fifth of the total remaining population of 1000 of this endangered species.

A Letter to State Environmental Protection Commision Chairman Song Jian

Xi Zhinong, a young photographer in the Yunan Provincial Forestry Bureau, wrote to China State Environmental Protection Commission Chairman and State Councilor Song Jian. Xi wrote, "The snub-nosed monkeys have lived here for tens of millions of years and yet have escaped destruction. ... I don't believe in this dead end called "timber finance". Once we have chopped down the forest, the only thing left will be the nature preserve. Once we have chopped down all the trees in the nature preserve, then what will have to support us? It just cannot be that the only way to solve our problems is to destroy the patrimony of our children and grandchildren." Song Jian ordered the Ministry of Forestry to look into the matter and see that the law is enforced, saying that Comrade Xi's letter sounds like a last cry of despair. In the early summer of 1996, just before the students set out for Yunan, the central government granted a special subsidy to the county and the county stopped the plan to cut the old growth forest.

Genesis of A Student Environmental Movement

A group of Chinese mountain climbers who pledged not only to bring their own trash off the mountain tops but to bring down whatever trash had been left by earlier climbers are among the forerunners of student environmental action. Beginning in 1994, student environmental protection clubs were founded on the campuses of Peking University, Tsinghua University, Beijing Forestry University and other universities in the Beijing area. In August 1995, members of Beijing Forestry University student environment group, along with and some professors, studied environmental damage and soil run-off along the Xiao Luanhe River (Chinese standard telegraphic code: 1420 2940 3109) on the Inner Mongolia - Hebei Province border. The students found that uncontrolled rapid development over the last decade had resulted in steadily worsening environmental damage upstream which directly affects the purity of Tianjin Municipality drinking water. In October 1995, the college students, along with graduate students and some professors, held their first large scale meeting, the Green Environmental Forum to discuss environmental protection.

A Campaign to Save the Snub-Nosed Monkeys of Yunan Province

In December, 1995 the students came together in a "Save the Snub-Nosed Monkey" campaign and planned their first joint environmental action. The student environmental protection organizations, which by the Spring of 1996 had several hundred members each, prepared for a summer 1996 'Long March' to save the Snub-nosed Monkey through environmental education, and fund-raising campaigns on campus. The efforts of the students were reporting sympathetically by Chinese press and television. From July 25 to August 25, twenty-two college students, master's degree students and PhD candidates from Beijing, Kunming (Yunan), and Harbin along with ten media people traveled in the Baima Xueshan area under the leadership of Tang Xiyang (0781 6932 7122) . The group aimed to learn how to protect the Snub-nosed Monkey by studying the ecology, economics and society of the very poor Tibetan minority region on near China's international boundary with Burma and Yunan Province's internal border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Devastation Caused by Central Government and County Timber Companies

The students discovered that the Deqin County-owned timber company was not only cutting down two meter thick several hundred year old trees in the section of the snub-nosed monkey habitat which extended south of the nature preserve but was also clear-cutting the forest throughout the nature preserve itself. At a Beijing photo exhibition, ESTOFF saw photographs from the student trip to Yunan and talked with students who had been on the trip. One photograph of a large area within the preserve showed only very large tree stumps as far as one could see. The student, who turned out to have taken the photograph, told ESTOFF that the picture was not the worst case; it was merely typical. Another photograph shoed the skins of two endangered species (panther and clouded leopard ) being sold in a local state-owned store. The students told me that the skins had been taken down before the students arrived but were put back out when they left. Two student stragglers snapped the picture. The students told ESTOFF that this was the only place where they found endangered species skins on sale.

The students studied the natural environment, the religion and the economics of the impoverished Tibetan minority people of Deqin County. Half the village children do not finish elementary school. All the people are religious Tibetan Buddhists. One of their religious leaders, a Living Buddha, welcomed the students and said that the religious beliefs of the local people include respect for nature. The students came across a small area of uncut forest where wildlife flourishes; they were told that that small area was under the protection of a temple. The photo exhibit contrasted the very comfortable homes of the authorities with the very simple (and prayer-flag bedecked) homes of the local people. The student economic survey found that the mushrooms native to the area sell for several hundred dollars US per kilogram in Japan but that the local authorities, wanting to hold onto this source of income for themselves, do not permit the village people to set up a cooperative to market the mushrooms. A cooperative would enable the local people to cut out middlemen and so capture a much larger share of the retail price in Japan. The slash-and-burn agriculture of the local people turned out to cause far less damage to the forests than the unrestrained logging of the county-owned timber company.

Meetings with Officials and National Media Coverage

After their trek through the forests of Deqin County, the students had meetings with county officials and then with Yunan Province officials in Kunming. When they presented their report to government officials, including representatives of the Ministry of Forestry and environmental officials, the students were attacked by Forestry officials and praised by the environmental officials. The student trip got extensive coverage in the official Chinese media. Ten press and television journalists accompanied the students. Chinese media reports pointed to the slash-and-burn agriculture of the local people as the cause of the devastation of the snub-nosed monkey habitat, but did not mention the much more important role of the Deqin County timber company. Although the threat to the snub-nosed monkeys of Deqin County has passed, the students fear that unrestrained clear-cutting in nearby areas will continue to cause severe environmental damage.

Tang Xiyang -- A Prominent Chinese Environmentalist

Tang Xiyang (0781 6932 7122) , leader of the student trip to Deqin County in Yunan Province, is well-known to Chinese environmentalists as the former editor of Daxiran [Nature] magazine form 1980 - 1990. Together with his American second wife, Marsha Marks, Tang has written books about the Chinese crane and the national parks of the United States and Europe which have inspired many Chinese who want to build nature preserves and to protect wildlife. Following his graduation from Beijing Normal University Tang worked as a journalist for a Beijing newspaper from 1953 - 1956. Condemned as a rightist in 1956, Tang was forced to work in factories and on farms in the Beijing area until his rehabilitation in 1979. Tang's first wife was killed by here seventh grade students during the Cultural Revolution because she was married to a 'rightist'. Tang met his second wife, Marsha Marks of New York, in 1981 and began a long collaboration which ended with her death in July 1996. Tang hopes that the Yunan trip will change the values of the students who participate and inspire some of them to devote their lives to wildlife conservation. Chinese journalists and reporters visit Tang frequently to discuss the Yunan trip and wildlife conservation. Tang plans to lead a different group of students to Tibet or Xinjiang next during the summer of 1997.

Comment: Rising Public Consciousness and Environmental Protection

The rise of student environmental activism on Chinese campuses and the approving coverage their activities receive in the Chinese media testify to a rising environmental consciousness in China. President Jiang Zemin said recently that the environment should not be sacrificed for the sake of economic development. China has promulgated many new environmental laws over the last several years (including the noise pollution law ) and in November 1996 closed down thousands of small village paper mills and other small factories which discharged large quantities of effluents into the Huai and other Chinese rivers. In such a diverse and complex country as China, the central government must depend upon the cooperation of provincial and county level governments to enforce cenral government regulations. Environmental laws and regulations can only be enforced if many people know about the law and are willing and able to (as was in the case of the U.S. environmental movement) keep the government informed and bring pressure to bear on local and central government to protect the environment.

The experience of the student environmental protection movement confirms the point that Liu Bing wrote in his report on the Chinese Environmental Situation 1995 in the Blue Book published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences -- "Chinese people rely too much on the government in environmental matters. They need to realize that protecting the environment is the responsibility of each individual and that their individual actions make a difference." The margin of individual freedom in China is larger than most foreigners or even the generation of people trained to caution by the holocaust of the Cultural Revolution realize. One environmental activist told ESTOFF that as long as an overall positive impression is conveyed (30 percent negative, 70 percent positive -- perhaps not coincidentally the same ratio as the official assessment of Chairman Mao's demerits and merits) public criticism on many issues such as the environmental is accepted. The slow changing of people's minds is making and will make the difference.