The market is filled with things I’ve never seen before.
A dozen men and women, their tanned faces whittled by thin lines, sit hunched over wicker baskets brimming with strawberries the color of clouds, bright orange loquats impersonating fuzzless peaches, dried sausages called làròu, and wild mushrooms that bear more semblance to tree bark than fungi. Nearby, a police officer directs the traffic funneling into the small village—a novelty I’ve come to appreciate in the chaos of China.
Undoubtedly, though, the strangest things I see are the digital QR codes that each peddler has propped up next to his or her harvest. We’re nearly 200 miles away from the megacity of Chengdu and its 10 million inhabitants, in a village with limited electricity, and we’re supposed to pay with our mobile phones. It feels like I have one foot in the past and one in the future. As I marvel at the anachronism, a woman passes me a thimble cup decorated with red flowers and filled with a sun-colored liquid. Honey wine, curated from the more than 500 beehives tucked into the verdant mountains here.
This is Guanba. The Valley of the Panda.
Located in northern Sichuan province, in western China, Guanba is home to just 11 households, though there are more than a dozen villages and ethnic townships scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. They share this lush landscape with golden snub-nosed monkeys, tufted deer, golden pheasants, takins (picture giant, bison-like goats), and, most notably, six or seven wild panda bears. Dozens more pandas live in nearby bamboo forests, and the valley serves as a vital wildlife corridor connecting the nature reserves scattered throughout the Min mountains, part of the Hengduan range.
But this wasn’t always the case. Decades of logging had all but decimated the valley, when in 1998, following massive flooding in the region, the Chinese government banned timber extraction on more than 168 million acres of state-owned forests. For the next decade, Guanba struggled from the resulting loss of income. Then, in 2009, the Chinese non-profit Shanshui Conservation Center stepped in. Shanshui, meaning literally mountain-water, helped residents revive a government-sponsored beekeeping cooperative and supported the formation of a patrol team—funded by the Sichuan Forestry Department—that would monitor the valley for illegal poaching and logging. In 2015, the province officially designated the 25-square-mile area a “community nature reserve.”
Guanba will soon fall within the boundaries of China’s new Giant Panda National Park, a protected area that will be three times the size of Yellowstone when completed in 2020. When the park was announced in April 2017, the state-run, English-language newspaper China Daily reported that the 170,000 people living in panda territory would be relocated. But Guanba and its successes offer an alternative, inclusive model for conservation.
Today, the patrol team’s 27 members are milling around the village square, posing for photos with visitors. More than a hundred people have gathered in a tiny pavilion next to a bubbling stream where catfish, known locally as shipazi, have finally returned after years of overfishing. The visitors are here for a media event sponsored by Ant Financial’s forest program, part of AliPay, a virtual payment giant in China and the ones promoting the QR codes. The company is raising money to support Guanba, working to make it easier for locals to get their products, like the honey wine, to market. This will help the village become self-sustaining without subsidies from NGOs. The hope is that with stable income from harvested honey, called fēngmì, locals will no longer need to hunt, cut trees, pick herbs, or herd animals that pollute their water sources and push pandas out.
There are fewer than 2,000 pandas left in the wild. After decades of habitat degradation and overhunting across much of the species’ range, most of the remaining pandas now live in the Min Mountains and Qinling Mountains in neighboring Shaanxi province. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded the panda’s status from Endangered to Vulnerable. However, although natural forest cover is increasing in China, thanks to an expanded, nationwide ban on commercial logging in state-owned forests that went into effect in 2016, livestock grazing continues to jeopardize the pandas’ future. This is true even in protected areas. For example, Duke University researchers found that in China’s Wanglang National Nature Preserve, not far from Guanba, a dramatic increase in grazing pressure over a period of 15 years damaged a third of all giant panda habitat within the protected area.
The bears avoid areas grazed by livestock and “that’s worrisome,” says Ron Swaisgood, director of Recovery Ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “I’m hopeful that Giant Panda National Park will address these issues, but we need to acknowledge that the livestock problem is just as significant inside protected areas as it is outside.” It’s unclear what level of grazing will be allowed within the new park.
Guanba is just one example of how conservation is unfolding in China, a country quite unlike any other when it comes to both environmental challenges and opportunities. China’s human population remains unrivaled, yet an authoritarian government means, for better and worse, that policy changes can happen fast, without spending years mired in Congress. As a result, the Middle Kingdom has experienced many environmental wins within its borders in recent years. After the government forced millions of homes and business to switch from coal to natural gas in 2016, concentrations of PM2.5—a particulate that poses significant health risks—dropped by 54 percent in Beijing. The smog is finally clearing. Last January, China stopped importing and recycling millions of metric tons of plastic waste from the West, reducing energy expenditures and therefore pollution within the country. And while President Trump has promised to exit the Paris Climate Agreement, China has committed to boosting non-fossil-fuel energy production to around 20 percent of its energy landscape by 2030 (though for now its carbon emissions are still increasing).
With the United States planning to pull out of the Paris Agreement in 2020, China wants to be seen as the world leader in climate-change mitigation, and the architect of an “ecological civilization” that will benefit generations to come. Strengthening environmental protections won’t be limited to pollution; increasingly, national and local governments are focusing their attention on protected areas—including the country’s first-ever National Park system. Giant Panda National Park will be its crown gem.
But China is largely able to make gains in protecting its land by exporting its extractive burden to the rest of the world. In this way, the nation has turned a corner. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative—a massive push to build infrastructure across Asia, Africa, and Europe—is expected to span 65 nations and involve more than 7,000 projects. China’s Communist Party has censored public criticism of the project from within the country.
“There’s a great gulf between how China is operating inside China—there’s a mix of good and bad—and their policies overseas,” says William Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at Australia’s James Cook University. Belt and Road, he says, is “unprecedented in the scope of impact.” The initiative will create new roads, railroads, and ports around the world, and establish mining, logging, and oil and gas projects across three continents. China is also pushing to build a 3,300-mile-long railroad that would slice across South America, from Rio de Janeiro to southern Peru, a move that would allow the nation to import soy, timber, and minerals at lower prices.
“China has operated in this model of a very high degree of freedom for its entrepreneurs operating overseas,” says Laurance. Any initiative touted by Xi Jinping and his government to green the Belt and Road project amounts to “greenwashing,” he says. “I don’t see much of it translating into action on the ground.” In other words, China can now afford to protect its own ecosystems without economic losses—provided it simultaneously destroys the tropical forests of the Amazon and Southeast Asia.
Still, in a country of more than 1.4 billion people, even under this brand of iron-fist leadership, the domestic obstacles are many. How can the government set aside enough land to protect the hundreds of species under threat—from the Chinese alligator to the Hainan black-crested gibbon to the fishing cat—without forcing out the millions of people who live there? Are projects being pushed through too quickly, without adequate research on their impacts? Ultimately, can conservation under an authoritarian regime ever really work?
“The reserves tend to be in places of rock and ice—places that have the least contested land, where there is low productivity for agriculture and other uses, and a million miles from where there are big concentrations of people.”
— Gretchen Daily, ecologist
Fifteen percent is an admirable number by any measure. One of the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets is for signatory nations (every country in the world except the United States) to protect 17 percent of their land area by 2020. The majority are nowhere close. But most of China’s protected land falls within the sparsely populated West, around the Tibetan Plateau.
“In the past, China’s approach has been relatively fragmented,” says Gretchen Daily, an ecologist at Stanford University and co-founder of the Natural Capital Project. “The reserves tend to be in places of rock and ice—places that have the least contested land, where there is low productivity for agriculture and other uses, and a million miles from where there are big concentrations of people.”
In 2017, Chinese and North American researchers, including Daily, analyzed the effectiveness of the country’s nature reserves and found that although the protected areas did a good job at conserving mammals and birds, they had little impact on other animals and plants. And they didn’t significantly improve ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and water and soil retention.
Part of that is because most of the reserves are in the west, while many threatened species’ habitats and areas that provide ecosystem services are located in the eastern provinces. China’s authoritarian approach to government has added to this problem. It’s a double-edged sword: The country can enact changes quickly, which can be useful as a critical stop-gap to save a species, but critics say many of the nature reserves in China were established too rapidly and opportunistically. That meant they were created without clear plans in place to maximize conservation goals, and they often lack enforcement.
Last year, after piloting China’s first national park in the Sanjiangyuan area of the Tibetan Plateau, the source of the country’s three major rivers—the Yellow, Mekong and Yangtze—the government released a comprehensive national park plan that would put millions of acres under strict federal protection.
This new national park system will set higher conservation standards than the current nature reserve model, and will include stricter enforcement. It will also differ from the country’s existing “national parks,” which serve more as tourist attractions than protected areas. Park management will be guided primarily by the principle of ecological protection, according to the government plan, grounded in the recognition that well-functioning ecosystem services are vital to sustaining economic growth.
“There’s a phrase President Xi Jinping has coined: ‘Green mountains and clear water are equal to gold and silver mountains,’” says Jiang. “If you protect the mountains, you have wealth and prosperity.” But operating under such a financial framework instead of one focused on the inherent value of wilderness could also put the parks at risk when push comes to shove for development.
The first batch of parks, which includes Giant Panda, will be completed by 2020—a timeline that poses significant challenges for park planners.
China has already initiated pilot programs in nine regions—including seven in the East—to test various forms of park management. But officially establishing parks in the population-dense East is a daunting prospect. People living in high biodiversity areas are some of the country’s poorest, and forcing them to relocate threatens to make them poorer still. China’s official national park plan concludes by stating that residents in the core regions of the new national parks will be “gradually relocated.” But on this, the country has a weak track record. By 2017, Sanjiangyuan National Park had already issued a notice saying it would relocate 61,588 people for the park.
“There’s a phrase President Xi Jinping has coined: ‘Green mountains and clear water are equal to gold and silver mountains,'”
— Zeyin Jiang, conservation manager
National parks evoke images of vast open spaces—swaths of sandstone desert in Utah’s Zion National Park, or dark, starry skies blooming over the fossil beds of Big Bend near the Texas-Mexico border. Up north, Canada has 44 national parks, including the world-famous Banff, which has seen more than a 50 percent increase in Chinese tourists in recent years. Canada also has fewer than 32 million people—roughly a third of the population of Sichuan Province alone.
“The biggest difference between China and the United States and Canada is that they have lots of empty spaces,” Feng Jie, director of the Sichuan office of Shanshui, the conservation group, tells me in Guanba over a lunch of bony fish, spiced roots, and boiled potatoes with local honey.
Though Chinese government officials have spent years touring national parks in the United States, taking away lessons on tourism, financial operations, and strategies for dealing with surrounding communities, there is no test case that’s truly comparable for how things might go in China. “This new national park system is an exploration,” Feng says. “The government can’t really do what has been done before in other places. National park creation here is a totally new process that’s going to look very different from other nations.” However, it may have some commonalities with national monument creation in the United States. As sitting U.S. presidents have done with national monuments, President Xi Jinping will be able to declare and revoke protection status of lands as it pleases him.
The attractions of Guanba’s townsite can be fully taken in in a short walk from the recently built pavilion building to the end of the road where the reserve begins—and where people are barred from entry. Along the road, tiny green butterflies flit between dove and camphor trees. A natural spring trickles down from the mountains, under boarded walkways. I stop to read a professional-looking sign, one of the few translated into English—somewhat crudely, as is common in China: “Preserve Upper Yangtze River Watershed to Stabilize Water Supply Project,” it says.
Anytime someone mentions the Yangtze, it’s hard not to think of the Three Gorges Dam project of the 1990s and 2000s. Biologists believe that the dam project pushed the imperiled Yangtze dolphin to extinction. It also forced the relocation of more than 1.3 million people over the 17 years it took to complete the dam, generating an image crisis for China that still haunts the nation. The government claimed the dam would bring prosperity and stability to those downstream. By 2011, though, China’s state council admitted in an official statement that the project had created “problems that must be urgently resolved in the resettlement and wealth-making of immigrants, environmental protection, and geological disaster prevention.”
Geologists had feared that the damming of so much water would increase the risk of landslides and earthquakes. Their predictions turned out to be right. The government has since acknowledged an increase in the frequency of earthquakes, though they’ve denied that the dam played any role in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed roughly 87,000 people.
“There’s been a big shift since Three Gorges in how these programs are approached and implemented,” says Stanford’s Daily. More and more, people want to move for better economic prospects, and the government now offers voluntary incentives—jobs, housing, or education—to those willing to trade farm for city. “They’re also being incentivized to move very locally, just over into the next valley. They’re still in the same place with all of their relatives, within the same social networks, language, and culture. That wasn’t the case with Three Gorges and that was a deep regret.”
Under the national park plan, the regulations on human presence will vary by park and within parks, too. In Giant Panda National Park, a core zone will include already-designated nature reserves off-limits to the public; a second zone will be designated for ecological restoration; a third will be restricted to traditional subsistence use; and a fourth will be an educational and recreational zone. Guanba, and its residents, will fall into the third zone.
Feng is optimistic about the idea of involving local people in conservation. “What do you do with them? You can’t kick them all out. [Guanba] is an experiment of what to do with the people living there, and this could be the model for the rest of the parks.”
In the case of Giant Panda National Park, although state media first reported that 170,000 people would be relocated, months later, they started reporting that the park would create economic opportunities for 170,000 people instead. The lack of a free press makes it impossible to know exactly how this park will unfold on the ground and what incentives might be offered to urge locals to relocate. Researchers working in and out of China, too, are wary of criticizing the government out of fear that they might lose access to study areas and information.
Part of his strategy to accomplish this is to push people, either with incentives or by force, toward cities, which officials believe offer a higher standard of living. But Xi’s plan is not to send people to Beijing or Shanghai, both of which have instituted official population caps. Instead, it often means shipping them off to new developments on the outskirts of lesser cities, where migrants inevitably have limited access to health care and education due to staff shortages in less developed regions.
Still, in China, urbanization is often seen as the possible savior of fragile landscapes and threatened species—unlike in the West, where rapid urbanization tends to produce dread and fears of dirty, sprawling cities.
I ask Jack Liu, a Chinese human-environment scientist at Michigan State University who splits his time between China and the U.S., about viable options for China to establish more protected areas. He’s overcome with excitement at the prospect of urban migration as a feasible, and inevitable, environmental fix. The government, he says, needs to improve education for children living in and near nature reserves. If they go to college, he says, they will not come back to the family farm—and that is a good thing. “We do not need to force people to move out, but provide a better education for them,” he says. “Once the children move out, they will not have babies in the nature reserve and the population goes down.” In Chinese culture, parents and grandparents often live with their children. If their educated offspring move to the city, several generations may follow in their footsteps.
But the parks will still need passionate guardians. That’s why Meng Ji returned home to Guanba. A gaunt man in his late 30s with buzzed hair and sharp cheekbones, Meng spent years serving in the military and working odd jobs around China. In Sichuanese, a near impenetrable dialect of Mandarin, he rattles off the places he’s lived since first leaving his childhood home: Beijing, Chengdu, Tianjin, Lanzhou. Most recently he was in Nepal, panning the rivers for gold. But the work was exhausting and poorly compensated.
In 2016, he returned to the Valley of the Panda, where he saw his friend Li Xinrui undertaking river restoration work and leading patrols into the verdant mountains to look for wire snares and illegal herb-pickers. This, he says, moved him. He wanted to help.
Now, once a month, Meng heads up the mountain with the patrol team—23 men and four women. Summer is busy. More people are in the woods, seeking herbs and wood. Meng receives 1,000 yuan ($150) each month to be part of the team, and an additional 140 yuan ($20) for each day spent patrolling. Sometimes, he says, the team discovers traps, but they’re all two to three years old. Most of the people from nearby villages know not to come to Guanba now, though some illegal logging persists. The bigger problem, if it can be called that, is Asiatic black bears—now plentiful, thanks to habitat restoration—raiding their beehives in an insatiable quest for Guanba’s special honey.
On the note of bears, I ask Meng about the valley’s namesake and the “Panda Tribe” of which he is a descendant. Though the precise origin of the tribe’s name is unknown, it likely stems from the sheer number of pandas that once called these mountains home. In the 1930s, with panda pelts skyrocketing in popularity, locals began killing the animals for trade. A coincidental, massive die-off of bamboo followed, and the remaining bears began to starve. Many men in the region were imprisoned for panda poaching after China criminalized it in 1987. These two events sullied the reputation of the Panda Tribe and they stopped using the name. But now the panda has taken on a new meaning—one of hope and pride in the protection of the natural world.
“The panda tribe was a long time ago,” Meng says. “There were a lot more pandas back then. Now we really need to protect it.”
How exactly conservation will continue to unfold under an authoritarian regime remains unclear. Will dedicated individuals like Meng Ji be allowed to stay and protect their local surroundings? Or will conservation be controlled by a distant iron fist, protecting lands by pushing people toward cities? It’s possible the future will see a combination of approaches—and won’t be quite as black and white as the panda’s coat.
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Kyle Obermann is a Mandarin-and English-speaking environmental photographer based in China. His work focuses on promoting stories of Indigenous conservation groups protecting China’s last great wildernesses. He is also a The North Face sponsored ultra-marathoner and explorer, as well as the founder of Explore To Conserve, a movement dedicated to connecting China’s outdoor industry and environmental movement. His work has been published in Chinese and English language adventure and conservation publications around the world. Follow his work on Instagram @kyleobermann or at kyleobermannphotography.com.
Ami Vitale's journey as a photographer and filmmaker has taken her to more than 90 countries where she has witnessed civil unrest and violence, but also surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit. Vitale is an Ambassador for Nikon and a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine. She has garnered prestigious awards including the first Magnum Inge Morath grant along with multiple prizes from World Press Photos, the International Photographer of the Year prize, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting and named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographer's Association. She is based in Montana.