China's Crane Experiment

When wealth trickles up, peoples' lives improve, and so do prospects for a revered bird

  • Dave Newbart
  • Aug 01, 2001

ATOP A HILL overlooking a vast wetland in southwestern China, Li Zhong­chang and Guan Yuhe joke like old friends as rare black­necked cranes feed alongside farmers tilling their fields. Such good feeling between the two men wasn´t always so. Just seven years ago they came close to beating each other senseless, all because of the birds.

Trouble began when Guan geared up to protect the Caohai Nature Reserve, of which he is senior engineer. To combat illegal fishing, he and a group of reserve employees began burning fishing nets that belonged to farmers from nearby Yangguanshan village.

The villagers were incensed. Led by Li, 100 of them descended from the same hilltop. Brandishing knives and crowbars to protect their property, they surrounded Guan and his workers. "Kill them!" one person had cried.

The reaction was understandable. At the time, the villagers had no food. They had already lost much of their farmland in 1982 when the government began recreating wetlands that it had drained earlier. Caohai (Chinese for "sea of grass") was proclaimed a wildlife preserve three years later, and the graceful black­necked crane was designated a top­ priority species to protect. In their zeal to safeguard the bird, however, reserve staff did not address the need of the farmers, some of China's poorest.

No one was hurt in the melee. The worst that came of it was that villagers tossed a few reserve workers into the lake. Remarkably since then, the relationship between the village and the reserve has improved dramatically.

How this reconciliation took place at one of China´s most extraordinary bird habitats is an unusual tale that illustrates the viability of an abstract concept much touted by conservationists these days: sustainability. In a truly sustainable community, the theory goes, people as well as wildlife benefit indefinitely thanks to solicitous management of an ecological system and new opportunities for people. In the case of Caohai, the idea is also a tribute to a pioneering program of financial incentives, set up with the help of American biologists and an American foundation, in which credit and $100 grants are given to subsistence farmers to start small businesses that do not harm the environment.

Conservationists hope the new harmony will help ensure the long­term survival of the cranes and 184 other species of birds that use the reserve. They also hope the program can be expanded to some of the other 924 reserves in China that face similar conflicts. "The Caohai model focuses on direct engagement with local people in conservation," says Jim Harkness, who heads the World Wildlife Fund's China program. "After a very short period of time, you have farmers starting to think about larger issues, about the public good. If conservationists see them as partners rather than enemies, they can have success."

Harkness could have been talking about Li and Guan. On this particular day, the former adversaries have converged on the hillside near Yangguanshan to discuss using reserve funds to reconstruct a road­the only one to the village­that washed out when the wetlands reserve was created. That is only one sign of cooperation. To their left runs an electric line installed with reserve assistance. Less than a mile away is a school housed in a nature reserve building lent to the village for free.

Caohai Lake, where this experiment in nature protection is taking place, is located in a mountainous region in Guizhou province, 7,000 feet above sea level along the Guizhou­Yunnan border. At the 96­square­kilometer (38­sq.­mi.) Caohai Nature Reserve, pockets of tall sedge sprout from all parts of the shallow lake, which is surrounded by cropland and mountain ranges. The area, considered one of the most important wintering spots for birds in southwestern China, is home to some 100,000 ducks, eagles, egrets, herons, geese, cormorants and other birds, including the black­necked crane.

Black­necked cranes are 3 ½­ to 4­ foot ­high birds, notable for their black necks and heads, and red patches on their crowns. Because of their remote habitats, they are considered the least known of all cranes. Scientists estimate there are about 5,600 of them worldwide. The cranes spend April to October in bogs and high­altitude marshes of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, where they make their nests. In the fall, they migrate hundreds of miles south to their winter homes in Caohai and other wetlands in Tibet, Guizhou and Yunnan. In recent years, as many as 400 of the birds have ended up in Caohai.

But Caohai is also home to a growing number of Chinese. Nearby Weining hosts a bustling market that attracts merchants in from all around. In addition, 23,000 residents live within the boundaries of the reserve itself, many in small villages such as Xihai, Lingjiao and Bojiwan. With an average income of $60 a year, most of the 5,400 families plant corn and potatoes, along with tobacco, chili peppers, tea and zucchini, on subsistence farms.

The Chinese have admired cranes in art and literature for years, and at Caohai the birds and farmers mingle within 30 to 45 feet of each other. But that reverence hasn´t saved the species´ habitat. In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, the government partially drained Caohai Lake to create farmland. During the Cultural Revolution in 1972, it completed the job, leaving just a small stream. As a result, the number of cranes using the area dropped to just 35.

The expected agricultural boon didn´t turn out as expected, however. What appeared to be a fertile basin between the mountain ranges was in fact poor farmland. The land was rocky and frequently flooded. Brutal winds swirled, massive soil erosion caused dust storms and insects plagued the region. In 1982, the government declared the situation a disaster and decided to restore the lake. It built a dam, bringing back the water, and three years later the area was designated a provincially protected reserve.

But no one accounted for the impact on area farmers, who were furious they had lost some of the land they had recently developed for farming. To make up for these setbacks, the residents increased fishing, often violating a ban on netting during the spawning season. They removed plants en masse from the lake to feed their hogs, throwing the ecosystem off balance, and they killed birds for food.

In 1993, after witnessing similar confrontations at wetlands all over China, the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a Wisconsin­based nonprofit that specializes in protecting cranes and the wetlands they inhabit, stepped in to help. ICF enlisted the aid of the Trickle Up Program, a New York­based organization that since 1979 has helped start 84,000 businesses in 117 countries by providing small loans and credit. The idea was to launch a poverty­alleviation program in Caohai, targeting the villages closest to feeding areas crucial to the cranes´ survival.

The new initiative sought to raise the living standards of the poorest residents ­ those who earn less than $36 annually and grow only enough food to feed their families for six months out of the year. The Trickle Up Program issued grants of $100 on several conditions. Villagers had to pledge to start businesses that wouldn´t harm the environment and agree to devote 1,000 hours into running the business during the first three months of operation. They also were required to sign a pledge to conduct a conservation activity of their choosing each year.

After the village gained experience with the grant­making process, community trust funds were established to provide credit to people who had no collateral to get bank loans. Villagers formed their own small groups to receive and manage these revolving loan funds and developed their own operating rules. Many groups are made up of just 10 families and received $240 from the reserve. But other groups involve entire villages and received larger amounts. Because each villager is required to pitch in small sums of money when a fund is started, and all financial records are kept public, community pressure ensures a high repayment rate. In addition, villagers, along with reserve staff who administer the operation, are given training in running a business.

After a bumpy start, the program has had impressive results. Between 1993 and 1999, more than 500 families started businesses, 80 percent of which are still up and running. After three months in operation, most businesses earn between $60 and $120 in profits. In addition, more than 860 families have access to 61 trust funds, only one of which has fizzled.

For many residents, the program is the first time they´ve had access to capital or credit. And in a novel departure from how government programs are normally run in China, the residents are allowed to choose their own enterprise, pick their own leaders, set their own interest rates (typically 2 to 3 percent) and spend the money however they see fit. "In a normal government program, you just do what they tell you," says Deng Yi, a reserve engineer who helps run the project. "We give them a choice. It's totally open to farmer wishes."

Most of the businesses involve retailing: buying and reselling goods­typically chickens, tofu or other foods­at the Weining market. But other businesses include making stoves from barrels, building furniture, fixing bicycles and making bricks.

Xianglan Miao of Xihai used the money to buy supplies to make tofu, which she now sells briskly at market. "It´s been a great help," she says. The widow of Qingling Zhao of Lingjiao, who has five children, buys chickens and eggs at the market and sells them to a retailer in a larger city three hours away. "Without this fund, I don´t know how I´d live," she says.

As a young man Zhang Xicai, a carpenter from Bojiwan, helped dig the ditches that drained the lake in Caohai. For years he struggled to make ends meet working odd carpentry jobs. He lived in a crumbling stone house with a thatched roof that leaked profusely whenever it rained. But after he received the $100 grant, he bought tools and opened his own carpentry business. He now has a wife, two young children and a new home. He also runs a small brick­making operation. "It´s not just the money," he says. "I have a hope for the future."

Part of the reason the program has had success is that it taps into the Chinese custom of exchanging gifts. Farmers from several of the more than 100 hamlets inside the reserve agree that in accepting grants and loans, they were motivated to help protect the reserve if only as a means to show their appreciation. But once the money got their attention, many now say that lessons about how soil erosion and flooding damage their crops ring true.

"At the beginning, the regulations seemed very strange to us," said Zhu Xiyong, a member of the trust fund coordinating committee in Lingjiao. "Why should we protect birds and plant trees? But we did it because they gave us a lot of help. In recent years we´ve changed our ideas and understand that it´s important to preserve the area because it is good for our future."

In the village of Bojiwan, residents understand the need to protect the area for another reason: increasing tourism. About 50,000 tourists, mostly Chinese, visit Caohai each year. At a night meeting last fall, several residents crowded into the home of a village leader to brainstorm ways to increase the flow of visitors. An aroma part tobacco, part coal, filled the air. "If we have a lot of birds around the village, we will have more and more visitors," said Zhang Taisong, the trust fund coordinator for the village. "We can make money from them."

With that in mind, villagers at Bojiwan fenced off what they refer to as a "waterfowl breeding area" that is off­limits to fishermen, tourist boats and livestock. They now are improving the road to the village and building viewing platforms for visitors. This project involves Bojiwan residents in some of the day­to­day management of Caohai: Each villager takes a regular turn watching over the protected wetland.

Because of its location, the village of Yangguanshan was perhaps the program´s biggest challenge. In addition to losing their road, the 300 residents there gave up more farmland than most villages when Caohai Lake was re­flooded. In the rainy season, the village is surrounded by water. A narrow path leading to it snakes through the rugged, rocky farmland and up a hill. The walk to the nearest road takes 40 minutes.

Wearing an army­issue hat and coat, Li Xing Bai tills a 480­square­yard plot using a wooden plow with a single rusted metal blade. "Zou, zou (go, go)," he screams, while a bull slowly pulls the plow. The task takes a half day. "When the dam was built, we didn't have enough food," he recalls. "We were very, very hungry." Many people were forced to go to the cities to work as porters­human mules carrying cargo on their backs all day. Without a decent road, he remembers, one person died while holed up at home, too ill to make the difficult journey to a hospital.

Back at Li Zhongchang´s small stone home, where he lives with his wife and two children, the village leader shares potatoes with Deng, who as a reserve engineer, reports to Guan Yuhe. The meal is grilled directly on a coal­burning stove, which also heats Li´s home. In a bin above the main room, Li has corn stored for the winter. The floors are dirt, and there is no running water. A bull he uses for plowing stays in an attached room.

"When we received the grant, we were very glad," Li says. He started selling eggs at the market in Weining, a business, still run by his wife, that nets $300 a year. Each spring he borrows $24 from the village trust fund to buy fertilizer, which will increase sixfold his yield of potatoes and corn. Li now teaches at the school, and 52 children attend. "Before just a few people could read and write," he says. "Many students now can. And now we have education about how to protect the environment."

Normally outspoken, Deng turns noticeably red when the subject turns to the earlier confrontation over fishing nets. "The attitude of the staff was no good," he confirms in a soft voice. "The government taught us to think the villagers had to obey us. We thought the reserve belonged to us. But later we thought, ´If I were a farmer, what would I do?´ Then it was easy to change."

Now Deng, whose background is in conservation, talks about bringing better health care to the village and raising money to help farmers build separate housing for their livestock. The cranes´ well­being is now tied in his thinking to peoples´ well­being.

Li Zhongchang says the best examples of the residents´ improved standard of living are electric lines that run to each house. In 1997, members of the trust fund board successfully lobbied the government to contribute $1,200 toward putting in electricity. Each villager chipped in $24, and they took $315 from the trust fund. Now most villagers have lights and some even have televisions. "The main reason our relationship has changed is because the reserve thinks they should help the people first, then help the environment," Li says.

Guan, his one­time nemisis, agrees: "This is now a part of our job. We must help people's livelihoods," he said. "We are the first nature reserve in China to use this method of management. This is a new beginning for nature reserves."

Dave Newbart is a reporter for the Chicago Sun­Times. Last year, while on leave from his paper as a Pew Fellow in International Journalism, he traveled to Caohai on behalf of International Wildlife. For more on Caohai, check the International Crane Foundation's Web site:

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