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8 Mar 06
Women on patrol: Curbing illegal logging on the Tibetan Plateau
By Alex Marston
“Seeing dead tree stumps overwhelms me with sadness. I want to stop people from cutting our trees down,” says Tseji with firm conviction. Tseji is the leader of an all-female forest patrol against poachers and loggers in China’s Yunnan Province. As she speaks, her companions gather around and nod in solemn agreement.
Protecting their natural habitat is a universal feeling shared among many members of the local community. Every week, Tseji and the female patrol group make the rounds in sections of the 90km2 forest belonging to the Bazhu community.
Although the patrols can last up to five hours at a time, the women have no problem undertaking this mission despite their other responsibilities at home.
“All the patrol groups are women,” says Tseji with a wide grin. This is because we’re much better at patrolling than the men!” Tesji’s comments aren’t bravado. Ever since the women took on the patrolling duties, there’s been a significant increase in logging protection. Fewer trees are now being cut and the chances of repeat offenders have also diminished. “When we started the patrols in the mid-1990s, we would often see the same people time and again cutting down the trees,” Tseji adds. “Now, if we catch people, we never see them again.”
Although respected for their high success, women weren’t considered as a first choice for the patrolling work.
“Initially, we had men going on the patrols,” explains Ben Chong, a Bazhu community leader. “This proved to be unsuccessful as many of the patrollers knew the loggers socially and either felt too embarrassed to report them, or else they would all sit down together and get drunk, and the patrollers would neglect their duties. This never happens with the women, and besides, we’ve found them to be much better negotiators than the men.”
So how do these women protect themselves? Are they the Tibetan GI Jane’s, armed to the teeth with guns and knives? Tseji looks aghast when asked this question.
“We don’t carry weapons of any sort. We prefer to talk to the people instead and try and persuade them that what they are doing is wrong. But we do confiscate their tools.
” But what if the loggers aren’t exactly accommodating to the patrollers demands? “It sometimes happens, but they’re usually just stubborn about things,” Tseji says. “We are more stubborn and can usually persuade them. And if we can’t, we’ll go back and report them to the village.”
There is good reason for the Bazhu residents to be so conscientious in their efforts to protect their natural resources. Nestled at the top of a valley in the heart of the Tibetan Plateau, Bazhu exemplifies the wonder and splendour of an area that is the focus of so much conservation work.
The community’s 21 villages sit among a vast area of forests with trees that have been growing for longer than the community has existed itself. What makes Bazhu even more remarkable is that its resplendent greenery is like an oasis in the bare mountains that surround it.
Over the years, people from surrounding communities have plundered their trees as the demand for timber soared. Now, Bazhu stands almost alone in its conservation of its precious trees, something that is the envy of those around them.
Moreover, Bazhu residents fear that the planned removal of the logging ban in China after 2008 could spell a renewed attack on their precious forest coverage. Hence the need for the ever vigilant forest patrols.
“I believe that part of the reason our community has kept our natural resources intact is down to our cultural background,” explains Ben Chong as he pours the assembled group another round of butter tea. “Bazhu is one of the few remaining communities in this region that has retained strong roots to our cultural past. In Tibetan Buddhism, a respect of nature is an absolute must, as we believe in the interdependency of all things. Damage one element and you damage the whole.”
Bazhu residents view education as a vital tool to keep this belief in nature alive. With support from WWF, they have built a community learning centre in Bazhu’s largest village. The centre acts as a focal point for the community to participate — many of them women — in activities related to the benefit of the community as a whole.
According to Liu Yunhua, Director of WWF China’s Education programme, environmental protection requires the extensive participation of local communities if they are to be effective and sustainable.
“Effective and meaningful participation can only be achieved when communities are truly empowered and their capacity is strengthened,” said Liu. “The community learning centre is a great place for bringing people together to share ideas, make decisions and take action to protect their cultural and natural heritage.”
But Bazhu residents also realize that in order to maintain the fragile balance between humans and nature, they must adapt to the ever-changing world that surrounds it. With an adult’s expected annual salary around RMB500 (US$60) a year, staying above the poverty line is a daily challenge for all the families in Bazhu.
Efforts are already being made to diversify income sources away from traditional agricultural methods and embrace the greater markets of consumer products. A fruit candy using local produce is currently undergoing testing and plans are also in the works to sell village hazelnuts to the local markets.
But the village elders are clear that such initiatives will not survive on their own, support is needed for all the community residents, especially for the womenfolk. Hence, the need for the community learning centre and its multitude of training opportunities, including handicraft making and the sustainable use of non-timber forest products, especially mushroom and medicinal herbs.
For Tseji, such training opportunities are an exciting future for her, as she’d like to expand her opportunities to help her family. “Besides, the extra knowledge could help me in my patrolling work,” she adds, “I might gain better powers of persuasion.”
Alex Marston is Communications Coordinator with WWF’s China Programme.
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