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October 6, 2019

Coexistence: The villager, the gibbons and the conservationists- Yiyi Wei, BFA Glass, 2019

by yiyiwei

At the beginning of each meeting, Liang usually preferred a general information on villager’s perspective of Tianxing’s situation.

Their answer was always positive. 

Recent years, Chinese government had been promoting conservation. Meanwhile many Chinese local conservation organizations such as Cloud Mountain started to emerge.

Under the increasing awareness of conservation, villagers had paid a lot more attention to Tianxing for the past years. Forest rangers had detected newborn Tianxing in some of the areas. Every morning, people living around the habitat can hear Tianxing wailing at each other, across mountain ranges (one of Tianxing’s distinct characteristic is that they communicate through wailing at each other far away) 

surveillance setups in the forests for monitoring Tianxing's activity
surveillance setups in the forests for monitoring Tianxing’s activity

They said hunting in general had disappeared because of government’s strict policy. Poaching or other illegal activities does not exist either. Although in some villages people admitted there are still a few of these activities left.

An overarching characteristic of these villages is that they are all in different levels of poverty. The reason is partially because of the villages being situated in remote areas and enclosed by the mountains. Many of the villages we interviewed had a large population of children or elderlies. Increasing tuition fee for children and medication bills became one of the burdens for every family. Also as the result, young people stayed home instead of working in bigger cities so that they can take care of their children and parents. 

For most people who stayed, there are only a few sources of income, and none of them had made enough money for living. Bamboo forests around the villages provide them bamboo shoot for food(yet tall bamboo tree is also an important vegetation for Tiangxing to be mobile in their habitat). Crops like rice, tea (some areas), nuts and sugar cane are planted in the fields for a little income. 

We encountered Guan Men Jie (Close Door festival) a tradition for Dai ethnic group. A beginning of three months summer agriculture works and no weddings should be performed until after the Kai Men Jie (Open door festival) that signifies the end of this period of time.
Women from the village carved sculptures from sugar cane to worship the buddha.

Similar to villagers in Myanmar, people in Ying Jiang also cultivate a plant called Cao Guo. It is a ground covering plant, with approximately only 9 ft tall and in the same family as cardamum.

Many years ago, Myanmar had a big snow storm that killed most of their Cao Guo, which then led to a price bloom for this plant in China. Cao Guo had dominated villager’s income. As the result, people in Ying Jiang had increased their Cao Guo’s cultivation area and led to disruptions of Tian Xing’s habitat. Cao Guo also requires abundant water, not too high in altitude, and tall trees (so they can be shielded from the sun.) Because the plant is relatively low to the ground comparing to the trees Tian Xing relies on, the plant itself isn’t completely a direct emergent conservation threat to Tian Xing, but there might be many potential indirect threats as the consequence of cultivating Cao Guo.

Red berries of fresh Cao Guo

The bubble of Cao Guo economy popped therefore the price dropped significantly, Unfortunately 2019 had been a drought year, which resulted in very minimum Cao Guo harvest right now. The villagers’s general income had decreased by a lot. 

On top of that, winter in Ying Jiang is very cold due to high altitude. Every family in these villages has elderly and children. They are desperately in need of logs to get through winter. Some spend money to purchase logs in the village. Yet with the un-diversified sources of income on top of decreasing value of Cao Guo, many villagers sometimes do not have a choice other than make lumber for themselves. 

Similar situation happens to house constructions too. Under poverty, some villagers cannot build houses that are made out of concrete. The cheapest way is to go into forest, cut down some trees and build the house by themselves. 

Therefore, when their will of saving a species is confronted by practical income and basic survival, who are we to criticize that they choose to survive a winter instead of saving a tree or two for the animals? 

Liang and Cloud Mountain Conservation’s job here is to find possible solutions, that these villagers don’t have to rely so much on cultivating Cao Guo; don’t have to cut down trees to have warmth in winter, or to have a comfortable home; don’t have to worry so much about not be able to pay for their children’s school, or pay the medical bills for their elderly. And still many more questions asking to be sought out. 

Beautiful hand woven women’s textile for marriage. The craft is almost lost in China. Because Ying Jiang shares a boarder with Myanmar, therefore some cultural traditions are shared too. Many women import their traditional clothings directly from Myanmar for important occasions. The old lady sitting behind was a little confused by our presence but later on she stroked the fabric gently, carefully folded them up piece by piece and put them away.

After we came home from this field trip, I had a long conversation with Liang, talking about our general understanding on conservation, as well as the phenomenons that him and I had observed in the past few days. 

From what I had discovered, in a general picture, a conservation organization’s job is to design structures based on the state of the habitat and analyze the possibilities of each different outcome in the process of conservation. In Ying Jiang, they first came up with assumptions of possible conservation threats (Cao Guo cultivation as one of the many for Tianxing, for example.) Then, with the threats identified, to raise questions like ‘how is cultivating Cao Guo a threat or ‘is the threat coming from the location of the crops or the methods of growing.’ Having these question in mind, the organization then needs a methodological way to find out answers to these questions.

A forest ranger boiling lemongrass tea for everyone in his house

The structure of conservation strategies is like the heart of the project that also has its own fluidity. Designing it should consider not only science (biology, environmental science, microbiology, botany etc) but also sociology, humanity, history, economy, psychology, art and much more. Each action might have multiple potential outcomes that then determines which actions might be better for that specific time and place. It is fascinating to see the factors of certainty and ambivalence, which seemingly are opposite to each other, be synchronized and be harmonious with each other. The push and pull is achieved by a repeated process of raising and resolving questions that derived from a pool of cross-discipline knowledge. 

I couldn’t help but wonder— under the umbrella of conservation strategies, what is the perspective of art? Does art, as a potential element in a conservation plan, only engages at a certain stage of this plan? Or maybe art has the potential to understand the unknown a little more with imagination. And while navigating through a void of incognito future echoing with questions, maybe imagining the beauty of uncertainty and possibility is a piece of gracefulness that art can bring to the table of humanity? 

a very special beetle we came across on a hike

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