Villagers forgo quick yuan for true riches

Monday, November 12, 2007

When Hamagu, a Tibetan village north of Shangri La, refused Government offers to replace their rutted yak track with a paved road to increase tourism, neighbours thought they were naive.

But for village leader Liu Tang, making it easier for coach-loads of tourists to trample on his ancestral pastures and sacred hills was exactly what he wanted to avoid.

When Beijing rebranded the nearby Tibetan town of Gyalthang, (Zhongdian in Chinese) as the mythical “Shangri La” in 2001, it was dubbed a cynical ploy, but it worked. Too well for Mr Liu, who is convinced that eco-tourism is the only hope for his village to climb out of poverty and protect its Tibetan culture and way of life from the corrosive effects of mass tourism and “Hanification”.

Tibetans are one of the 13 ethnic minorities in this remote and beautiful part of Yunnan province, in China’s south-west. The majority of China’s 1.3 billion population are Han Chinese.

As China struggles to mitigate unrest over the unequal distribution of its economic spoils, tourism is increasingly seen as a quick solution. The central Government’s approach, however, is focused on the “bigger is better” model. This means new airports, roads and other infrastructure to service a mass market. Living standards have increased but the influx of outsiders ? Han Chinese officials and business people ? and the often unsympathetic development, including karaoke clubs, outsized hotels and prostitution, has been dubbed derogatorily “Hanification”.

Four years ago, Hamagu was one of the poorest villages neighbouring the Napa Lake nature reserve. Since the village signed up to a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored eco-tourism program, villagers’ incomes have doubled to 1000 yuan ($146) a year.

Other villagers who have allowed developers to build cable-cars to the top of the sacred hill are earning three or four times that amount, but Mr Liu is unfazed.

“In the past our village went the wrong way several times,” Mr Liu said, referring to a disastrous spate of logging four years ago and an earlier tourism venture. “Villagers have learnt from our experiences ? if the forest is damaged, the water level in the area decreases and this directly affects the neighbouring wetlands where migratory birds come for winter, so we saw the punishment of nature soon after we started logging heavily,” Mr Liu said.

The sale of the timber did not close the income gap between Hamagu and other villagers by much, but sparked landslides and insect plagues and created conflict between the villagers as some families ? those with more able-bodied labourers ? profited at the expense of families with young children or elderly members. Mr Liu said that having groups of no more than 20 people visit several times a week was manageable and gave tourists a genuine picture of how Tibetan villagers lived. He said it wasn’t hard to persuade villagers to forgo the quick profits. While other villages across rural China are emptying as the able-bodied migrate to the cities where they can earn much more labouring or working as cleaners or waiters, Hamagu village’s 40 families are happy to stay home.

Widespread consultation among the 40 households, about 230 people, meant a group commitment to making the enterprise work. The villagers elected a pro eco-tourism management committee and there are plans for a website and a guesthouse.

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