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Saving the Himalayan forests, the Tibetan way

China lets a US-based group train poor villages on how to both exploitand save critical forest preserves

Tibet has always been a land of extremes - of cloud-capped mountain peaks and lush tropical valleys - held together in a delicate ecosystem mix that inspired a mystical reverence for nature and life.

But the march of Chinese Communist troops into the remote Himalayan region 50 years ago, and the exploitation of Tibet's resources to feed China's economic development, made some Tibetans fear their world could be forever thrown out of balance.

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Now the success of a special environmental zone surrounding Mt. Everest, near the Tibetan border with Nepal, is providing new hope for the "Roof of the World."

The Qomolangma Nature Preserve is remarkable not only because it is restoring the environment by returning control over the land to local Tibetans, but also due to its curious coalition of backers.

Qomolangma, the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest, was conceived by the Chinese government and the US-based environmental group Future Generations after seeking ideas and feedback from the area's authorities and impoverished peasants.

Beijing claims that it has had sovereignty over Tibet for centuries, and routinely brands criticism of its policies "interference in China's internal affairs."

Yet China is quietly stepping up cooperation with "American and other international groups to help protect the environment and minimize the negative effects of rapid economic growth," says Liu Jin, an environmental expert at the World Bank's Beijing office.

Although Tibet remains off-limits to most foreigners, the government has been slowly opening the region to Western aid donors, and the massive Mt. Everest project is being called one of the policy's prime success stories.

A decade ago, the region surrounding the planet's highest peak was a study in contrasts: The pristine state of its summit descended into a garbage-strewn base.

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"Nearby hillsides were being stripped of tree cover, and wanton hunting was jeopardizing the wildlife," says Daniel Taylor-Ide, president of Future Generations in Franklin, W. Va.

The Tibetan, Chinese, and American partners who a decade ago designed the preserve, which is roughly the size of Denmark, employed a concept at first alien to Beijing's central planners: a "community-based approach to sustainable development," adds Mr. Taylor-Ide.

He and other backers of the program began traveling from village to village, county to county, to ask farmers and hunters to join a massive joint venture.

In exchange for limiting the destruction of forests and wildlife, the participants would receive, over time, access to primary health care, education, and energy-saving technology. "Because the financing for the preserve came from the central government, Future Generations, and local villages themselves, each farmer realized he had a stake in the success of the program," says Taylor-Ide.

The preserve resembles three concentric rings: The core is strictly protected from development, a buffer zone allows some use of natural resources, and an outer zone is designed to accommodate towns and business enterprises. Villagers and local authorities together volunteer to police protected forests and habitats, and divert funds that would have paid for preserve wardens into basic social services.

That approach toward sustainable development is empowering not only entire communities, but also ethnic minorities, women, the poor, and other groups often discriminated against.

The remarkably simple idea has since taken off, and a few model villages have been copied throughout southern Tibet.

Although Tibet remains one of the poorest regions in the world, Future Generations says life for the 75,000 residents of the Mt. Everest preserve is showing steady signs of improvement:

*Up to 30 percent of the area's children now attend school, triple the rate of 10 years ago, and infant mortality has been cut in half;

*Glass windows and other low-cost, energy-saving materials are cutting fuel consumption, and deforestation has been sharply reduced;

*The area's wildlife is making a comeback, and sales of many endangered species have been banned.

"The United Nations Development Program has launched a microcredit program to finance individual businesses," and other aid groups are providing matching funds to build schools and roads," Taylor-Ide adds.

The community-based model is also being copied in other areas of China.

Ms. Liu says the World Bank recently persuaded Beijing to cooperate in a grassroots program to eliminate poverty across five Chinese provinces.

"Peasants often refuse to cooperate in top-down projects organized by the government," says Liu. "But when they have input into planning programs, they say, 'This is my idea - I have to make it work.'"

Liu, who was a forestry official for more than 10 years before joining the World Bank, says that "as China joins the world economy, some government leaders are becoming more global in their approach toward environmental problems and willingness to work with international groups toward solutions."

Yet the community-based model, with its implicit embrace of people power and egalitarianism in decisionmaking on issues of development and conservation, still faces much resistance within the Chinese bureaucracy, say many aid workers.

"The Chinese are control-oriented folks," says Michael Rechlin, an expert on sustainable development of forestry and other natural resources at Paul Smith's College in New York. "So it's not going to be an easy sell to extend community-based development to other areas," he adds.

With the Qomolangma Nature Preserve, he says, "Future Generations and other international groups are building Tibetans' capacity to manage their own affairs."

In giving the area a degree of autonomy in mapping out a balance between economic and ecological progress, "China wants to promote an environment that is not conducive to rebellion or discontent," Professor Rechlin says.

If that approach is adopted throughout the region, it could ease the five-decade-long clash of civilizations that has marked Chinese Communist rule in Buddhist Tibet.

After the People's Liberation Army scaled the Tibetan plateau in 1950, many members of the area's theocratic government and Buddhist clergy were labeled class enemies and imprisoned.

These political prisoners were used as forced labor in borax mines, timber-cutting brigades, and road-building crews as Tibet's resources were sent eastward into China proper.

"In terms of the extraction of natural resources, Tibet has long been treated like a colony of China's," says John Ackerly, a spokesman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

Yet Mr. Ackerly says his group, which monitors human rights abuses in Tibet, "welcomes the moves China is taking to allow international aid groups to build schools and protect the environment. China's progress in cooperating with these groups is really a bright spot in its rule over Tibet."

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