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In China, tool of conservation is a camera

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In this tiny village, nestled beneath Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in southwestern China, centuries-old traditions prevail. Water buffaloes pull plows through fields as villagers harvest by hand. Few of the sun-dried brick homes have plumbing. And religious prohibitions on activities like washing or cutting trees by a spring hold sway.

But according to Li Bingsheng, a withered man who has four generations of family in Nanyao, more has changed than meets the eye. "When I was young, there were so many trees here, but now there are fewer and fewer," he says, explaining that the village's name means forest-covered place. "Nature and the wild animals have been damaged."

Li and about 100 others from remote villages in northern Yunnan province are now getting a chance to share their knowledge and opinions visually, through photography. With a $15 Kodak camera and one day of training, the villagers have taken photos ranging from an intimate portrait of a boy with his grandfather to sweeping vistas of Tibetan nomads trekking along vertical cliffs.

The pictures are not only stunning but valuable records of three distinct minority groups - Naxi, Yi, and Tibetan. Conceived and funded by The Nature Conservancy, the project is building understanding of how these people relate to their environment, including everything from how fish populations have changed to how receptive locals are to alternative-fuel stoves.

Li is an unlikely photographer. A year ago, he had never held a camera. Now, one of his favorite photos involves the forests he loves: It's a picture of some fellow villagers illegally logging. People need to know such logging still occurs, and the forests are still threatened, he says. Still, the photo is sensitive enough that he decided not to show it at a village exhibition.

The Photovoice project, now in its second year, sprung out of Ann McBride-Norton's determination to give local people a voice in conservation. She had arrived in China over three years ago with her husband, Ed Norton, who helps direct the Conservancy's Yunnan Great Rivers Project, a collaboration with the Chinese government to protect 6.5 million acres of ecologically important land.

Ms. McBride-Norton's own experience was in the rough-and-tumble field of Washington lobbying, where she headed up Common Cause. In China, she wanted to explore the human side of conservation. "You can't solve environmental problems unless you have the social and economic context," she emphasizes.

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