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How Western China is trying to clean up its act

China’s westernmost regions are experimenting with new models to encourage environmentally friendly lifestyles and businesses. Those changes could have implications that go far beyond China’s borders.

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A farmer carrying a hoe walks past a dried-up pond in Shilin Yi Autonomous County of Kunming, Yunnan province in 2013.

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In Western China, abundant but fragile natural resources are juxtaposed against lagging economic development. The unique region is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities, such as the Zhuang group. Increasingly, it’s also the victim of deforestation, desertification, and other environmental problems that threaten biodiversity and communities.

Some among Western China’s rolling hills and farmlands are trying to fix that, finding fresh approaches to old problems.     

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As the country of 1.4 billion looks toward a cleaner future, non-government organizations in China’s westernmost regions are experimenting with new models to encourage environmentally friendly lifestyles and workplaces. Those changes could have implications that go far beyond China’s borders.

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Chinese NGOs say they are realizing the importance of giving residents a sense of ownership, and encouraging them to seek alternatives to relying solely on natural resources in the region. From beekeeping to growing crops that won’t hurt the soil, the drive is on to help the Chinese in the vast western farmlands live in harmony with their environment.

In Feng Tongzhai, a nature preserve in Sichuan province, residents are getting trained to start beekeeping businesses. Elsewhere, citizens can apply for micro-loans to get started in farming, provided they operate in ways that are not damaging to the environment.  

These new sustainable models are quickly catching on, NGO leaders said at a panel hosted Monday by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. And because of China’s major role in the global economy, the impacts of such changes could resonate around the world.

Americans have a stake in China’s many environmental issues, said Jennifer Turner, director of the China environment forum at the Wilson Center. “[Americans] are linked to their pollution,” Ms. Turner said.

“A lot of our companies have gone over to China to build factories and then we consume many of the products that are made in China. Products are cheap because local government hasn’t been enforcing pollution control laws,” she said. “Our stuff is cheap here at the cost of China’s environment.”

Jiaman Jin of the Beijing-based Global Environment Institute, said the NGO develops deals to help residents in Sichuan Province get compensation from investors such as power stations and paper mills that threaten the environment. But the money the locals get must be invested in environment-friendly businesses.

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The beekeeping project in the Feng Tongzhai Nature Reserve of Baoxing County, Sichuan Province was successful based on one of these conservation deals. Residents, who got beekeeping training, stopped environmentally unfriendly or, in some instances, illegal business practices such as lumbering or planting harmful species. Instead, they were trained by staff from the Global Environment Institute to be qualified beekeepers and sell their products to regional organic food companies.

Families in Western China depend heavily on forests, grasslands, marginal farmland and other natural resources for a living. However, many are not utilizing the resources in sustainable ways, Monday’s panelists said.

“Finding a balance between protecting natural resources and meeting the financial interests of community residents is always the guidance of our work,” Ms. Jin said during the discussion, much of which was held in Mandarin.

But in Beijing, China’s newly drafted NGO legislation proposes to restrict foreign non-government organizations’ activities in China. If it gets passed, panelists said the cooperation between Chinese NGOs and American NGOs will be more difficult.  

This article was produced in collaboration with Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.