Journey Through a Scroll Painting
From standing guard over endangered sea-turtle eggs, to mapping oceanic pollution and starting one of the West's most successful wilderness protection organizations, our Environmental Internship Program provides Patagonia employees with opportunities to participate in the fight to protect the Earth's resources. It's been a while since we've shared an employee's story from the front lines, but Dave Campbell, author of today's post, proves that it was worth the wait. Dave, a pro sales rep for Patagonia, spent 2 months this summer in the Far East collaborating with The Nature Conservancy China on an environmental project. Here's Dave:
It was February 2005; my Tibetan climbing partner Luo Rijia and I had just pulled ourselves onto the summit of Aotaimei Mountain in China’s Sichuan Province, becoming the third team ever to reach its 17,523-foot summit. Half of our climbing rack consisted of Luo Rijia’s hand forged pitons and most of the satellite peaks around us had virgin summits. We were standing above one of the last regions of the world to shelter reclusive animals like the giant panda and golden monkey. For a moment I felt like I was in a land forgotten by the outside world and time, though with 1.3 billion people and the inertia of the world’s fastest growing economy just over the horizon, it was hard to not wonder what would soon become of Aotaimei and the last wild regions of the Middle Kingdom.
In spring of 2011, I spoke with our environmental department about my personal interest in working with The Nature Conservancy in China; as a result they offered to cover my regular wages for two months while I volunteered overseas as part of Patagonia’s Environmental Internship Program. Within a month I was on a plane crossing the Pacific.
I flew into Beijing on July 3rd 2011. Although I spent several years in mainland China (as well as a year in the capital city), I hadn’t been back to Beijing since 2001. The biggest change I recognized was the city, which inevitably has become bolder. The iconic structures of Beijing’s dynastic eras – such as the Forbidden City – now have a staggering backdrop of some of the most modern skyscrapers in the world. The capital city is the headquarters for the Communist Party of China and is now also home to 41 Fortune Global 500 Companies. The culture of China is largely agrarian, and these roots hold strong even in China’s largest urban centers. Beijing now also has a large and growing business class, bringing international education and viewpoints to the metropolis. These 20 million or so residents and migrant workers use a balance of finesse and brute force to negotiate each day in the rapidly growing city.
I found a low-key place to stay down one of the traditional alleyways known as the Hutongs, just 10 minutes walking distance from Tiananmen Square and a few subway stops from TNC’s office. On the first day of the job I was given a desk and met with TNC China’s director Zhang Shuang. We began with the usual pleasantries then dove straight into an intense conversation about China’s wilderness and mountain sports. The focal point was Sichuan Province and Zhang Shuang informed me of a land trust reserve that TNC is currently building there, in collaboration with 23 of China’s richest and most successful entrepreneurs, including Jack Ma. The land they are acquiring is in northern Sichuan’s Pingwu County, which is home to one fifth of the world’s giant panda population. During their last visit TNC’s director of north Asia, Charles Bedford, actually saw a giant panda and her cub in the wild from only 20 feet away. Below is a photo taken in the reserve last May by a TNC installed infrared motion-censing camera.
For many years now, the private sector around the globe has purchased land with the purpose of environmental preservation. Patagonia and the Chouinards, for example, are huge supporters of a similar project called Conservacion Patagonica; however, the land trust reserve in Sichuan is the first of its kind in China and will hopefully serve as a model for future conservation efforts in the rapidly developing country.
Any time you obtain a large area of land in China and make it off limits to agriculture and logging, it is critical to also introduce positive new occupations to the local people. A massive change to the region will have a large impact on their livelihoods – solid planning and communication will consequently determine the level of support gained for the project. Zhang Shuang mentioned that he wanted input on ecotourism in the area. While discussing river guiding, we made a surprising connection – our mutual friend Travis Winn. Travis and I went through University of Oregon’s China Program together and then went on to share an apartment in Sichuan’s capital city Chengdu between 2005-06. Last year Zhang Shuang and Travis rafted the Great Bend of the Yangtze River, floating through a series of dam sites that in the next two years will inundate the Grand Canyon-like section. In light of this correlation, Zhang Shuang decided that it would be beneficial if Travis and I could visit the reserve together and jointly give advice on ecotourism and infrastructure development opportunities.
For the last decade, China-based American, Travis Winn has done everything in his power to save China’s last wild rivers. His rafting company Last Descents has guided over 200 Chinese citizens, including members of the National People’s Congress, influential entrepreneurs and news reporters, down environmentally threatened rivers in China. Their expeditions are often the last descent of a river before it is dammed, hence the company’s name. Travis is also the director of the NGO China Rivers Project. At 27 years of age, he has done over 2,500 KM of first descents in China and has kayaked sections of every major drainage that runs off the Tibetan Plateau, including parts of the Yarlung Tsangpo.
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It’s easy to pick Travis out of a crowd because he sports a thick beard and is typically surrounded by stacks of boats. Although it had been years since I’d seen him, I instantly spotted him across the Chengdu airport parking lot, orchestrating the sheer chaos of loading all of the expedition gear into our vehicles. His partner Wei Yi and TNC’s Sichuan project manager Zhao Peng were there helping with the giant game of Tetris; I couldn’t help but feel the wild inertia as I approached.
The Dharma Bum in me caught a surge of energy when we passed through the hometown of Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (701 – 762 AD) enroute to Pingwu. The mountains became more rugged, the mist thicker. Bamboo softly rustled above the Qingyi River and it became easy to imagine Li Bai sitting by its banks, glass of wine in hand, writing the verses to Drinking Alone by Moonlight.
Zhao Peng navigated us deep into the heart of Pingwu until we were forced to park the cars where a rockslide had covered the road. We then walked the rest of the way up the valley to Wuxing Village and began drinking beer and homemade spirits with the villagers. It sounds like a ridiculous way to begin a journey in the name of conservation, but success in China hinges on the ability to make and maintain relationships. To build support, Zhao Peng has become friends with - and has expressed the purpose of the land trust reserve to - virtually everyone in its vicinity; thus he is greeted with big smiles. Travis and I were the first non-Asians to visit Wuxing Village and were humbled by the local people’s interest and hospitality. At one point a farmer put his hand on my shoulder and said “I’ve seen foreigners on TV, but never in real person. This is indeed a treat.”
The headwaters of the Qingyi flow through Wuxing Village with a soft pulse, bringing life to the landscape and its people. A few kilometers downstream it meets a tributary at Suojiang Village and becomes more substantial, running through the occasional canyon. It is often out of sight of the road. At Suojiang we used ropes to lower our boats to the river’s edge and then down-climbed to a good put-in spot. The villagers of Wuxing took any means of transportation available to them – from motorcycles to tractors – down the valley to watch, creating an amphitheater of spectators above us. Downstream we found equally serene settings, with numerous sections of Class-III water.
The following day Zhao Peng and Wei Yi joined us for the Qingyi’s middle reaches – which had sections up to Class II. After the boating, we spent the remainder of our time in Pingwu exploring the future land trust reserve by bike and foot. Once it was time to part ways, Travis and Wei Yi headed back to Yushu in Qinghai Province, where they are living hand-to-mouth out of a disaster tent. Zhao Peng held fast in Pingwu while I flew back to share my experiences and begin the next project with TNC’s Beijing staff.
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A majority of TNC’s China project sites are in the last wild parts of the country, and as you’d expect, they are located a good distance from major cities. Yet it is often corporations from the major cities who provide funding for the projects. These corporations would like to give their employees the opportunity to be involved in hands-on restoration work – and TNC would love to educate more Chinese citizens on critical environmental issues – though it’s clearly not feasible for large groups to fly to remote areas such as the Pingwu site in Sichuan province. TNC asked me to help build a Beijing-based corporate volunteer program and when I got back to the city I teamed up with their philanthropy manager, Lulu Zhou.
Lulu studied conservation social sciences at the University of Idaho and plays a key role in managing relationships with TNC’s Chinese donors. From fall ’05 through spring ‘07 I worked fulltime for Outward Bound Hong Kong and one of my responsibilities was building corporate training courses on the Mainland. Lulu and I drew from our experiences and built a dynamic framework for the volunteer program, which incorporated facilitation styles applicable to the Chinese business class, interactive safety briefings, relevant environmental education, as well as all necessary documents, such as a concise risk assessment management system.
Our largest task was finding an appropriate location to bring groups of volunteers. It’s easy to find sections of land in China that have been damaged, though it’s not so easy to find places that you can help fix and then protect from future damage. We made many phone calls and visited many potential project sites, though weren’t in a position to lease land or build a land trust. Therefore, a great deal of our quest revolved around securing cooperation with someone already managing land. At one point Lulu and I found ourselves riding up 5 stories of escalators inside a steel cylindrical dragon to get to a “protected” canyon above a giant damn. We walked away from that specific scenario scratching our heads pondering our potential effectiveness at conservation work in Beijing, and we shared many other discouraging moments during the scouting phase.
If you contemplate China and its environment in peril, two variables inevitably arise: huge population and water consumption. In 1948 there were around 2.2 million people in the Beijing metropolitan area. That number has grown eightfold, to a population of 18 million today, not including migrant workers. Water resources in Beijing, per capita, are somewhere around 1/30 of the world average. There are two major reservoirs in Beijing, Miyun and Guanting. Miyun is the city’s primary source of drinking water, though it is only operating at one tenth of its original capacity. The other major reservoir in Beijing, called the Guanting, is polluted, primarily from the agricultural runoff of illegal farming. It’s been labeled unsafe for drinking since the mid-nineties.
Most people who are versed in the recent history of China recognize that it would be unwise to kick tens of thousands of farmers off of a section of land, especially so close to a major city and commerce zone. Three modest partners, Zhao Shan, Xiang Dong and an American Robert Devine, took a close look at the situation and recently began working with the Chinese government on a project to transition the area away from the use of fertilizer for agriculture, into organic willow tree farming for biochar/biomass production. They have acquired a .44 square KM lot on the northeast shore for the pilot phase of the program and currently have 4 species of hybrid willows growing. In August they were asked by the reservoir’s management to take on an urgent 5km long “collapsed bank” project, which will be underway soon. The trees they are planting do not require irrigation and the process helps replenish the soil. The potential application could be up to 166 square km and Zhao Shan believes that if they can eliminate all fertilizer usage from this zone and replenish the soil through willow planting and the biochar process, then the reservoir’s water will be drinkable in as soon as five years time. They are signing contracts with the farmers who currently occupy the area, which offer them legitimate employment and better compensation than what they make growing food.
Zhao Shan, Xiang Dong and Robert were thrilled about the idea of hosting large groups of corporate volunteers because they want more people to be aware of the Guanting project and want to build additional partnerships with influential people willing to take ownership of critical water issues. There certainly isn’t a shortage of manual work to be done on their expanding project site either. If by chance you end up traveling through Beijing, my recommendation is to drive straight past the Great Wall and visit the Guanting. The Great Wall is immaculate and tells a story of China’s imperial past. But the Guanting is a poignant indication of our global future. The willow project may also serve as a lesson that even our most devastated environments still have hope.
My two months were coming to an end, so I took time to build what is possibly the first pro sales program in China with Roger Zeng, the president of the China Outdoor Retailer Association (CORA). We also took his staff on a few climbing trips. Next I headed to the coast to visit a few of Patagonia’s factories, where I made friends with more amazing people and did some quality auditing. In early September I flew home.
Back home in the states, I’ll occasionally unroll a favorite Chinese scroll painting and let my mind travel through it. The intricately painted mountains and softly brushed fog bring peace to my mind, as it brings back scenes of Sichuan and the majestic Qionglai mountain range. My eyes always pause, however, at the thatched cottage and farmer in the lower foreground of the painting. It could represent a simple farmer, on the banks of the Guanting, doing whatever he can to see his crops through another season in our rapidly changing climate. Though maybe it’s a different kind of Chinese citizen, like Zhao Peng or Lulu Zhou, caught in another form of struggle, to save and restore an environment so severely threatened and damaged. Or there’s a chance that it’s just Tibetan climber Lu Rijia, singing a Tibetan song to the wind, after rappelling the icy flanks of Aotaimei.