South of the Colorful Clouds

China’s Yunnan province, home to some of the world’s most remote and distinctive ecological communities, is facing growing pressure to develop with the rest of the country. A UW–Chinese collaboration run through CALS sends researchers to explore how best to preserve biodiversity and foster sustainable livelihoods in the region.

Not long ago, one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on earth—Yunnan Province on China’s southwestern border, with its great river gorges, sweeping grasslands and majestic Himalayan mountains—was virtually inaccessible to outsiders.

Golden snub-nosed monkeys, black-necked cranes, snow leopards, Tibetan bears and an astounding number of other animals and plants thrive in its temperate forests and alpine meadows. And five million people from 26 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities live in the province’s remote high-altitude forests and valleys.

This biologically sensitive region has for the past half-dozen years been a field site for collaboration between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, a partnership that focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

The idea arose from conversations between visiting scientist Ji Weizhi, former director of the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Yunnan, and Kenneth Shapiro, an emeritus professor of agricultural and applied economics who was then associate dean of international agricultural programs at CALS.

“Ji was impressed by the interdisciplinary approaches that some of the UW departments were using to address complex problems like biodiversity conservation,” says Shapiro. “Ji could see that the traditional narrow ‘stovepipe’ or isolated discipline approach to biodiversity research cannot bridge the gaps in understanding diverse problems in biodiversity conservation. He understood that scientists needed a broader understanding of the relationships between the biology, livelihoods, economics and politics of Yunnan to protect its biodiversity and promote sustainable development.”

Yunnan’s name roughly translates to “south of the colorful clouds”—and indeed, the province’s beauty is self-evident. Less obvious, perhaps, is its environmental importance. The region provides critical ecological services across much of Asia. To take water alone as an example, nearly half of China’s population, along with millions of other southeast Asians, depend on the fresh water passing through the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, which lie within the drainage basins of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. If the natural forests in this region were destroyed, vast areas and populations downstream would suffer from severe floods and huge reductions of water supplies and quality.

After centuries of semi-isolation, Yunnan—the northwestern part of the province in particular—has been discovered by China’s new middle class of tourists, most of them Han Chinese, who make up more than 92 percent of China’s population. Where only hikers, horses and mules trod before, roads are being built by local and provincial governments to carry millions of tourists. Old-growth forests are being logged to accommodate them. Yunnan’s ethnic communities are having to transform centuries-old land use traditions. And the government is pressing Yunnan for economic development. Ji was aware that transforming Yunnan could have devastating effects on its biodiversity, on China’s fresh water supplies and on the livelihoods of ethnic minorities.

What Yunnan’s scientists needed was a model of an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Collaboration with UW, it was hoped, would mark a pioneering step toward developing that model.

Shapiro and other UW scientists, led by the late Josh Posner (see sidebar on page 27), found a home and funding for their part of the partnership under the auspices of IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), a highly competitive National Science Foundation program that supports scientists and engineers pursuing graduate degrees in fields that cross disciplines and are deemed to have broad societal impact. The UW proposal drew on the strong support of the staff of CALS international programs, and the research also benefited from significant supplementary funding from the Graduate School, the chancellor’s office and the CAS.

Nineteen UW doctoral students, called “trainees,” were selected from disciplines ranging from political science and economics to conservation biology and anthropology, and included five CALS trainees from agronomy, forest and wildlife ecology, and community and environmental sociology. All participants were expected to learn Mandarin Chinese and, beyond their own disciplines, become literate in other fields relevant to conservation and sustainable development. While in Madison, trainees also attended weekly seminars on Northwest Yunnan’s history, politics, culture, society and ecology.

While some trainees received help getting their initial permits and contacts in Yunnan, it was up to each of them to work through such daily obstacles as getting around, finding translators for the many dialects and gaining the trust of locals.

Most trainees had done some kind of international work before joining IGERT. For example, Jodi Brandt in forest and wildlife ecology had worked in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and community and environmental sociologist John Zinda had lived and taught in China.