Relentless advocate 'greens' rural China, village by village
She has traveled Yunnan Province showing locals how conservation can make economic sense – and save the region's prized golden monkeys.
Shitou, China — "If I rest, I rust."
It's not quite clear how actress Helen Hayes's piece of potted wisdom reached the ears of Cun Yanfang, a member of the indigenous Naxi people from one of southwest China's more remote villages.
"But that is quite true for me," the diminutive, apple-cheeked Ms. Cun adds with a laugh. "I cannot stop."
Her restless energy has brought Cun a long way. Born 31 years ago to an unschooled mother in Yunnan Province on the banks of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, she is now just one English exam away from entering a master's program at Cornell University.
But today, her mind is on a more immediate task. At a gathering of local worthies in this grubby one-horse town, 12 miles from paved roads, Cun is wrapping up the program she runs to help save one of the world's most endangered species, the Yunnan golden monkey.
Few of the two dozen or so men and three female schoolteachers ranged at desks around the town hall's simple meeting room – seem very comfortable expressing themselves in public. Some officials come from distant villages, and know nobody.
The subdued atmosphere does not faze Cun, whose surname rhymes with "soon." Barely 5 feet tall, she bounces into the middle of the room and launches into her pitch about the value of the work her listeners have done over the past three years to promote environmental values. The Yunnan golden monkey, which ranges over a wide variety of habitats, is their standard bearer for the effort. Just 1,500 to 2,000 of those monkeys are thought to exist – split into small, probably genetically unsustainable, groups by loggers who have denuded hillsides.
Speaking in a local dialect rather than official Mandarin, waving her arms and breaking into smiles, she cracks jokes, teases, cajoles, explains, and organizes a game that soon has participants banging on their desks, laughing like schoolboys, and eating out of her hand. "I'm from a village around here and that's an advantage," says Cun. "I can get closer to them."
These village teachers, forestry officials, municipal officials, and local Communist Party bigwigs have been at the forefront of Cun's campaign to make people in this remote and startlingly beautiful valley appreciate the value of the natural resources with which they have been blessed.
For centuries, they lived more or less in balance with their surroundings. But a growing population, converted to a get-rich-quick mentality by China's economic boom, has put unbearable pressure on the mountain's forests, valuable mushrooms, wild animals, and medicinal plants.
"We used to get everything from nature but we used it ourselves," says Cun. "Now it's the demand of the market and the requirement to get rich."
So villagers have ignored the law and cut down trees on the forested slopes above their homes where the golden monkey once lived, hunted animals for their pelts, and dug up prized matsutake mushrooms to get the last little bits, rather than leave stalks to grow again.
Cun's campaign, funded by two US groups, The Nature Conservancy and Rare, has not only installed biogas feeders and solar panels to reduce local villagers' need for firewood. It also has aimed to change attitudes. "We want to use people's pride in their hometowns to make them responsible for their own places," explains Cun. "It shouldn't be because of law enforcement."
So Cun has traveled village to village trying to drum up that kind of pride and teach people how conservation can make economic sense, using commercial marketing techniques adapted to social issues.
She has plastered exhortatory billboards on village walls, handed out fliers explaining the law on hunting and logging, dressed assistants up in golden monkey suits for visits to schools, organized village quizzes on conservation issues, and offered prizes for the best performance on an environmenal theme at village festivals.
And at meeting after meeting, she has encouraged villagers – more accustomed to listening obediently to local leaders – to voice their own suggestions for a better campaign. "At one meeting a new mayor came, and afterward he said he had never been to such a democratic meeting," Cun recalls. "Everyone was speaking."
The campaign has not enjoyed the spectacular results that Cun – by her own admission, too much of a perfectionist – had hoped for, but it has got through to people. A survey last year found that the number of villagers aware of alternative energy sources had increased by nearly 50 percent, as had the numbers who knew that hunting the golden monkey is punishable by jail time.
"People here now have the sense that they should protect the environment, which they didn't before," says He Xuefan, headmaster of Shitou's elementary school. "There are some guys who go on hunting and logging, but now they come in for criticism by other villagers."
Among schoolchildren, the learning curve was steeper; before the campaign, only 9 percent of them said they had done something recently to promote conservation. After it, 51 percent could name something they had done, from nagging fathers not to cut down trees to refraining from littering. "There is still a long way to go, but the work is worth doing," says Cun.
That sort of attitude has propelled her through college, majoring in English at a university set up for ethnic minorities, and then into a job as a tour guide, where she ran across a visiting team from The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
They piqued her interest (she says she used to spend hours as a girl lying in the forest listening to the wind in the pines when she was meant to be collecting firewood), and when a friend told her the US charity was looking for local staff, she went for an interview.
"She stuck out," with "her incredible amount of energy and love for her home town," says Graham Bullock, the TNC staffer who gave Cun her first job with the organization. "She worked out great."
Though Cun is most at home in the hardscrabble villages of her native region, her work with foreign charities has given her an international sheen as well as a taste for fashion accessories rarely seen on Naxi women's heads, such as her natty tweed shooting cap.
RARE sent her to the University of Kent in England for a course on environmental education, and she has attended conferences in the US and Brazil. Next September, if all goes well with her English exam, she will be off to Cornell for a two-year master's program in natural resource management and policy, funded by the Ford Foundation.
She says she is not daunted by the prospect, though she is nervous about a mandatory economics course. "Because I'm Naxi, I have a strong sense of roots and belonging," she says. "I always take my national costume when I travel; I like people to know who I am. So maybe I won't get lost when I am overwhelmed by so many cultures and different things."