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.
"If I rest, I rust."Skip to next paragraph
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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."