When Tibetan ecologist Benba trekked to the highest temple in the world last spring, he presented the Buddhist gods with a simple gift and an all-important request.
Benba says that after he placed a solitary peach at the altar of the Rongbuk Monastery, he chanted a prayer that the nearby, once-pristine Gama Valley would be rejuvenated.
That wish seemed unattainable several years ago, when the road the Communist government was building near Mt. Everest looked like a dagger that would pierce the heart of Gama.
Gama, just east of the planet's tallest peak, was "a natural treasure house, filled with beautiful scenery, sweeping forests, rhododendrons and rare birds," says Su Chun-wuei, a field researcher with the US conservation group Future Generations.
Ms. Su, whose organization helped set up one of the first nature preserves on "The Roof of the World," says that with the aid of a leading Chinese botanist and other experts, she persuaded the authorities to stop construction on the road.
But that was when her troubles began. Preserving Gama's ecosystem made conservationists happy, but angered Tibetan villagers who had seen their sole means of escaping from poverty evaporate.
"Local villagers had already started stripping Gama's forests ... and wanted to go into the valley with trucks to haul the lumber away," she says.
In the Tibetans' eyes, the foreign conservationists were "originally seen as the bad guys because we stopped them from cutting Gama's forests," Su adds.
The US group and the Tibetan loggers were locked in a conflict that has been played out on virtually every continent this century, when would-be protectors of the environment face off against local residents who depend on nearby resources.
"That's when I said, 'We have to look at the human costs, not just trees and rivers, when we plan ecological projects,' " Su says.
Desperate to eke out a living
Most of the Tibetans in the area were extremely poor. To reach Gama's forests, the villagers "had to trek up and down barren mountains and cross glaciers and deep gorges," she says. Once inside the valley, "young men would use small axes to cut firs and juniper trees, shape them into two-by-twos, and carry off the lumber on their backs."
The peasants around Gama, desperate to eke out a living, and Future Generations, anxious to preserve the valley, eventually entered into a compact: In exchange for protecting local mountains, waterways, and wildlife, the Tibetans would receive help finding alternative sources of income, basic health care, and an expanding range of other services.
To implement the agreement, the US group began training a small team of Tibetans to become pendebas, Tibetan for "one who does good deeds." These first Tibetan good Samaritans helped the villagers plant tree seedlings and provided fertilizer in an effort to create an alternative to stripping Gama's forests.
In the five years since, the compact balancing peasants' needs with concerns over the macro-environment has been extended to over 90 villages in the region.
Future Generations is part of a growing array of aid groups - including the United Nations Development Program, UNICEF, the World Wildlife Fund, and others - that work with the local authorities in Tibet to improve education and wipe out poverty in an ecologically sound manner, says Pasi Rutanen, Finnish ambassador to China.
These groups are increasingly relying on community-based development schemes formed in conjunction with local Tibetans because villagers who invest time and ideas in development plans tend to do everything possible to ensure they work, adds Ambassador Rutanen, who recently returned from a tour of Tibet.
Sustainable development plans like the pendeba program and a UN micro-lending operation also "empower local Tibetans and give them the sense they are taking control of their own futures," says Yan Yinliang, a manager at the Mt. Everest Nature Preserve.
Program sees explosive expansion
Meanwhile, the pendeba program has seen an explosive expansion, both in numbers and range of services.
Pendebas now engage in everything "from poverty alleviation to providing advice to pregnant mothers, from organizing children's immunization shots to helping build roads and water pipelines," says Daniel Taylor-Ide, who heads Future Generations. "Tibet contains some of the poorest counties in all of China, so we had to integrate projects aimed at improving living standards into our overall environmental program in order to gain the confidence of the people."
The pendeba program has already begun scoring impressive results, say both Tibetan and foreign experts.
Carl Taylor, an expert on public health at John Hopkins in Baltimore, Md., says, "Infant mortality rates from diarrhea - the No. 1 cause of death among Tibetan children - have dropped dramatically" since pendebas began explaining to young mothers how to use medication.
"Most villages had absolutely no access to health care before the pendebas," adds Dr. Taylor, who frequently travels to Tibet to train the part-time health workers.
The pendebas have also begun working in tandem with UNDP officials who have launched an experimental microcredit scheme in Tibet. Under the UN program, Tibetan peasants are offered an initial loan of up to 1,000 yuan (about $125) "to open cottage industries like processing wool blankets, to start tree nurseries, or to set up small guesthouses or stores," says program administrator Yang Yi. "The central condition is that the enterprise does not harm the environment, and pendebas have begun providing advice to borrowers on ecologically sound businesses."
The pendebas are becoming not only jacks-of-all-trades, but also leaders at the local level, Taylor says.
They are also part of Tibet's first steps toward a rough form of democracy. "Most of the pendebas are now elected by local villagers," Su says. "Although they receive little or no pay, the pendebas enjoy prestige and influence within their village."
Willingness to join the ranks of the largely volunteer workers and the program's success in raising living, health, and environmental standards are fueling the pendebas' march across southern Tibet. An initial dozen pendebas trained five years ago have seen their ranks grow 20-fold, but there are two potential barriers to the continued expansion.
Pendeba leader Puchong says education levels are so low in Tibet that organizers have begun accepting functionally illiterate Tibetans elected as pendebas.
To remedy the problem, he adds, Future Generations and their Tibetan partners are building a training center where the best of the first-generation pendebas will educate the next generation.
The second problem could be more serious.
"The Chinese government has long restricted nongovernmental organizations to small pockets of Tibet," says a foreign aid expert who asked not to be identified. "When the US Congress does something like passing a resolution recognizing Tibet as an independent country, Beijing usually launches a crackdown on Tibet and foreign aid projects that lasts several years."
Beijing warms to foreign-aid groups
Yet Beijing also aims to gain Tibetans' allegiance in part by moving to eliminate poverty, and it has shown growing willingness to cooperate with international groups to reach that goal.
"Support for programs like the pendeba project, and expanding exchanges with outside groups to improve the lives of Tibetans is a really positive aspect of China's rule in Tibet," says Nawang Sing Gurung, a United Mission to Nepal official who conducts pendeba training sessions.
Mr. Taylor-Ide says Future Generations is engaged in talks with the government on expanding the program Tibet-wide.
Meanwhile, the cradle of the pendeba program, around Mt. Everest, has become a "core zone" of the nature preserve.
Yet the villagers, who are now banned from cutting into Gama's forests, no longer complain, Su says. Many peasants have pulled themselves up through endeavors such as a stone-enclosed orchard, partially funded with seed money from Future Generations.
During a June trip to the area, Su says she was impressed by the size of the tree nursery and asked who was guarding it. "They said the same young men who were once the biggest tree cutters in the village have been hired to stand watch," she says.
Saplings raised in the nursery and transplanted onto Gama's slopes have begun providing fruit for nearby residents, says Benba, a pendeba supervisor.
Today, he adds, "there is an environmental renaissance taking place in Gama Valley."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society