In China, tool of conservation is a camera

In this tiny village, nestled beneath Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in southwestern China, centuries-old traditions prevail. Water buffaloes pull plows through fields as villagers harvest by hand. Few of the sun-dried brick homes have plumbing. And religious prohibitions on activities like washing or cutting trees by a spring hold sway.

But according to Li Bingsheng, a withered man who has four generations of family in Nanyao, more has changed than meets the eye. "When I was young, there were so many trees here, but now there are fewer and fewer," he says, explaining that the village's name means forest-covered place. "Nature and the wild animals have been damaged."

Li and about 100 others from remote villages in northern Yunnan province are now getting a chance to share their knowledge and opinions visually, through photography. With a $15 Kodak camera and one day of training, the villagers have taken photos ranging from an intimate portrait of a boy with his grandfather to sweeping vistas of Tibetan nomads trekking along vertical cliffs.

The pictures are not only stunning but valuable records of three distinct minority groups - Naxi, Yi, and Tibetan. Conceived and funded by The Nature Conservancy, the project is building understanding of how these people relate to their environment, including everything from how fish populations have changed to how receptive locals are to alternative-fuel stoves.

Li is an unlikely photographer. A year ago, he had never held a camera. Now, one of his favorite photos involves the forests he loves: It's a picture of some fellow villagers illegally logging. People need to know such logging still occurs, and the forests are still threatened, he says. Still, the photo is sensitive enough that he decided not to show it at a village exhibition.

The Photovoice project, now in its second year, sprung out of Ann McBride-Norton's determination to give local people a voice in conservation. She had arrived in China over three years ago with her husband, Ed Norton, who helps direct the Conservancy's Yunnan Great Rivers Project, a collaboration with the Chinese government to protect 6.5 million acres of ecologically important land.

Ms. McBride-Norton's own experience was in the rough-and-tumble field of Washington lobbying, where she headed up Common Cause. In China, she wanted to explore the human side of conservation. "You can't solve environmental problems unless you have the social and economic context," she emphasizes.

Photovoice isn't the first time photography has been used to give a voice to disenfranchised people. McBride-Norton got her idea from the original Photovoice, a project funded by the Ford Foundation that gave cameras to women in places like Ann Arbor, Mich., and Kunming, China, to better understand their health and reproductive needs. Other projects have put cameras in the hands of homeless children or adults with disabilities. The Nature Conservancy's program is unusual in using the photos for scientific as well as cultural purposes.

In its first year, the project involved people in about 20 villages, from remote Tibetan communities to Naxi and Yi villages on the shores of Lasha Lake and the slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Photographers ranged from a 13-year-old girl to a 78-year-old man, from village leaders to a woman who'd been ostracized for leprosy.

Each month, facilitators who speak the local language bring a new roll of film and the developed pictures from the last roll. They ask photographers about certain shots - why they took it, what they hoped to communicate.

He Zhenkun, a Naxi man in his 70s, took a photo of his feet: On one he was wearing a grass shoe and on the other a leather shoe, symbolizing the many changes he has seen in his life. "He thinks that China has become better and better," says Zhao Xiu Yun, a facilitator.

The photos from the Tibetan plateau tell of a remote nomadic life. The mountain village of Yubeng, for instance, is accessible only by foot or horse, a five-hour hike from the nearest road. Their rugged surroundings are home to 150 species of rhododendron. TNC biologists have spent hours with Yubeng residents mapping out the sacred geography of the area, trying to mesh it with their conservation plans.

From the photographers, meanwhile, they've learned more about fuel-wood consumption, about the rigors of a nomadic lifestyle - and that even Tibetan villagers are aware of the effects of global warming. "Long, long ago, there was this lake," reads the story on one photo of a glacial valley above Yubeng. "Before, it was smaller in size, but now it has grown bigger...."

In Lower Nanyao Village, Li and the other photographers showed off their creations at a village exhibition. Taking the photos builds pride, says McBride-Norton. "Some people, local women, will say, 'All I thought my hands were good for was planting and cooking. Now I know I can create something beautiful.'"

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