Concluding Reflections: Environmental Conservation, Health, & Social Work

I love reading literature and although its not my favorite genre, I had read my fair share of futuristic dystopias.  Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale.  In these stories, some things are the same, while other are completely different and many things are familiar but somehow off.  None of these stories have been as jarring and informative, however, as my month and half in China.  The closest analogy I can muster is a resemblance to Marty McFly’s experiences in Back to the Future, Part II: an action creates an alternate, parallel future for Marty and his family where he must alter the present to correct the future course of events.

In many ways traveling to China was like traveling to the future.  Technology is developing more rapidly, buildings are constructed faster, cities are larger, and the environmental crises are more significant.  After lagging behind the west for most of the 20th century, China has surpassed the US, Britain, and other western nations in terms of development and production.  Even Chengdu, a “moderately-sized” industrial center in a relatively rural province, has 14 million residents.  This degree of growth is unprecedented but it comes with figurative stretch marks associated with lightning fast expansion.  This growth (as is true with any country) incorporates population expansion, high consumption, development, and environmental degradation.  It is these consequences that may drive the planet into global crisis because humanity has never experienced this scale of growth.  But after my time in China, I could not imagine any other country of individuals to have the drive and determination to solve these crises.  Certainly America is falling short.  To paraphrase Jonathan Watts in When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—Or Destroy It, Britain has taught us how to produce, the United States has taught us how to consume, and China must teach us how to conserve if it is to take a leadership role on the global stage.

The aforementioned “stretch marks” of growth incorporate and challenge ethics, morality, opportunities, and justice.  I encountered one example while staying in a rural village where we held our first conservation education summer camp, Ha Qu (see post Conservation Education in Rural Sichuan).  Ha Qu is a relatively small village that recently received 4 million yuan in western development funds to modernize.   Two-dozen houses were rebuilt with new balconies and multiple indoor bathrooms and the town received a restaurant, plaza, general store, and community center.  These new facilities were in sharp contrast to other sections of the village and nearby properties and I found myself questioning whether this was “good” or “right.”  Understand that I don’t think new houses are wrong; I would not have wanted to live in the old houses with dirt floors or outhouses.  But the development funds were to fuel the tourism industry in the region—which includes opportunities for tourists to don regional clothing for photo opportunities and increases in waste, litter, water usage, cars driving in the region, and consumption of local resources (which includes endangered species and their habitats).  The tourists also bring income, resources, and technology to a poor region.  This poses whether development for the sake of further development is beneficial or productive—and exposes the underlying values of urbanization and modern conveniences.  There are clearly good and bad consequences and I’m not sure if I have a right to an opinion on this—let alone what it might be.

A view of the concrete bridge where the trash collector unloaded his wagon

After Ha Qu we visited another village remotely located about 4 hours to the south.  On a walk during our first evening we stopped atop a ridge and studied the valley below.  The Mabian River flowed forcefully through the river valley while corn and bean fields rose up from cliff-side farmland.  A concrete walkway across the river was submerged underneath the flooded river and led to several houses; residents were fording the river in order to go between the houses and the road.  We saw one resident with a full trash collector’s wagon and bamboo tongs—occupational markers of a common service job in China.  We all paused for a second each thinking “Is what’s going to happen what I think will happen…” and watched as the man dumped an entire cartload of plastics, wrappers, bottles, papers, and other refuse into the river.  We watched in shock as the river rapidly carried the items downstream, to other villages and environments.  Our host quickly explained, after viewing our reactions, that there was simply nowhere else to dispose of the trash.

As a communist country, the People’s Republic of China must provide jobs for all who ask for an income source, even to those with limited skills.  As a result, jobs like “highway sweeper” and “trash collector” exist even in rural areas.  While it is environmentally responsible to pick up trash, the country lacks certain civil and social services such as trash collection to dispose of trash once it is collected—especially in rural areas.  (I’ve also had to explain certain concepts like a minimum wage and public housing to Chinese students.)  While there is a need for jobs and a need for trash removal, only these first steps in this sequence have been planned out and the follow through on proper disposal is lacking.  It is interesting to note that another common solution of trash disposal is through burning in large trash kilns, including the burning of plastics and metals.  These kilns are located nearby homes and have no chimneys or filters and consequently people breathe the smoke and smell the odor.  While disposing of trash in rivers jeopardizes people, animals, and nature downstream one can understand why this is the favored option to smells and air particles ridden with burning toxins.  Other occupations I saw around Chengdu included “fence washer” and “leaf collector.”  While these positions were created to beautify and clean space, they are dangerous because they deprive the natural environment of resources which are already limited.  Sweeping up loose soil, literally shaking trees to loosen deaden leaves, and disposing of this “trash” in lined landfills removes natural sources of compost and nutrition for an environment already stressed by cement, development, human overpopulation, deforestation, smog, and air pollution.

These episodes also expose what has been termed as “Mao’s war on nature.”  Mao espoused a form of Confucianism that viewed nature as containing a rich wealth of plant, animal, mineral, and natural resources—that should be tamed, controlled, and consumed.  Additional evidence of this governmental philosophy can be seen in the hundreds of dams China has constructed, most notable of which is the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan province.  It’s important to note that the United States and other Western nations have held/hold similar beliefs, we’ve merely been destroying nature for longer at a slower pace.  As Watts commented, western nations have already been engaging in significant production and consumption for years.  While China’s growth and technological leaps have outpaced ours, so have certain conservation measures.  One such measure of population control is the infamous One Child Policy.  This states that members of the Han Chinese majority may only have one child if they reside in an urban area.  Rural Han may have two children and ethnic minorities do not have a limit placed on family size.  In order to accomplish this, contraceptives are made readily available and affordable.  So are heavy taxes and forced abortions, as discussed in a recent CNN article.  I can’t imagine any comparable policy on population control ever being successfully introduced here in the United States.  In a surprising way, the One Child Policy demonstrates China’s willingness to take a drastic approach to mediating growth and attempting to achieve a sustainable population level (albeit in a drastic fashion which I do not condone).

The confluence of two rivers that ran through a rural village, both of which lacked a natural color

The most rewarding aspect of this internship was the opportunity to explore my own unsustainable lifestyle.  In an effort to reach a better level of sustainability, I’ve developed some goals for myself.  In hopes that I’ll become more accountable if they’re public—or that I’ll inspire someone—I’ve included them here.

–       Drive significantly less: only one day during the week (with room for special exceptions)

–       Either walk to the grocery store or only drive when it is part of another trip, so I will not drive only to purchase groceries

–       Find a way to throw out my trash daily (without using a plastic bag each time) so that I can see how much I consume and throw away everyday

–       Don’t purchase new Tupperware but use old plastic and glass containers

–       Try to find a better solution to paper tissues.  *I decided this after I had a cold in China and saw how many tissues I was disposing of daily.

–       Attempt to live fully vegetarian with limited dairy and egg intake.  If I find my body craving meat or dairy I will only eat organic animal products.  *This decision came after being fed many parts of animals that one does not commonly consume in the US.  I deeply respect Chinese culture for valuing all parts of the animal and not allowing portions to go to waste.  I found it hypocritical that I was only interested in eating certain parts of animals.  Since I am not willing to eat animal feet, skin, and organs I do not think I should eat muscles.

–       Really think hard before I make a purchase to see if it is a need or a want.  This is especially true for clothes and conveniences.

–       Compost and garden again (possible after I move in September)

–       Make better use of whole plants.  I have a bad habit of wasting beet greens, citrus peels, etc.

–       Make purchases with a little packaging and bagging as possible.  If given options, always choose the product in a recyclable container

–       Keep a consumption diary for the month of August, including food, non-food, trash, etc.

–       Share what I’ve learned

In conclusion, my summer Social Work experience has been extremely meaningful and thought provoking.  While I’d been interested in the connection between the natural environment and human wellbeing, I’ve been able to see the direct connections of environmental degradation like acid rain, deforestation, and the loss of biodiversity to human health conditions such as urban poverty, chemical pesticides in food, cancer and asthma, and illness and disease.  I am interested in exploring these connections more, especially more locally in my new home city of Denver.

References:

Watts, J. (2010). When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—Or Destroy It. New York, NY: Scribner.

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GSSW Advanced Standing Classes Underway

Summer is a time for folks to get some time away, spend time with family/friends, and also a time for changes to happen! For the GSSW Advanced Standing students change has been happening for a couple of weeks now and everyone seems to be doing well. Starting Graduate School is always a challenge that will always make you think about yourself, your goals, and help you to build relationships that will last your entire life.

Summer is also a time for changes to happen to the building itself! We are currently under remodel as they make new office spaces for all the future professors and staff that will be joining our amazing program! Office 269 (former home to Richard Bishop & Nick Ota-Wang) is being made into two offices. Directly underneath in the locker room area, former PhD student office, and mail room office spaces are being created.

Summer is keeping us busy but we are doing well! We hope that everyone’s summer continues to  be well and we look forward to seeing alumni come through the building, welcoming our new students in September, and celebrating all the many accomplishments that will happen in our community.

Stay cool in this summer heat!

Weekly 10 Points

Karen Bensen – Director of Student Services Weekly 10 points.

  1. Registration for Fall quarter is Friday, July 27th. Please be prepared to have a Plan B in case you cannot get in your first choice of course or section. If it is a required course, there will be more sections in Winter or Spring. The online course planning form that you completed was just your intended registration, but you still need to officially register for classes on Friday.
  2. GSSW Community Outdoor Movie Night!  Thursday, August 2, 8:30 pm on the GSSW patio. There will be snacks to share.  Bring your friends, family, children, partners and a lawn chair or blanket to sit on!  Movie TBD.  Contact Morgen.Warner@gmail.com with your family friendly suggestions.
  3. There will be GSSW t-shirts and hoodies available for sale on Wednesday August 1 and Thursday August 2 over the lunch hour in the lobby area. Cash or checks made out to the University of Denver will be accepted.  Check them out!
  4. Your Code of Ethics booklets are in your mail folders.
  5. Debriefing the Aurora shootings – Several of us met over lunch on Wednesday to talk about and debrief this tragic event.  We will meet again next Tuesday over lunch in room 384 with special guest, Judy Wise, retired professor from GSSW who started the trauma certificate here.
  6. Save the Date – GSSW Community Service Day!  Friday September 7 ending with food and music on the GSSW patio. Put it on your calendar!  More details to come.
  7. Join DU’s GSSW BUY, SELL, SWAP TEXTBOOKS! Facebook group for good textbook deals.
  8. Join the GSSW Class of 2013 Facebook group in addition to the GSSW Advanced Standing 2013 Facebook group to connect with your classmates!
  9. 9.       Remember that feeling some anxiety at this time is completely normal, but if is feeling unmanageable, talk to Karen.Bensen@du.edu about getting a referral for reduced cost counseling.
  10. 10.   Only 3 more weeks of class to go to complete the summer quarter!

Weekly 10 Points

Karen Bensen – Director of Student Services Weekly 10 points.

  1. Registration for Fall quarter is Friday, July 27th. Please be prepared to have a Plan B in case you cannot get in your first choice of course or section. If it is a required course, there will be more sections in Winter or Spring. The online course planning form that you completed was just your intended registration, but you still need to officially register for classes on Friday.
  2. GSSW Community Outdoor Movie Night!  Thursday, August 2, 8:30 pm on the GSSW patio. There will be snacks to share.  Bring your friends, family, children, partners and a lawn chair or blanket to sit on!  Movie TBD.  Contact Morgen.Warner@gmail.com with your family friendly suggestions.
  3. There will be GSSW t-shirts and hoodies available for sale on Wednesday August 1 and Thursday August 2 over the lunch hour in the lobby area. Cash or checks made out to the University of Denver will be accepted.  Check them out!
  4. Your Code of Ethics booklets are in your mail folders.
  5. Debriefing the Aurora shootings – Several of us met over lunch on Wednesday to talk about and debrief this tragic event.  We will meet again next Tuesday over lunch in room 384 with special guest, Judy Wise, retired professor from GSSW who started the trauma certificate here.
  6. Save the Date – GSSW Community Service Day!  Friday September 7 ending with food and music on the GSSW patio. Put it on your calendar!  More details to come.
  7. Join DU’s GSSW BUY, SELL, SWAP TEXTBOOKS! Facebook group for good textbook deals.
  8. Join the GSSW Class of 2013 Facebook group in addition to the GSSW Advanced Standing 2013 Facebook group to connect with your classmates!
  9. 9.       Remember that feeling some anxiety at this time is completely normal, but if is feeling unmanageable, talk to Karen.Bensen@du.edu about getting a referral for reduced cost counseling.
  10. 10.   Only 3 more weeks of class to go to complete the summer quarter!

Conservation Education in Rural Sichuan: The Road to Conservation Social Work is Not Paved—but Filled with Good Interventions

(Apologies for the cheesy title)

It’s been an exciting 9 days, having just returned from traveling in 2 rural counties in Sichuan province. On the 5th of July I set out with Professor Sarah Bexell, another staff member from the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding’s Conservation Education Department, and 6 college students. We’d already spent 3 days together training for the summer camps we were going to lead (LINK) and we were ready to get started. Our first day involved a charter bus ride to relatively nearby Le Shan (famous for its giant stone Buddha carved into the mountain side), a bus across the city, another charter bus to E’Bian, and a city bus ride– and the trip took all day. The trip was a good opportunity for me to see Sichuan outside of Chengdu. The region is incredibly mountainous and has a lush green environment due to heavy rainfall and excellent clay-rich soil. Our ride took us winding through mountains very different than the Rockies. These mountains bore more of a resemblance to cliffs or ridges rather than gradually sloping mountains. As we snaked on roads along the Dadu and Min rivers, we cut across ridges that generally had grades steeper than 45 degrees. This region is home to the Yi people. The Yi are an ethnic minority who live in the southwestern provinces of China. The dominant ethnic group in China is the Han. Like whites in the United States, Han control most of the wealth, power, and official positions. Yi speak their own language, in addition to Mandarin, and have a distinct culture. Traditional clothing incorporates a black vest or jacket embroidered or brocade with gold and bright colors. Adult women also wear headdresses of a similar style.

The children from our first camp, in Ha Qu. Pictured are several boys in traditional Yi clothing (embroidered black jackets or vests).

In E’Bian we met the staff of Heizhugou nature reserve, who would collaborate with us to plan the nature hikes and bird watches in the camp. The next morning we set out for a 2 hour bus ride into the mountains to reach Ha Qu (pronounced ha-choo), a village less than 10 miles from the nature reserve. (Nature reserves in China are protected lands where only staff are supposed to be admitted and even they are restricted from the centermost regions. In reality, illegal collection of wildlife and plants is present; poachers and mushroom and bamboo shoot collectors illegally enter reserves.) We had 20 students from a nearby village and their teacher join us in Ha Qu—meeting us there as the village could accommodate the camp’s needs. Half of the town had recently been reconstructed with western development funds. While eastern and coastal China has seen huge development and modernization, central and western China has remained a network of small villages. While Ha Qu had electricity and plumbing before the redevelopment, even afterwards few people had cell phones and many homes still had earthen floors. We were informed that $4 million RMB (roughly $626,000 US) had been invested to construct 2-dozen houses complete with balconies and multiple indoor bathrooms, a restaurant, a plaza, a general store, and a community center. The village lay in a river valley surrounded by mountains and we took several hikes up to ridges similar to wild panda habitats. The high mountains were also inhabited by leeches, which we encountered on our second day.

The redeveloped region of the village of Ha Qu.

We ran similar camps at both sites for 8-12 year olds: scavenger hunts, nature hikes, water and bird walks, games involving animals, camouflage, or habitats, and a final performance which resembled a talent show. Videos below shows a bird watching trip and camp members performing in Ha Qu. My role in the camp was that of an English teacher. The Ha Qu campers had some preliminary knowledge so we went over basic introductions and phrases, animals local to Sichuan, words for the environment (tree, leaf, etc.), colors, and numbers. We played the hokey pokey (a huge hit) and sang nursery rhymes. We performed “I’m a little teapot” for the finale. Each camp lasted 3 days.

After the first camp we drove back to E’Bian, took a bus to Ma’Bian (the next county), and a car to Sha Qiang The trips together took nearly 2 days. The most exciting part was the road to Sha Qiang, the village where we held the second camp. We spent the trip winding through the mountains, half of the time on unpaved roads while traveling 40 miles/hour (video posted below). Sha Qiang was a small village with one a single road that deviated from the main thoroughfare. We stayed in the local school’s dormitory with half of our 26 campers—because some of them lived as far away as a 2-hour walk. Our second set of campers were just as friendly and engaged as the first. While they had less experience with English, they still loved the hokey pokey (and danced it in the final performance). The area had experienced heavy rain and storms the day before our arrival. As mentioned Sichuan is a fertile region with steep mountains, this is combined with an intense harvesting (one might categorize it as pillaging) of natural resources. Nickel mining is an especially prevalent industry—on our trip we passed more nickel-laden trucks than all other vehicles (although motorbikes were the dominant presence). Agriculture and construction have also increased in the region. Mining and logging has resulted in a loss of natural growth, resulting in rock falls and land slides after heavy rains. While these are natural occurrences, human activity has greatly increased their frequency. When traveling, our car frequently had to dodge fallen rock. This also extended our travel time as traffic was often limited to a single lane on a two-directional road. Overall the trip was an extended roller coaster ride that was quite fun and worth filming.

A view from one of our nature walks in Sha Quang, Ma’Bian.

The trips gave a great perspective on how large Sichuan province is. The shortest route between Sha Qiang and Chengdu was 7 hours total although both cities are in the same province. Coming from the East Coast, it was still surprising that one could travel 7 hours in one direction and remain in a single state. The camps were also a great opportunity to spread basic information on animal welfare and conservation with the aim to have children teach their peers and families. Our counselors were local college students in order to help spread conservation education at the university level as well. One significant barrier to the camps, however, is the cultural attitude towards animals in China. While many people in the US have pets and can be tempted to appreciate animals when shown pictures of cuddly, baby mammals, Chinese culture is overall very different. Domestic animals in rural areas are working cats and dogs—or sources of food or income. Wild songbirds are caught in cages for singing competitions. Pets are often luxury objects appreciated for their ability to act cute and move. Very few people I’ve encountered treat animals as Americans would, making it difficult to increase the human-animal bond. That’s not to say that our campers were apathetic to animals though—quite the opposite. They just needed a little extra education—and have their work cut out for them. We wish them the best.

A bird watching walk in Sha Qiang, MaBian. This shot was taken after I crossed this delightful bridge.

I’ll be off to visit a few sites in Chengdu and travel around the country for the next week. My internship is winding down but ahead are still visits to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, the Le Shan Buddha, and the terracotta warriors of Xi’an—and one final blog post.

Videos:

Here is a video taken during a bird-watching nature hike nearby Heizhugou nature reserve.  We had 20 campers from a nearby village.  On our hour-and-a-half trek we climbed up a nearby ridge and spent time looking at the wildlife.

The finale of our camp performance included a group song with all Chinese counselors and all 20 campers.  This is taken in the village square at Ha Qu near Heizhugou nature reserve.

This video was taken on our route back from the village of Sha Qiang, where we held our second camp.  We’re en route to the county seat, Ma Bian.  The trip lasted nearly two hours- half of which was on unpaved roads.

The Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding

Cubs spend a lot of time playing at the panda base. In the wild, pandas only rear a single cub at a time so cubs typically play with their mothers rather than siblings.

For the past week I’ve finally gotten my opportunity to experience the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  I’ve had a variety of experiences at the base—including daily opportunities to see giant and red pandas.

For two days this week I’ve participated in a training program for conservation education summer camp counselors.  Next week I’ll be joining one staff member from the Conservation Education Department and six undergraduate/ graduate student counselors in two summer programs in rural panda reserves.  The student counselors have been recruited from a network of clubs, called Green SOS, present on many college campuses.  They’ll be assisting the base staff during the camp to alleviate staff workloads and to help bring young adults into the conservation education field.  Our trainings included a combination of biology, educational techniques and games to get children excited about nature.  The children in these camps (8-12 year olds) live close to two protected areas, Heizhugou and Mabian, which are natural panda habitats.  The camps will last three days at each location and include nature hikes, bird watching, games, educational activities about wildlife, and a final production or talent show.  My contribution (as someone who does not speak Mandarin) will be teaching English each day through games and activities.  I’m excited to see these other regions of the province and work with the other students.

The counselors for our summer camps in Heizhugou and Mabian, including me (far left), Professor Sarah Bexell (second from left), and panda base staff member Liu Fei (behind banner in green shirt), and students from various Green SOS clubs.

I’ve already had an opportunity to visit another panda habitat outside of the city, Dujianyan.  Dujianyan, or Panda Valley, is the field research site for the Chengdu panda base.  It is located over an hour outside of the city in between two mountainous ridges.  In the wild, panda’s typically live on mountain ridges and are native to areas such as Panda Valley.  The site is relatively recently constructed and no pandas live on the ridges currently.  I visited the location with members of the Conservation Education Department as members from a teen summer camp will be visiting there for several days.  The camp is similar to those offered in Heizhugou and Mabian, except it is for teenage students near Chengdu.  We toured the facility and met with staff to organize details of the camp.  Touring the facility involved an hour-long nature walk where we saw wildlife such as snakes, salamanders, and caterpillars (including both benign and the venomous/poisonous snakes and caterpillars).  Currently the site only has several pandas but plans to expand the scope of their work.

A view of Dujianyan, or Panda Valley, the field research site of the Chengdu panda base

Additionally this week the base hosted two biologists from the Chester Zoo, Roger and Simon.  The Chester Zoo, a partner of the base, has given grants to the base and nearby nature reserves to expand education, rehabilitate enclosures, and fund various projects on the reserves.  For example, they have funded alternative economies for residents near the reserves to deter from collective wildlife products (bamboo, mushrooms, and timber) and constructed clean-burning gas powered stoves to reduce logging.  They’ve also structured their funding to build the capacity of the rural reserves, increasing collaboration between reserves and building partnerships with surrounding communities.  They visited the panda base on Friday to see how several grant projects came to fruition and discuss potential future projects.

In between my trainings, visits, and tours I had opportunities to explore the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding.  The base is an extensive park that includes a lake, egret nesting colonies, restaurants, and a panda cinema in addition to the giant and red pandas themselves.  Adult giant pandas do not live together and leave their mothers once they become “adolescent” sub-adults (between 1-5 years old).  As a result, cubs on the base interact with each other or with their mothers but adults typically have their own enclosures.  All told there are over a dozen enclosures and quite a few panda cubs on the base.  I had an opportunity to see them active in the early-mid-morning period when they typically begin their long day of eating.  I had a blast watching the pandas but honestly my favorite part of the base was the second red panda enclosure.  In this area, many red pandas live together in a large enclosure.  A boardwalk for visitors runs through the middle of the enclosure and has many openings in the fence so the red pandas can move freely about.  Regularly accustomed to people, I had several red pandas walk within inches of me (they’re roughly larger than an average house cat but smaller than most dogs)!

I had several days to explore the base through opportunities to collect research data for an upcoming exhibit.  The panda base and the Chengdu Zoo will partner to create an exhibit on the international wildlife trade, featuring information on how wildlife is used for food, medicine, or curios—or harmed in the process of other forms of trade.  Over 600 surveys of native-Chinese visitors will be conducted in the coming months.  My role was to begin surveying English-speakers (on a smaller scale) to gauge their interest or knowledge in this field.  It is important to note that while China is the largest consumer of wildlife products, the United States is the second largest consumer!  Unfortunately I won’t be able to see this exhibit as it is just in the planning stage but I am excited to learn from the data I collected.

My visits to the panda base are largely over now and I am headed out to the rural reserves shortly!