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.

Advertisements

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!

Videos: Chinese Organic Farming and Community Mobilization

Hello!  With the help of the GSSW tech team, I was able to upload several videos of my visit to Anlong Village co-operative farming community (see post below).  Enjoy!

Chinese Organic Farming and Community Mobilization

My host grandmother and my colleague weeding on the Quan family farm

Hello!  This is Jocelyn Durkay, concentration year, community track student at GSSW.  I’m spending 6 weeks this summer in southwestern China studying global social work practice with Visiting Professor Sarah Bexell.  I’m blogging about my experiences this summer- this is post number 2.  During this past week I had the amazing opportunity to visit a co-operative farming community in Anlong county outside Chengdu, Sichuan province.  I’ve always had a penchant for gardening and growing produce and held my foundation year internship with GreenLeaf, a youth-led urban farming program in northeast Denver.  I found this week to be a valuable social work experience, as well as a valuable farming experience.

The co-op community of Anlong Village was launched in 2006 with the help of Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA) and other NGOs.  The project involved collaborating with farmers, who lived upstream of a major river that feeds into Chengdu, to switch from chemical farming (using of pesticides and herbicides) to eco-farming.  Eco-farming in China refers to a number of different practices including organic farming and high land productivity in order to avoid pollution and environmental degradation, to conserve resources, and to create healthy food.  In practice this means creating almost zero waste, growing organic produce, and selling the food to urban residents while educating them about the importance of chemical-free produce.  Even human and livestock waste is converted into clean-burning methane gas and organic fertilizer!  One of the larger farms in the village offers eco-tourism opportunities where visitors can stay at the farm in order to work, explore, or play on the nearby river’s beach.

Anlong Village is a pilot project that many organizations hope to duplicate.  I learned a great deal about Anlong and its farmers during my stay there from Monday – Saturday of last week.  I stayed with the Quan family (pronounced Chen): a grandfather, grandmother, and their teenage granddaughter.  It was a fantastic homestay experience where I was able to enjoy local, fresh, organic food at every meal and had some opportunities to work on the farm.

Me with my hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Quan

As I mentioned earlier, this was not just an opportunity to experience nature, culture, and agriculture but also a social work learning experience.  I had the opportunity to speak with four heads of households about their switch to eco-farming, through the translation assistance of a colleague.  These farmers had spent all (or most) of their lives as farming– initially participating in traditional farming techniques, then chemical farming, and now eco-farming.  Chemical farming rose to popularity in the 1980s because of the high demand for food to combat mass starvation from a population boom.  Chinese colleagues informed me that with the rapid rise in China’s urban development and modernization, farming has become somewhat synonymous with peasantry.  These farmers are reclaiming the occupation, however, through technical knowledge and concerns for public health.   Young people in Anlong are remaining on their family farms instead of moving to cities, helping slow the loss of a generation of Chinese farmers.   As mentioned, the initial impetus for the formation of Anlong Village stemmed from river pollution.  This river is used for laundry and for swimming by residents and guests alike.  The river water is also diverted to water the fields and has a direct connection to human and animal consumption.

Health benefits extend to farmers’ daily lives as well.  One farmer spoke of the positive health his mother has experienced since switching to organic farming.  Previously, she’d needed daily medication and had poor reactions to breathing pesticide-ridden air.  Now her health has improved enough that she does not need medication.  Another farmer spoke of how he made the decision to protect his family’s health, helping feed others healthy food was a secondary consequence.  That same farmer spoke of the concern he now felt for others who consumed chemically treated produce.  He’d seen farmers spray food with pesticide in the morning and sell the same produce later that day.  All four farmers spoke of feelings of pride they’d developed for their produce and their customers.  Previously they’d sold their produce to wholesalers while now they know their CSA customers by name and feel a concern for their health.  Farmers also spoke of their connection to their land, wildlife, and the act of farming—aspects they did not speak of when explaining their previous use of chemicals.  Several of them spoke of new responsibility they felt to the larger environment, demonstrating feelings of empowerment.  Farmers discussed the sense of community they felt with other eco-farmers, recognizing they had collective power and strength.  Additionally, all four farmers spoke of how they enjoyed their lifestyle and would not choose another occupation than eco-farming.  After completing my Research Methods & Design assignments on horticulture therapy, I found this last point particularly interesting and wondered if this supported research on positive mental health affects of horticulture experiences.

The Anlong Village co-operative was incredibly inspiring but they are currently fighting a losing battle against hyper-industrialization and urbanization.  The Chinese government is attempting to buy farmer’s homes in order to demolish them and relocate families to urban high rises (requiring a long commute to their farmlands).  Additionally, I could not see the sun through Chengdu’s smog clouds until my fifth day on the farm.  When showing my hosts’ granddaughter photos of Denver, she commented on how blue the sky looked and how she’s never seen sky like that in her hometown.

MORE ON ANLONG VILLAGE:

CURA’s official site, http://www.rivers.org.cn/en/

An article about the community, featuring the eco-tourism farm, http://zesterdaily.com/world/travel/going-organic-in-china/.

 

WORKS CITED & RESOURCES:

Dammon Loyalka, M. (2012). Eating bitterness: Stories from the front lines of China’s great urban migration. Berekely, CA: University of California Oress.

Wang, H., Qin, L, Huang, L, & Zhang, L. (2007). Ecological agriculture in China: Principles and applications. Advances in Agronomy, 47(10): pp. 181-208. DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2113(06)94004-8.

My host preparing lunch on a traditional Chinese stove while I feed the fire underneath to cook the food

Director of Field Education Graduates Mainstream Square Dance Class

In addition to the passion for and serious work of social work education, GSSW’s staff and faculty are also engaged members of the Denver community in many different ways. Associate Clinical Faculty and Director of Field Education, Ann Petrila, recently graduated from the mainstream level of square dancing1 with the Rocky Mountain Rainbeaus (www.rainbeaus.org) – a local Denver-area LGBTQA high energy square dance club that is inclusive of straight dancers as well. Here she is shown with friend and fellow Rainbeau, Leo Gross, being silly at her graduation. Congratulations, Ann!

1Modern square dancing is much more than your 8th grade physical education classes’ allemande left and do-si-do. There are numerous levels (mainstream, plus, advanced, and challenge), with hundreds of calls that must be learned. For example, the mainstream level of square dancing alone has 69 different calls with some calls having three and four different variations for a total of 92 different permutations on those calls.

GSSW scholars explore cutting behavior among sexual minority youth

GSSW faculty scholars N. Eugene Walls and Julie Laser collaborated with GSSW doctoral student Sarah J. Nickels and GSSW alum Hope Wisneski to examine the factors that are associated with increased likelihood of engaging in cutting behavior among lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender youth and young adults.1 Across various statistical models, they found that female- and trans-identified LGBQT youth and young adults were at significantly greater risk of cutting than their male-identified counterparts.  Other factors associated with greater likelihood include victimization, homelessness, depression, suicide attempts, smoking tobacco, and having friends in their close friendship network who attempted suicide. The risk for the behavior appears to decrease with increased age and with having an adult teacher, social worker, or other school personnel with whom the youth can talk about sexual orientation and gender identity.

One interesting finding is that youth who were more out about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity were at increased risk of engaging in the behavior.  Since being out is typically associated with greater mental health and resilience, this finding may seem counter-intuitive. However, the researchers point out, that the impact of coming out is frequently contextual – so if youth come out in an environment that invalidates or stigmatizes their identities it would not be surprising to find such a result. More research on the topic of cutting and other non-suicidal self-injurious behavior among LGBQT youth is clearly warranted.

1Walls, N. E., Laser, J., Nickels, S., & Wisneski, H. (2010). Correlates of cutting behavior among sexual minority youth and young adults. Social Work Research, 34, 213-226.

National Recognition for Faculty

Editing GSSW Magazine in one of the best parts of my job because it gives me the chance to interview and write about our terrific faculty, students and alumni. For example, two of our faculty members have won major national awards in the past few months. Continue reading “National Recognition for Faculty”