Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Cranes of Caohai and Other Incidents of Fieldwork in Southwestern China [*]

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Cranes of Caohai and Other Incidents of Fieldwork in Southwestern China [*]

Article excerpt

Around nature reserves and other protected areas local people are often given to resisting, overtly or covertly, regulations that block their access to resources they cherish. Although state or other organizations may consider the establishment of a nature reserve essential to the conservation of rare species and endangered ecosystems, local people view this co-optation of essential resources as a threat to their livelihoods. Conflicts result between nature-reserve managers who aspire to protect endangered species and local people who are struggling to maintain their access to natural resources (Hobbs 1996; Whitesell 1996; Naughton-Treves 1997; Sundberg 1998).

As such conflicts have gained greater attention in recent years, conservation and development organizations have implemented environmental education and rural development programs designed to ease disputes. Do these programs actually reduce conflicts between local people and nature-reserve managers? How do these programs affect natural resource use by local people? My research poses these questions for two distinct case-study areas -- one Chinese, one Russian. This geographical field note focuses on my work in Caohai Nature Reserve, in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou, where I completed five months of field dissertation research in 1998 and 1999 and where I expect to conduct additional research in 2000.

Around Caohai Nature Reserve, a wetland wintering ground for several species of endangered migratory birds, intense competition simmers between nature-reserve managers and land-poor farmers over access to arable land and fishing and hunting rights. To reduce these conflicts, a pair of United States -- based nongovernmental organizations (NGOS), the International Crane Foundation and the Trickle Up Program, are sponsoring a rural development initiative based on microcredit. This market-oriented intervention is designed to reduce local pressures on the resources of the nature reserve by alleviating poverty. In fieldwork that includes semi-structured interviews with local farmers, nature-reserve managers, and local government officials, I am investigating the extent to which this rural development program has eased conflicts and local dependence on natural resources.

Caohai Nature Reserve lies on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau at an altitude of 2,170 meters (Figure 1). It is in one of the poorest counties of Guizhou Province, which is, in turn, among the poorest provinces in China. Hamlets within the reserve generally comprise fifty or more wooden houses, roofed with thatch or tile. Slightly better off families can afford homes built of stone. On the lakeside of a hamlet are cornfields that often extend and submerge into the lake (Figure 2). Farmers add layer upon layer of new earth to keep the land from flooding during the summer rainy season. In winter, the fields are often planted with cabbages and radishes. Potatoes are grown on denuded hillsides behind the hamlets. Staple foods include a corn mush, not unlike grits, eaten with fried potatoes, cabbage, and, if the family can afford it, smoked pork or salted fish.

Most hamlets in Caohai are single-surname, patrilineal villages in which patri-local customs prevail. Only men inherit land. Daughters leave their village to marry into another village. Men have little formal education, and most women are entirely illiterate. Boys attend a local elementary school but rarely go on to secondary school, and most girls receive no schooling at all. Both mothers and fathers have told me that it would amount to a squandering of scarce funds were they to pay school fees for a daughter. Because girls leave the village, educating them is not a profitable investment.

The apparent number of girls receiving an education in Caohai exceeds the actual count. Among the little girls I thought were attending the local primary school there turned out to be, to my not inconsiderable surprise, a sizable corps of little boys dressed as girls. …

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