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Where We Work: Yunnan

Rivers of Life - 
Community protection of rivers and fish in southwest China


Rubbish being sorted for recycling and disposal

Li Ziyue (Partnerships for Community Development )
Wang Pei (Chongqing Environmental Protection and Cultural Center for Public Rivers)

To swim, fish and play in mountain rivers and streams are sources of joy for many people. Unfortunately, with years of pollution and environmental degradation, more than half of China’s rivers have deteriorated, and the sight of fish swimming in the waters has become but a memory for many. 

Longchuan River, in Tengchong County, Yunnan, and Heishuitan River, in Beipei District, Chongqing, are two rivers that used to have clear waters teeming with fish and shrimp. The two rivers are also water sources for the communities living within the watersheds. However, as economic development has gathered pace, these waterways have been severely polluted by industrial and agricultural pollution and household waste. In addition, illegal and cruel methods of fishing have severely reduced the fish stock. One might ask if a river devoid of aquatic life is even a river at all.

Dong Baozhen is an elder living in Datang Village, at the source of the Longchuan River. He has long worried about the state of the river, and would often reflect, “I played a part in cutting down the forests near Datang. It’s a sin, and now in my old age, I need to make amends. What I would like to do most is to protect the fish in the Longchuan. If we don’t protect them, none will be left for future generations.” There used to be species such as flatheads and cold-water fish, but with villagers dumping trash into the river for the sake of convenience, and incidents of fish being electrocuted or poisoned, the fish have almost died out. For Dong, protection of the fish has become an absolute necessity. Together with members of the local Association for the Elderly, and with the support of Partnerships for Community Development (PCD) and the Tengchong office of the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve, he has begun the fight to save the fish of Longchuan River. 

The Association for the Elderly took the lead in conducting a survey on fish species with the goal of raising awareness of the decline in fish within their community, and to prompt villagers to think about the reasons for the decline. According to the survey, there has been a marked decline in fish species due to changes in the natural environment (through deforestation, climate change, and reduced rainfall) and unrestrained human behaviour (such as destructive fishing practices). The survey revealed that there had been 16 species of fish in Datang in the 1940s and 50s, yet today only six or seven remain. Experts also determined that one of the more prized fish still present in the river today, Gymnodiptychus integrigymnatus, in the carp family, is found only in the cold waters of the Gaoligong Mountains, and needs very clean water to thrive. 

The Association has also collected traditional stories about the interactions between people and fish, and carried out studies on Datang’s history, local nationalities, ecology, hunting traditions, religion and culture. This research has given the project a good footing in the traditions and ethics of the community, uncovering for instance environmental principles followed by forebears. The ancestors of Datang Village applied a system of ethics to their interactions with other beings and the environment: they believed that all lives had their own right to exist, and to their own space for existing. The ancestors also invoked the concept of karma and the belief that people’s actions affect the karma they accumulate.

The Association has made its voice heard in different villages and among varied groups to advocate for protection, not only of fish but also of the mountains, water, forests, and other wildlife in the area. The Association has convened discussion forums involving Association members, village leaders, representatives from the Village Committee and local government officials to solicit multiple opinions and create a consensus for protection.

The Association has also created small protected areas within the 134 square kilometers of Datang Village which include Longchuan River and 13 minor tributaries. Alongside the protected areas are community outreach initiatives and new regulations, which were drafted thorough informed stakeholder consultations and then established in accordance with Chinese law. Following these discussions, the mainstays of the Association held several meetings with the 11 villager groups of Datang. Every household received a booklet containing information about the new rules for river protection, and extra classes were held at Datang Elementary School to ensure that children were included in the process and to allow for conversations between parents and their children on the protection of fish. 

Datang village’s initiative seeks to influence not only the villagers themselves, but also people from surrounding communities as well as visitors. Thirteen warning signs have been put in the village area, and by nearby roads and bridges, to draw attention to the rules. 

So far, their efforts have met with success: the amount of trash dumped in the rivers within the small protected areas has decreased; the water has become clearer; illegal fishing has been almost totally eradicated; and the number of fish is seeing a steady revival. 

Meanwhile, in the town of Jindaoxia, Chongqing, residents had for some time been dismayed by the unscrupulous electrocution and poisoning of fish in the local Heishuitan River. Unfortunately, the opposition to these destructive and illegal practices was disorganised, leading to delays in the launch of protection efforts. However, after the Chongqing Environmental Protection and Cultural Center for Public Rivers – usually shortened to ‘Public Rivers’ – became involved in 2013 *, the residents grew more confident and decided to work to restore the river and its fish species.

Ten residents formed a ‘Heishuitan Eco-Protection Team’ and worked with Public Rivers and PCD to put up warning signs along the riverbanks. The team then mobilised the participation of villagers including carrying out volunteer river patrols. With tips from locals, the Team was able to apprehend some of the people involved in illegal fishing, confiscate the poison and the electrocution tools, and send the offenders to government agencies to be fined and punished. Recognising the valuable knowledge that some of these offenders have of the river, the Team tried to persuade them to reconsider their ways and to become volunteers for fish protection. Villagers have formed their own ‘Release Team’ – returning several dozen pounds of young fish into the river in order to boost the fish population. 

River pollution is another major cause of the decline in fish populations. The biggest pollution source for the Heishuitan River is trash, which enters the river upstream. The Heishuitan Eco-protection Team has tried to raise public awareness among the residents there and has led by example in removing trash from the river. At the same time, team members have organised cultural activities and lessons on traditional culture to get at the root of the problem, prompting people to consider how human-nature relationships have changed in recent times.

The actions of these villagers provide reasons for hope, even in areas where people seem to care little for the environment. All around us, there are people who feel the need to protect and cherish the environment, but who cannot act on their own. The examples set by these communities along the Longchuan and Heishuitan demonstrate that it just takes an act of leadership and some support to inspire others to take action. Local environmental efforts can build on the deeply-rooted love and affection that many have for their hometown and their rivers. As urbanisation continues apace, this affection can be harnessed and expressed in efforts to restore mountains and rivers to their former health and beauty.

* Chongqing Environmental Protection and Cultural Center for Public Rivers, or Public Rivers, is a not-for-profit organisation focusing on the protection of river ecology. The Center’s mission is to promote the healthy restoration, natural conservation, and cultural heritage of rivers; and connect people with rivers in beneficial, meaningful, and spiritual ways. Since 2013, Public Rivers has been working in the Heishuitan Community of Beipei District on community-oriented river protection and capacity-building. Projects have included community waste management, promotion of ecological farming, and development of capacity for a ‘river community’.

* This article was originally published in Mountain Futures: Inspiration and Innovation from the World's Highlands, World Agroforestry Centre, Xu et al. (2018) and has been adapted for this website.