Bedford's web site on Asia - charlesinchina

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My travel journal

"No kidding, so there I was...."

One of our media people asked a group of us for our wildlife "close calls."  So putting on my best Crocodile Dundee accent, I wrote down the following true stories. 

"[Beer in hand, funny Australian accent, at the ready ]  So, no joking, there I was……..

Snorkeling on a wreck in 30 feet of water off Palmyra.  I had wandered off in one direction and my group was about a quarter mile away.  I was coming back up for air when I saw a big torpedo shape about 100 yards away, headed straight for me.   I surfaced, breathed and then looked again—closing fast was a 12 foot grey shark.  It came within 10 feet of me, circled twice, almost like a labrador retriever sniffing a new friend, then moved off in the same direction it had been going.   I was glad that my pants were already wet…..

In Glacier one summer solstice.  I had 2 days to see the park before a conference in Kalispell, so I was doing 3 long trail runs a day into the more remote areas of the park.  On the first day, in the southeast section, I hit the high pass at around 10am and had planned to traverse around a mountain to another valley that would take me back to the car, but I couldn't find the trail for the snow.  I started following what looked like a trail on a shelf, and what I thought were human footprints.  Pretty quickly I realized that these were mountain goat tracks and the shelf ended.  I knew from the map that I was headed in the general direction so I kept going.  As I rounded the next high alpine ridge two things happened, the slope got a lot steeper and I saw the maker of the footprints about 100 yards ahead of me—a very large, male goat that looked back at me as if to say, "this way, dummy."   Walking on hard pack snow with hiking boots on the flats is one thing, but running shoes and 50 degree slopes without ice axes is another thing entirely.  It seemed like I had made it through most of the really steep stuff, though, and the guy with 4 cloven hooves just kept moseying along with the occasional toss of the head to me to keep moving.  Had I fallen, what was left of me, 4000 feet below, probably wouldn't have been found for years, as no one knew where I was, and no one was expecting me anywhere for a couple of days (I often find myself in these positions, usually inadvertently but never with any real regret yet—it helps to focus the mind and remind me I'm alive.)  But the goat was right, as I rounded another ridge, the pass was right up ahead.  He wondered onto a grassy ledge above and watched me head down the valley.  I nodded my thanks.

The second evening in Glacier after a nice dinner at one of the lodges—it stays light til about 11 at that time of year—I decided after dinner to hike in to a back country lake and camp.   I got to the lake around 930 and was laying out my bag when I saw, across the lake, two grizzlies—a momma and her fairly large year old cub—walking down the trail that I had just come up and now had my camp set up.   The wind was at their back so they couldn't smell me, and they don't see accurately very far.   So I started yelling, "Hey Bear" to make sure I didn't surprise them.   I had left the pepper spray in the car, so I was just hoping that they were on their way through as opposed to looking to stop for dinner.   The problem was that a small creek poured off some rocks between us on the trail, just 30 yards or so from me, and they couldn't hear me over the water's roar.  So they kept coming through the waterfall until they finally heard me.  Without changing her pace,  momma bear veered left off the trail along the hillside and continued walking down hill.  The sun set about 15 minutes later.   I finally managed to drift off after imagining noises for about an hour, but I was awakened at about 2am by what sounded like a football team walking through the willows nearby.   I wasn't sure whether to yell or keep quiet since the noise was quite close and it was a moonless, very dark night.  I decided that that the "7 year old worried about monsters under the bed" strategy was the best in this situation and pulled the sleeping bag over my head.  Though I couldn’t see them in the pitch black, two very large animals, probably my bears from earlier, came crashing out of the willows just a few feet away and walked back up the trail.  I figured my luck in Glacier could might be about done……fortunately my talk in Kalispell was the next morning so all I had to do was drive, which, on reflection, is the most dangerous, and more daily, activity we do! 

One time in the early morning, backpacking out of south eastern Yellowstone after a fly fishing trip, my friends and I were remarking how we'd seen a lot of fish and birds this trip, but not much of the larger wildlife that the park is famous for.   Moments later we rounded a bend to see an enormous bull moose half submerged in a wetland.  Two minutes later, we walked into an open area and spooked 3 grizzlies feeding on a dead bison.   And just as they were disappearing the low sound of a wolf howling started, lasting for several minutes.   We were all stunned, partly to be in what seemed like a Discovery channel video after 4 days of seeing only cutthroat trout and eagles, but also to realize just how wild this part of America is still.  When we got back to our offices the following week, one of the friends emailed an article about that corner of Yellowstone, describing it as the point in the lower 48 states that was furthest from any roads or other human incursions.  It certainly felt that way to us that morning that we had time-travelled back into pre-Columbian America. 

Hong Kong is wilder than anyone realizes.  Most visitors never get off of Hong Kong island and the concrete jungle.  But just a few steps out of central is a real jungle, and a subway ride away puts you close to where the last tiger in the territory was killed in the 1940s!  We moved to a part of Hong Kong that has easy access to some of the remaining open spaces (over 50% of Hong Kong is preserved land!) so that we could have an antidote real jungle to the concrete jungle.  It's been fun to explore the trails, bays, beaches and mountains of Sai Kung.  I have a small running group for Tuesday morning trail runs, Oliver from Germany  and Roman from France.  We head out very early so that we can be in to our offices in time.  The 3rd Tuesday we were headed down a jungle track with me in the front.  I was running along full speed when my face was enveloped in thick strands of spider web—the orb weaver, a spider with legs about twice as long as my fingers, didn't appreciate the man-sized hole in his web, but fortunately I didn't have to pull him off my face.  The other guys were laughing at me as I was coughing and frantically trying to get the web off and started up the trail—I shouted, "you guys are next!"   About a mile later, with me in the rear of the line now, I suddenly saw them doing what can only be described as Euro-techno dancing in front of me, both hollering a the top of their lungs in foreign languages.   Looking down, I managed to hop over the tail of a 10 foot long Burmese Python as it scooted across the trail trying to avoid the weird disco performance that it clearly had not evolved to deal with.   Roman immediately ran a new European 1500 meter record down the trail as Oliver and I struggled to keep up……..

I've been very privileged to have the opportunity, and the luck, to see a lot of beautiful creatures and wild places.  They are what has driven my work in conservation and what recharges me.  This planet is now virtually dominated and managed by our species—even the huge systems like the oceans and the atmosphere are under our thumbs.   I revel in the daydream of seeing western North America with Lewis and Clark, or even more interesting, seeing it with the first peoples that came across from Asia to find the Giant Buffalo, North American Cheetah, and Mammoths.  But I work in the present reality of our dominion over nature and the complex problems of humans trying to figure out a way to sustain this world that has shaped and sustained us.  I've given up the romantic notion of saving nature for it's own sake, and never really bought the idea of a rights-based approach to species, instead I believe in designing and promoting models and ideas that will fully recognize that the economy is a wholly—owned subsidiary of nature, that the fabric of the ecology is best preserved by making the connection to good human lives.  And the good life isn't about the Italian yacht or the Rolex watch or the Gucci handbag, it's about clean air and water, access to safe and sustainable food sources, and livelihoods that can support families, communities and civilizations.  Sharks and goats and spiders are majestic and scary and miraculous to me as species, and they are also the indicator of our own health and well—being.  I hope my daughter can see them too; if she does, I know our species might be on the right track.

New Job!

Got a new job.  Below is the announcement from my boss.

"I am pleased to announce that Charles Bedford has accepted the role of
Regional Managing Director for Asia. This position is a key step in
implementing the merger of our North Asia and Asia Pacific Regions into a
single region. Charles will start January 30 and will relocate from
Beijing to Hong Kong where the new region's operating center will be

Charles has played a key leadership role in the region since 2009,
quickly moving from a short-term advisor role to Deputy Managing
Director, North Asia. Previously, he spent nine years leading our
Colorado chapter, shaping it into one of our most globally focused
operating units and serving as a member of the team that created both the
Mongolia and Colorado River programs. Charles knows the Conservancy, our
programs in Asia, their strategies, and importantly, our volunteer and
staff leadership very well. We believe this background will give him the
tools to move quickly and effectively into this expanded role.

With Charles's appointment, we will consolidate our Asia operations into
a single region consisting of three Divisions: (1) Greater China (headed
by Jim Zhang); (2) Australia (headed by Michael Looker); and (3)
Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands (division manager TBD).
All three divisions will report to Charles.

We had a very strong talent pool for this position, including candidates
from within the region. Over the coming year, Charles will focus on
recruiting additional Asia-based leadership for the region.

We plan to share this announcement with staff today.

Thanks very much to those of you who assisted with the search. Please let
me know if you have any questions about Charles's appointment.

Best regards,

Bill Ginn

Book on Land Conservation in China

I'm a co-author.  you can dowload it here!

Killing Rain, Hard Rain, Rain Fall, Rain Storm, etc. The John Rain Series By Barry Eisler

One of the many unfortunate problems of traveling so much that I know the flight attendants names on the PEK-SFO United 889 is that I tend to get suckered into trashy spy novels to pass the 13 hours in the air and countless others in transit.  I can blast one of these genre in around 2-3 hours (they are written at the 7th grade level—which, coincidentally, is about my emotional maturity....).  And on planes they are as engaging as meditation—empty mind and stiff back.

Barry Eisler’s John Rain series is perfect for these situations.  Occasionally, the hero/anti-hero even grapples with complex issues of morality; not something one expects in a professional assassin for hire who specializes in deaths that look natural.   But over the arc of the 7 book series, Rain turns from an automaton assassin for hire, created by serving in the US special forces in Vietnam, into a more rounded human being through his association with other likeable characters like a southern cracker sniper and a beautiful Mossad agent who seduces and kills the enemies of Israel.   And ultimately, he begins to kill only for the good guys, even foregoing killing the new boyfriend of his son’s mother.  Truly a triumph of good over evil that can warm the heart this holiday season.   I suppose any movement on the spectrum from evil toward good must be celebrated. 

But the books do raise questions of free will and choice, albeit in a comic book context.  These are questions that we all deal with on a day to day basis, though not usually of the direct life or death type.  Should I be driving this much?  Why can’t we get good video-conferencing so our carbon footprint can be reduced?  And, will this project really change the trajectory of global climate policy so that our species (my grandkids especially—after all, they have my genes!) makes it through the climate key hole.   Maybe we should hire John Rain........

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

 The “can’t judge a book by it’s title” aphorism holds pretty true for the first 100 pages or so of this brilliant satire by Russian-born Gary (nee Igor) Shteyngart.   (I can’t imagine writing anything in a second language, much less literature, and a fantastic leap to think that he is able to write with such comic genius about the good ole’ USofA.)  In fact, it’s pretty tough to find the love story at all.  Anti-hero Lenny Abramov can barely have a relationship with anyone other than himself, much less construct the arc of a love affair.   But no matter, Lenny is able to imbue the improbable Eunice with all the wonderful characteristics that he thinks he deserves in this dystopian near-future vision of America.   

But wait, says the reader halfway in, is this about the future?  Is this dystopia fiction?  Can it be that he has slightly disguised a few of the trappings of the present to trick us?  Is Shteyngart the Ghost of Christmas Present or Yet To Come?  When we wake, will we truly awake, or will we just check our Apparat (read Iphone) to read the NY Times editorial about trading our debt to China for turning our backs on Taiwan?
   Has Global Teens (read Facebook and Twitter) become not the tools of revolution, but rather of online voyeur/exhibitionism?   Does the rejuvenification treatment sound like Extreme Makeover?  How about LNWI’s (low net worth individuals) rioting in lower Manhattan?  The reading starts getting painful when the reader realizes that the shocking cultures being parodied are not even one layer of remove from our own, but rather a merger of all of the unattractive national traits of the US and China..

In an old movie about Sukarno’s Indonesia, Linda Hunt’s character types in anguish just before a futile protest that ends in her defenestration, “What then must one do?”  Shteyngart doesn’t give us a road map (Conservation, anyone?).  But his comic insight somehow makes it ok to laugh in realization of the folly of the world.  It’s better to laugh at the perversion of values, the loss of ideals, the corruption of family, the destruction of nature.   And then go out and do something about it.

Zeng Fanzhi’s Art of the Impossible

The animals--usually alone, occasionally in a small group--peer out from enormous canvasses through a tangled net of brambles or razor wire.  Their eyes are the innocent eyes of a child in a refugee camp, the mentally insane in the asylum, the last old person in a recently contacted Papuan tribe whose language has disappeared.  They are eerie, haunting, dark.  It feels, walking through Zeng Fanzhi’s stunning exhibition of huge paintings that takes up the whole top floor of the Hong Kong Convention center, that you are visiting a special zoo for the last monkey, leopard, or bear on the planet.  And the effect is heightened by the fact, while the scale is life size or larger, that this is a zoo on canvas, a representation of the wild that is fast disappearing.   Yet Mr. Zeng allows these creatures to  retain their inner strength, their integrity, their ability to find their brothers and sisters, and to escape as the three wildebeasts seem to have figured out in one of the canvasses.   I’ve never seen a body of work that better expresses the imbalance and alienation of humans from their environment.  This is one of the most overtly political and powerful statements about our planet that I have ever seen an artist make.


Our world can seem on a collision course with catastrophe.  We avert our eyes to the long term problems of the overwhelming pressure that 7 billion humans put on the planetary resources, the abject poverty caused by land degradation in Haiti, the fraying of the ecological fabric that has supported us as a species for 5 million years, climate change projections that have China worried about 80 million Bangladeshis knocking on their southern door because of sea level rise, and freshwater crises across the globe that threaten the access to water and protein sources for billions of people.  We look away because the problems seem too large, happening to others, far away in time or distance.   Mr. Zeng’s work brings all of this forward for his viewers, crystallizes the issues in visceral and emotional ways.  He reminds us that our species has a critical connection to each of the solo animals in the paintings, that we are animals too, that we also may face the same pressures that have produced his futuristic vision of a world with just one elephant left, just one leopard, just one golden monkey.   Somehow, instead of despair, a tour of Mr. Zeng's mind-world leaves the visitor with a small sliver of hope.  Perhaps it is the intense colors, maybe it is the use of light—the way it illuminates the subjects from within, perhaps he is just speaking to a piece of our DNA that has hope wired into our genes.  Whatever, he convinces us that our predicament is not impossible, that we can, we must, we will, repair our world.  That we must take away the wire and brambles that have severed our connection to the natural world. 


Cormac McCarthy, the American author, takes his readers through a similar journey.  In most of his earlier work, books like Blood Meridian or The Crossing, the hope and aspirations are nearly undetectable.  But in The Road, his sparest, darkest text, he takes us  beyond the brink and into the apocalypse, the unspeakable disaster that we fear in our darkest nightmares.  And in that nightmare, on his last page, he, too, illuminates, through the last act of a father to save his son, the hope that is our salvation.


I’m not an art critic, just an occasional art fan.  I also happen to know Mr.  Zeng because of his affiliation with The Nature Conservancy in China where I work as a conservationist providing technical assistance to governments in Asia as they tackle the big societal issues of wildlife conservation, clean air and water, and the other services that nature provides to make life livable on this planet.  Mr. Zeng has clearly done his homework over the last 4 years as he  has put himself on the frontlines of global conservation.  He’s made numerous trips to nature reserves across China and abroad.  He has soaked in the methodologies of the professional conservation world.  He’s looked at the best of wildlife art and photography—which, to my mind, mostly fails to capture the core emotional and intellectual issues around conservation.

And, putting all that through a deeply sensitive lens, he has captured and interpreted our current place on the planet in a stunningly original and unique way.   The whole of the exhibit is greater than the sum of its very impressive parts.  Go see Mr. Zeng’s zoo.  It will change your soul.

Improbable Pandas

As part of a group study tour of TNC China's project sites, we were in Pingwu County, northern Sichuan to visit a site where we are thinking of deploying a conservation strategy that is roughly parallel to the US conservation easement tool.  Pingwu County is completely vertical--it is the northwest edge of the consequence of the Indian sub-continent drifting into Asia and pushing the Tibetan plateau 14000 feet into the air.  Narrow valleys have roads pasted along their sides, towered above by enormous steep cliffs that often slough off the roads during the summer rains. 

This is also habitat for the few remaining wild pandas, China's iconic wildlife species.  Probably only around 2000 pandas still exist in the fragmented habitat of Sichuan, but Pingwu county is a healthy patch in which they live.  They are notoriously shy--some students receive there Ph.D.s without ever encountering one in the wild during their years of field research. 

Part of the danger of having guests coming to China is that they want to see it all in the 8 days that they are here.  Imagine if your Spanish cousin came to visit you in Denver and asked if it would be possible to pop down to New Orleans for a night, then go to San Francisco, and be back before the weekend.  Then add in rough, constantly-in-construction roads, no civil aviation, no airports at all where nature actually is, and you can see how difficult it is to get visitors to see all of China's wildlife in 8 days.

But there we were, 25 of TNC's best and brightest scientists and professionals from Africa, Latin America, China and other parts of Asia on an 8 day tour in two small buses zooming around the canyons of Pingwu.  For those of you that know me, you know that I am not very good company when cooped up in a car all day.  So at our next stop, a "45 minute" hike into a nature reserve, I decided to get my workout in for the day.

Our host opened the locked gate and we crossed a rudimentary bridge and proceeded up a side canyon that quickly took on the primeval.  The walls were near vertical, plastered with greenery, and the stream very steep.  I hustled on up ahead and broke into a run.  Running out of trail after about 2 miles, I worked my way up a different side canyon in a dry creek bed for another 2 miles.  As my conscience about keeping my colleagues waiting started to overcome my desire to keep exploring a landscape like none I had ever seen before--bamboo, huge trees, massive boulders, waterfalls dripping moss and fern--I slowed down.

And then I heard the oddest sounds.  "Baaaaa.  Baaaaa."  and some popping noises.  I don't know the birds of China well enough to identify by sound, so I stopped and looked up for a while.  It continued and I could tell it was coming from one side of the canyon and was being answered from the other.   Then I thought it might be a monkey--I'm a lawyer by training, so I don't know their sounds either, though some would say lawyers are equally less evolved.....  I kept listening and the sounds continued.  I made my way up the creek and around a corner slowly, stopping and watching every so often. 

Finally the baaing stopped.  I climbed up onto a boulder to get a better view around.  40 meters away I saw 2 pandas running up the steep slope away from me--and some movement in some nearby bushes that indicated a 3rd.  I watched them until they disappeared into the dense brush--only about 5 seconds.  I was stunned.   At the time, I didn't realize how special it was to see these animals this way, and I also wasn't really sure what they would do to me if threatened.  I have spent a lot of time around grizzlies in Wyoming and Montana, so was thinking that going forward to investigate might not be a great idea.  But after a few minutes I couldn't resist and hacked my way through the bamboo to where I had seen them in hopes of finding some evidence.  I found lots of footprints and took a few pictures--I'll upload them here--in the hopes of persuading someone I had actually seen the Giant Panda.

When I got down I described the sound to North Asia's chief scientist, Matt Durnin, who has a Ph.D in Pandas from Berkeley.  He confirmed that was the sound and the footprints of a panda.  I felt like I should have played the lottery that evening--the chances of seeing a wild panda in the only 45 minutes I would spend in their habitat that week must be astronomically slim.  But sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart.

Private Land Protection in China?

So much of what TNC has done over the last 60 years is to change the status of land to "protected."  We helped to invent the conservation easement for use in the US and Latin America, we sparked the growth of the land trust movement in the US, we've helped governments create national parks, wilderness areas, nature reserves and all manner of other legal protections.  In Kenya, we're helping communities to create new types of self-governance and sustainable economies to protect the lands that have sustained those people for hundreds of generations--really the cradle of humanity. 

TNC has accomplished this by building scientific credibility about where and how we should work, by patiently engaging landowners, communities and political leaders to find the common ground where conservation and economic well-being intersect.  So it's no surprise that, with the DNA of TNC and the entrepreneurial savvy of our leaders in China over the years--Rose Niu, Jim Zhang and Shawn Zhang--we have adopted that protection to the worlds most populous country.  We've helped the government to understand, pilot and roll-out the national park model of conservation here, first at Pudacuo, now at Meili and Laojunshan National Parks, and in the future at an additional 12 national parks around Yunnan.  And we are working to improve the management of the existing nature reserve system through better practices, financing and enforcement. 

But working on private sector conservation here?  Most of us have had our doubts, but the China staff has adopted the notion of conservation easement to the Chinese context and is beginning a dramatic new pilot project in Sichuan province that will enlist private philanthropists and entrepreneurs to create a foundation funding source for long term leasing of forest lands in prime Panda habitat to be restored and managed as a nature reserve.  Does the combination of long term land tenure and control, involvement of the private sector and ongoing sustainable economics for the communities that rely on the forests sound familiar?  To me, as someone who has worked with landowners in the grasslands and forests of Colorado to secure long term easements that allow them to continue a lifestyle that has sustained the land for longer than the 6 generations that my family has been there, it sounds like the same thing. 

And even through the language and cultural barriers, over 25 TNC staff from around the world gathered with the best of china's environmental groups, academics and government staff to share techniques and principles, discoovering the oft forgotten truths that our systems are more similar than they are different and that, with effort, we can benefit from our different experiences.


Last week, the China program hosted about 30 visitors from TNC's conservation programs around the world that had expressed an interest in our work here.

We started out the week with a discussion between China staff and our visitors about the growing influence of China on the rest of the world.  In fields as diverse as finance, mining, hydropower, art, China has grown from relative isolation just 10 or 15 years ago to competing with the US and Europe for attention, focus and resources.  It was this last that occupied our discussions over a weekend at the base of the Great Wall (and one really spectacular hike along an un-restored section of it!).   Because China's "going out" has come, fairly or not, with criticism of corporate China's environmental practices in construction, mining, and hydropower.  

Some of the visitors shared their experiences with Chinese companies in Africa, Asia or Latin America.  Chinese construction companies working on contract with the Kenyan government have been accused of tolerating poaching by their work crews for food and illegal animal products.  Chinese hydropower companies are constructing dams for the government of Ecuador that impact a protected area.   Chinese furniture companies are said to be processing illegal timber from southeast Asia. 

And our China staff helped them to understand the structure and attitudes of Chinese investment abroad.   Chinese companies have been encouraged to invest abroad only beginning in the late 90s and have little experience working in some of the contexts they now find themselves in.  China has a long-held diplomatic principle of non-interference in internal affairs of a country, due to a period of shameful interference by European powers.  Inside of China, for these companies, the government handles all of the permitting, environmental assessment and community relationships, while the company is responsible only for the construction, facility, or mine.   China's state investment banks (lenders to companies going abroad) have adopted the Equator principles or some equivalent, but are unclear on how to monitor the effectiveness of those principles.  

Shawn Zhang, our China director, articulated the conclusions of the weekend.  "China is quickly becoming a world power with world responsibilities.  Our comparative advantage going forward will be to strategically and responsibly invest to assure both our future as well as the sustainable health and welfare of our trading partners.  TNC is uniquely positioned to play a role by virtue of our strong programs in countries like Colombia, Indonesia, and Tanzania, coupled with our reputation in China and our connections to the corporate sector."

The visitors, including David Banks, Bill Ginn, David Cleary, Phil Tabas, Laurel Mayer, Jack Hurd, Tom Cassidy, Michael Powelson, Mauricio Castro-Schmitz and Heidi Sherk among many others, worked all weekend on a plan and walked away with a new commitment to each other, and to TNC to create linkages and build a program we are beginning to call Conservation Beyond Borders.  Here in China, we are energized around providing value to our colleagues and leveraging the great connections we have built here.  Just this morning, we brought Mark Tercek to visit the China Three Gorges Dam Company, one of the largest dam builders in the world with operations in 40 countries and with whom we've been working on the Yangtze river, and reached agreement to compare our geographic scopes and develop a work plan to bring our world leading knowledge and Development/Infrastructure by design consulting quickly to a pilot project to test this theory.

I'll write about the rest of the week in a couple of subsequent posts.

Rafting in China--Dams

There are 30,000 dams on the tributaries of the Yangtze river, many put up in small tributaries in the 60's and 70's by local government officials trying to curry favor with their supervisors in the wake of one of Mao's pronouncements about the virtue of dambuilding.   Most of them provide little function, and are prime candidates for dam removal.   Until recently there was really only one dam on the mainstem of the Yangtze--the famous Three Gorges Dam--put up after over 60 years of dreaming, engineering, relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, debate, loss of historical and cultural sites and controversy both inside the Chinese government and abroad.  It is the largest single hydropower facility in the world. 


That is changing as there are now several others completed and many more planned.  A small group of China staff was able to tag along with a company called Last Descents on a farewell trip down a section of the Yangtze that will soon be flooded--pulling out at the Ahai Dam construction site.  


The canyons we floated down were spectacular gems--surpassing my experience on rivers in the American west in beauty, solitude, culture, adventure and more.  The Grand Canyon is about 1600meters (5000 feet) deep.  The Yangtze cuts between two 5000 meter peaks to form one of the deepest canyons on earth.   We floated past small rivers that emerged from cliff side to form hanging gardens sustained by water that fell and percolated through rock millenia ago.  We stayed the night in Baoshan, a stunning village built vertically onto and into a huge rock for security, surrounded by terraced agriculture from river level upward for 1000meters of altitude.  We floated past Goat Balloon Crossing, where Kublai Khan's army camped for months until they had accumulated enough goat skins to make rafts to float across the Yangtze on their march south into Yunnan. 


Some of Khan's descendants are likely our neighbors for the night; they will be moving soon.  They don't yet know where, or what their compensation will be, but their way of life is done.   They seem philosophical--maybe there is no better feeling that they can have.  And, though we romanticize their lives as subsistence farmers on a picturesque plot of land perched on the canyon high above the river, it is a hard life and one that many of their kids have left in order to go to the city.  Maybe what comes next for them will be better.  Maybe not.


And then we came around the corner to the largest construction site I have ever seen--really a city constructed in the wilderness to build the Ahai dam and generate the electricity to power the Chinese economy.  The river no longer runs in its bed, but now flows through a tunnelled diversion.  A concrete crane operates from a set of cables suspended 400meters above the river, filling the huge hole in the ground with reinforced concrete.  Huge trucks are dwarfed by the site, people are ants.  


After 5 days in the peace and quiet of China's Grand Canyon, our group of Chinese conservationists and businesspeople and American adventure tourists is shocked into silence.  It's a tough way to come off a river, but truly exemplifies so much of what China is today.   30 years ago, this country of incredible natural beauty made the choice to raise it's citizens out of poverty, to develop economically.  It's done so--bringing over 200 million people out of poverty and into a middle class in that short time--like no other transformation ever to occur on the planet.  But the costs of this transformation can be heartbreaking.

Rafting in China--Travis Winn

There's not much of an adventure- or eco-tourism infrastructure in China.  Most foreign and Chinese visitors visit the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and a handful of other cultural heritage sites.  And they do so in familiar style: tour bus, big parking lot, crowds, back to the hotel.   There are a few companies that are trying to develop eco-tourism, because as 100s or millions of young Chinese move into the middle class, there will likely be a desire for a more diverse and meaningful set of experiences.  


This comes with challenges and opportunities for those of us working on nature conservation.  Too many people in fragile natural areas will destroy them.  Too few people who understand and feel nature, who get out into the woods, and we have no political constituency that will value and protect them.  So the need for responsible, educational-based experiences for people to experience rivers, grasslands, forests, etc, is high here.   And with rafting, the challenges are exacerbated by the pace of dam building here. 


I had the chance to go along with a rafting company by the poetic (and rather sad) name of Last Descents Expeditions down the Yangtze River gorge through the Great Bend area.   Travis Winn, a Colorado native who grew up with a river-crazy father, has partnered with a Chinese woman, Li Wei Yi, and a host of other interested Chinese and American partners to try to bring and educate Chinese and foreign adventure travellers.   His seems to be the only company offering trips through incredible wild landscape of 10,000 ft deep canyons, terraced agriculture, and ancient villages.  He will probably be the last company to offer trips in this canyon; we rafted through one dam site and pulled out just above another.  It was truly heartbreaking to see the massive construction site and think about the paradise that we had spent 5 days floating through.   


He is a passionate riverman, and fortunately for us, and for China's rivers, he has scouted the headwaters of the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra and Yellow rivers for their scenic beauty, conservation value and potential for rafting tourism.   I am hopeful that he can establish the beginnings of a rafting industry here.  Many of the rivers of the US have benefitted from the activism of raft guides, passionate about the beauty of the rivers and the linkage to their livelihoods.   


More trip descriptions to come and some video below of some of the Yangtze that I will be among the last few people on the planet to see. 

Working in the "Grey" Zone

"The government here is so weak."  says my new friend Zhao Shan.  Not a sentiment typically shared by much of the rest of the world about the People's Republic of China, especially with respect to the strongest world economy, largest standing army, biggest population, most controlled currency, etc.  But Shan is talking about the ability of local government to manage and enforce land use, zoning and land rights between and amongst longtime residents, farmers, other government agencies, developers, squatters and others.  


One author has described China's land title and rights system as "intentionally ambiguous."  (Peter Ho, Institutions in Transition, Oxford University Press 2005.)  Maybe so.  Certainly there is a great deal of ambiguity here, intentional or otherwise, but these issues are extremely sensitive in a country that spent the first half of the last century in a paroxysm of war and chaos to reform what was essentially an unfair feudal land rights system.  And then China spent the second half of the century trying to figure out how to fairly reform and administer those land rights.


All land in China is owned by the state or the collective (which actually derives its rights from the state, so pretty much all land is owned by the state one way or another.).  However, over the last 30 years, leases by companies and individuals of parcels of land have become more common, especially in urban areas for commercial development; the longest lease term is 70 years and people generally believe that these leases are as good as fee title ownership and will be renewed.  The China program of TNC is interested in helping the government create some sort of conservation tool that would provide permanent protection for biological values as land converts to more private use.  This sort of strategy means exploring a number of options with various government agencies, private developers and local communities


The fundamental problem in creating such a tool is that there are many different entities with a legitimate claim to control, manage or benefit from any particular parcel of land. So who does one make a non-development agreement with?  Which agency has the most ability to enforce the terms of an agreement against the panoply of government entities, collectives, private parties etc, that could interfere with the property? 


The good news is that the Chinese government agencies that we work with are willing to experiment in the public policy arena like nothing I've ever seen before.  In fact, instead of having legislative hearings on proposed legislation, government official and policymakers actually prefer to try something out on the ground, to demonstrate whether it can work regardless of it's current legality, then have the hearing and pass the enabling legislation to allow them to do it again.  China is not a place for those of us schooled in the black and white of extensive regulatory structures, clear jurisdictional lines and binary yes/no decisions.  China is the country of maybe, show-me and other "grey" zones of creativity. 

China's Tree Fetish

In every Chinese public space you encounter trees—old gnarled trees with a plaque always giving the Latin and Chinese names and sometimes even a story about that particular tree.  Some of them have names, descriptive of their shape, style or color.  Often they are propped up by steel pipes bolted to the stone sidewalk.  Knot holes or rot are carefully repaired, and foam is applied, colored and sculpted over the injuries.   Ballroom dancing, opera singing and tai chi are practiced under the nicest canopies.   Traditional Chinese landscape painting venerates and features trees.   Temples are visited equally for their old trees as for their reclining Buddhas. 

And it’s not just the cities.  Every Chinese provincial governor is given a tree planting target each year—several provinces plant more than 1 billion trees annually.   In 2008, 10.6 billion trees were planted on nearly 10 million acres, down from a high of nearly 18m acres in 2003.  As you drive through the country side you see trees planted--right up to the roads’ edge, on steep rocky slopes, in parallel lines into the distance, reforesting terraces.    I would bet that every year China plants more trees than have ever been planted in the history of the world outside of China.  And, it's illegal to cut trees down anywhere in the country without a permit.   

In 1998, in response to catastrophic floods on the Yangtze caused by a generation of unwise forestry, the Prime Minister banned all tree cutting.  The timber industry shut down overnight, and the provinces were charged with reforesting the steep slopes of the Yangtze' deep canyons and gorges.  Predictably, perhaps, the pressure on forests outside China increased deforestation rates around southeast Asia and Russia as other countries geared up to meet China’s demand for raw wood to convert to products.   And while non-native trees are often used, and the planting is not always done in a way to promote other benefits like wildlife, it is a remarkable culture that has arisen around trees.  If properly harnessed and directed, this is just the sort of culture that  has the chance to restore a functional ecology, protect water sources for people, stabilize steep slopes from mudslides, sequester carbon, and harbor wildlife.  

This culture is still a mystery to me: the landscape paintings, poetry and other art that revere trees, the government policies,  the placement of trees in a sacred place in parks.   The roots of this reverence must track back far into the mists of Chinese history to have the current impact on policy and place in society.   

Carter Bedford is huge in China.......

Carter has done a few modeling gigs here in China.  Something about a cute little blond girl who is always dressed head to toe in pink seems to capture people's attention.   More recently, I represented TNC at a celebration of the year of the Tiger at the Beijing Zoo which involved a Guinness Book of World records attempt (successful!) to assemble the most people--300--drawing a tiger simultaneously on a single sheet of paper at once.  Funny that I had not been aware of that record before.....   The media attention shifted from the famous chinese artists in the crowd to Carter as soon as she stepped up to the paper.  The result--we were on Beijing TV and front page above the fold photo for the biggest newspaper in Beijing.

Private Land Conservation in China

Much of my content this year has been concerned with private property rights and the ongoing evolution of Chinese law, policy, culture and practice toward privatization of previously state-owned real property.  I'll continue that theme in the next few months, but below note a very interesting piece of evidence of this from a company listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange:


China Forestry Inc. (OTC BB:CHFY.OB - News) is a timber investment group formed in the Peoples Republic of China to conform to State laws that prohibit non-PRC ownership of forest lands. The Company's strategy is to capitalize on the Central Government's decision to promote sustainable forest management through land tenure reforms that include the transferability of forest user right certificates to PRC entities.


Annual Reports: Bucks, Acres, Utils, Biodivs?

The hazards of balance sheets for NGO's are that they don't really tell much of a story.  TNC looks rich b/c it holds an enormous real estate portfolio, but it can't sell the real estate or cash it in, so in reality the real estate is more like a liability than an asset.  And it doesn't really speak to trajectories of funding flows, prospects, trends, markets for our "services" (whether science, planning expertise that is contracted for by governments, companies etc, or the more traditional model where we are selling peace of mind, intellectual engagement and personal satisfaction to donors who want to get things done).  Finally, it doesn't speak to results the way balance sheets work for for-profit companies. 

Our product isn't guns, butter or widgets.  It is something less tangible and nearly impossible to put into some sort of standard unit of measurement.  We try to do it as best we can by measuring river miles, hectares of land or ocean, occurrences of species, etc, but they are really only surrogates for a product that proves out only if we are able to sustain the human race and the rest of the species on this planet for generations.   Measuring that reminds me of Mill and Bentham and the 19th century Utilitarian school of philosophy that tried to quantify happiness into units they called "utils."   Maybe we need to head in that direction--creating a measurement called "biodivs."   It must be partly that capitalism is successful just because it is so easy to measure its success. 

Economics and Conservation: He Ge Zhuang

He Ge Zhuang:  The American owners of a restaurant in Beijing’s northeast quadrant noticed a disturbing trend—explosive growth patterns that destroyed villages to make way for gated communities and outlet malls—that next threatened their neighboring small village.  Local governments, desperate for new revenue, would sell land to developers and give some fraction of that as compensation to the villagers.  So they proposed a joint venture—villagers lease their homes to the JV for 10 years at 3-4 times the going rate, JV renovates the historical courtyard home with modern plumbing, heating and amenities, JV leases out home in the village to those wanting a more integrated housing type, villager can choose to take back the home after 10 years or continue JV management.    So far, about 25 of the 300 homes have been or are being renovated, with another 75 signed up.  Homeowners often use the income stream to rent other properties in the town, which would have surely undergone the wrecking ball.   New renters get the benefit of western amenities in a traditional Chinese village setting.  And the local government benefits from the improved infrastructure and higher real estate values from the development.  The JV is really just a way of managing a redevelopment project that allows the local long-time owners a way to profit from it and stay engaged in it long term.   They still haven’t figured out how to preserve the agricultural lands around the town, but given their ingenuity that shouldn’t take long!

Economics and Conservation: The Schoolhouse

The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu:  Jim Spear had worked all his life in the corporate sector, most recently in health care, but his passion has been architecture.  Over a decade ago, he bought a small place in a village called Mutianyu below one of the popular Great Wall access points north of Beijing.  He renovated the courtyard home and came up on the weekends with friends—falling in love with the area and making friends with the local villagers who were concerned that the Great Wall tourism was passing them by.  So he gathered a small group of friends and convinced them that the place needed a nice restaurant, art gallery and glass blowing studio, and that they were just the people to finance and manage it.  In addition, they began to work with the community on economic development.  They are now measuring the investments and income brought in by the millions, and justifying to this village, and a series of neighboring villages, the benefits from thoughtful preservation of the open spaces and natural areas that surround these beautiful rural communities.  Jim is a sought after commodity by the local governments of the district as they look to develop in a more thoughtful and higher value way than other Chinese Great Wall tourist towns.  


Economics and Conservation: Monkey Island

Mr. Dai started out about 15 years ago to put together a tourist attraction that would show a population of Rhesus monkeys on an island off the coast of China’s southernmost state of Hainan.  He received the concession from the government to develop his idea.  The island is about a square mile, mountainous, and has 20 family groups of monkeys totaling 2000 individuals.  People arrive at a parking lot across a bay from Monkey island, park, then get into a gondola (chairlift, not venetian) that whisks them over the water, across an arm of the mountain and into a very odd scene—hundreds of monkeys running around with no fences or enclosures in sight.  The various stations you walk through are a bit off-putting—bringing to mind a cross between an organ-grinder and an old time carnival—but 1,000,000 people a year are able to have an up close experience with a remarkable little creature.  The operation supports an economy of many local villagers as employees, and, since its viability is dependent on monkeys, the population does not suffer from poaching.   The nature reserve, which occupies most of the island, is well funded from government as well as Dai’s company.   Only 4 of the monkey families come and go into the tourist facility, and research is being done to understand what impact the exposure to humans will have on their health and social interactions.   So there are tradeoffs, but without Monkey Island, these monkeys would likely have petered out as development and conflict with agriculturalists increased on the island.  Now, there is a strong population, good habitat protection, and a local community that relies on the health of the monkeys to survive—even though we were all embarrassed for the monkey’s loss of dignity at being on stage in a “Monkey Comedy Theatre.” 

Economics and Conservation: Mustagh Ata

Mr. Huang, mentioned in my last post, is a very interesting man.  He is a prolific poet, writing a number of collections under the pen name Luo Ying.  A fanatic tennis player, he's head of the Chinese tennis association.  And, at the moment, he is on Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina in a quest to climb the high points of every continent and go the north and south pole.  When I met him, he was just back from Mt. Elbrus in Russia and had the classic raccoon sunburn from wearing goggles.  In addition to Mentougou, he has tied up the concession and land use rights in far western China, where a 7000 meter peak draws many tourists and moutaineers.   

He has invested in infrastructure for the tourism trade, like roads and a lodge, and in return has the right to prevent incompatible development.  This was done through an MOU and long term lease with the local government, like Mentougou.   He also provides new livelihoods to locals, outfitting and guiding, that were unavailable to them before.   He tells me that these efforts are not particularly profitable, but more of his passion.  He does expect them to pay off in the long run as China's population becomes more and more wealthy and looks to experience their world more fully once they have enough Louis Vuitton bags in their closet to put the memory of leaner times behind them.

Economics and Conservation: Mentougou

Mentougou:  A China Board member, Huang Nubo, has negotiated a three way partnership between a county government west of Beijing, the local village councils, and a development company he owns to create a natural and cultural tourism destination around a set of historic villages set in mountain valleys (formerly a coal mining district for the capital).  About 90 minutes out of Beijing, you come through a town to find a brand new entrance gate, parking area and interpretive signs at the mouth of a valley.  A nice hotel has been built not far away.  You enter and find yourself driving through a tight canyon with old small towns tucked into the wide spots.  The towns are classic, medieval design—narrow alleys, walled compounds, single story, rising up the hill backing to terraced agriculture for a 1000 feet above it.  Villagers have converted some of their homes into Bed and Breakfasts or restaurants.  It is very quiet and picturesque.  Up the valley there is a curious geologic formation used in many Chinese movies—a sinewy walled canyon about 5 meters wide, 30 meters high and 600 meters long.   Tourists will drop their cars at the gate below, pay an entrance fee and take busses up the valley, stopping for lunch in a village or an overnight retreat in another.  These villages were on the edge of abandonment when Mr. Huang stepped in—younger people going to the city, agriculture meeting less ends, and mining petered out.  In return for his investments, he will get exclusive rights to manage the tourism and exclude other land uses than the existing ones for a period of 30-40 years.  So for a while at least, this old agricultural landscape will persist pretty much unchanged.

Economics and Conservation

China is developing fast.  Really fast.  Things happen here weeks that would take years in the US.  The result can sometimes not be so pretty, but there are a few interesting development schemes that I have been looking into that incorporate a conservation or preservation ethic that may take hold as models for more integrated, value added development patterns.  Brief descriptions will follow in the next few days.


Shave and a haircut, two bits?

I had been looking for a barber and 15 minutes of spare time for a couple of weeks, but hadn’t come across them at the same time.  I mentioned it to Carter as we were walking through the hutong north of our apartment a few weeks ago after lunch with my father-in-law, Gary.  As we turned the corner, I saw something that made me hope she had forgotten my words.  There was a guy in the middle of the alley with scissors, a rusty razor, a tiny stool and an old sheet just finishing up his last customer—a full head shave.   In other words, the neighborhood barber.  “Daddy, that guy can cut your hair.” 


So I told him, in English of course—the international language of barbers--that I wanted him to just clean me up a little, take about ½ inch off, and I sat down for the treatment.  It pretty soon became clear that rather than taking ½ inch off, he was going to leave me with ½ an inch.  And that wasn’t all.  After the cut, he sharpened his razor on the leather strap tied to his belt with twine, and cut my sideburns, then he shaved my forehead hairline, my ears and the top and inside of my nose.   Carter and Gary took pictures and laughed with the crowd that had gathered.  The price?  3 renminbi, or about 40 cents.  I tried to give him 5, but he politely declined, saying that haircuts cost just 3. 

Jack Ma: The Wizard of Hangzhou?

Small agricultural city in the middle of the country,  big river running through the middle, homegrown international business figure who emphasizes the long-term and a values-laden corporate culture, a global network of followers who hang on every word and pronouncement.  Sound familiar?  Warren Buffett, right? 


Nope, I’m talking about Jack Ma, ten years ago an English teacher at a local technical college and today the head of China’s largest internet companies.   Alibaba, which created the genre of business to business internet commerce, and Taobao, the consumer to consumer platform which chased Ebay out of China, are his creations.


But let’s start at the beginning, I came to to do an interview with Jack for the TNC website because he recently joined the TNC China Board.  Like all Chinese cities, it’s fast growing--partly because it has become a hub for internet businesses following Alibaba’s success.  It’s in the lower Yangtze river valley, 2 hours by train from , and is know for it’s beautiful lake, hills, gardens, agriculture, and tea.  Dragonwell tea, formerly the exclusive tea of the imperial court, is grown near here.  And now the internet.  Jack Ma grew up here and created a business sensation over the last 10 years—outperforming the market during the tech bust and returning good profits over the last rough economic year.


But there are two things that are particularly interesting about Jack’s story.  He has, as he describes it, “awakened” to the environmental problems of and the need to mobilize ’s businesses, entrepreneurs and citizens to solve those problems.   When he went to his childhood home recently, the deep river he learned to swim in (and nearly drowned in), is now only ankle high—if you cared to submerge your bare skin in the pollution.  And a couple of years ago, he made the connection between shark’s fin soup (what he thought were merely words, not a literal meaning) and the trade that has wastefully decimated the ocean’s shark population and swore it off forever.   These two experiences have galvanized in him a passion, he calls it love, to make a difference in environment over the next phase of his life.  


So he’s decided to do what he’s always done when confronted with a challenge, something that harkens back to his roots as a teacher.  Bring a bunch of young people together (Alibaba employees’ average age is 26), and see what dreams they can come up with; then they all run forward in the same direction to make that dream happen.  He thinks that over the next year he can focus his creative team’s research in two areas.  First, how can they work with TNC to effect change, to bring the right science, planning, and expertise to China’s air, water, and natural resource challenges.  And second, how can they use the Alibaba/Taobao platform, model and network to empower individuals, entrepreneurs and small businesses to make the next big step on ’s environment. 


A couple of other great thoughts he expressed during our conversation:  Companies need to remember their first day dreams—and remember why they started the business in the first place, not just pursue money for its own sake.   We need to concentrate on making ‘healthy’ money, not a profit that pollutes.   


Given his success so far in business, his magnetic optimism and the energy of the employees I saw on the campuses (a condition of employment for Taobao is that they be able to hold a headstand for 30 seconds!), after the interview I walked out into China’s always-polluted air with, ironically, a new sense of hope, and for our ability to help our globe withstand the human-caused stresses that threaten our future.   As we parted on the street, I asked what contribution Chinese entrepreneurs would make to global conservation.  “Our contribution to the world will be to improve China’s environment, and soon.”

Ghosts of Monks and Red Deer

Bogdkhan Uul, just south of Ulanbator, Mongolia, is the oldest national park in the world.  That’s right, it predates Yellowstone by over 100 years.  Established by the Mongolian government in 1778, it was originally chartered by Ming Dynasty officials in the 1500s as an area to be kept off limits to extractive uses, protected for its beauty and sacred nature.  In 1778 it had 23 full time park rangers on staff.  Today there are only 5.


We set out from Ulanbator at 7am by taxi to the monastery site of Manzushir, about an hour south, with the idea of walking across Bogdkhan back to UB (see the video below).  Established in 1733, it had over 20 temples and was home to 350 monks.  The Soviets reduced it to rubble and killed or exiled all of the monks in the 1930s as Mongolian Buddhism was nearly stamped out because of its resistance and threat to Stalinism.  The monastery is about 100 acres in size, located in a south facing valley below some jagged rock cliffs, and nestled within the boundaries of Bogdkhan. 


In the cold early morning, the day before Halloween, walking around the ruins, half walls, hundreds of terraces and foundations, a lone restored building, we could almost hear the whirring of prayer wheels, see the young novitiates carrying water from the stream for the day.  We could hear the echoes of the lives spent here in devotion and ended in a spasm of political and religious atrocity.   Mongolian Buddhism, whose closest relative is Tibetan Buddhism, is slowly rebuilding monasteries and communities, but, as with many ancient traditions in Mongolia, the loss of 3 generations to Soviet interference has left these traditions ill-equipped to cope with the modern world.


An interesting parallel is the herding culture of Mongolia.  In the 1930s and 40s, the traditional pastoralists, herding groups and clans that had sustainably grazed the grasslands for at least 1000 years using complex social, cultural, geographic and meteorological systems and cues, were forced into shared ownership communes and collectives.   Some groups managed to integrate their historical knowledge into the collective, some ignored it and kept their traditions, and many others lost their practices to the Soviet socialist experiment.   In 1990, at independence, the claim of one of the world’s last nomadic people to the land that had sustained them for generations was in serious doubt.  And the last 20 years has done nothing to secure their rights as the Government of Mongolia has issued mining leases on their lands without consultation, partially privatized some lands, and failed to put in place trespass protections.


Bogdkhan is about 100,000 acres, mostly forested mountainous country, surrounded by grasslands to all sides except to the north where the city bounds it.  Tsetseegun Mountain is at the center of it, one of the 4 sacred mountains around Ulanbator.  There is really only one trail into the center of the park, access is limited, yet the past 20 years have seen a number of illegal encroachments and uses inside the boundaries of the strictly protected area.  These have happened when the some official of the City of UB or a ministry official, issues an official-looking piece of paper to a businessman to build a Ger Camp (tourist tent),  or to a middle eastern Sheik to build a huge luxury home.   It also happens when local residents get hungry and look to the park to hunt food or graze animals.  Twenty years ago big herds of Red Deer, close relatives of Elk, would walk through the middle of UB on their way between seasonal grazing areas; wolves were occasionally heard on the outskirts of town.   The pressures of population, corrupting influence of money and the severance of a multi-generational institution of conservation have slowly frayed the quality of this, the world’s first National Park. 


East Asian Buddhism has the concept of Pure Land, a realm existing in the primordial universe outside of space time, produced by a buddha's merit.   It is tempting to think of several hundred years of monks and nuns contemplating the celestial in the bosom of earthly Bogdkhan.   And equally tempting to hope that some day, this place will achieve again the ideal of conservation that was started there hundreds of years ago.   Until then, perhaps the ghosts of nuns and monks will mingle with the ghosts of the Red Deer in the Pure Land realm. 

Climate Change is just another air pollution problem........

Colorado’s former Senator Hank Brown was speaking at a breakfast last year about the issues of the day—climate change, health care and the economy—and said something quite interesting for politician.  “These are problems that our current political system, at the national and international level, is likely unable to solve due simply to the way that it is set up.  Our problems may have pushed us to the structural limits of our governance systems.” 


It was an interesting statement to me then, and has come back to mind several times over the last 6 months.  A couple of examples of the fact patterns that return this quote to the forefront: 

As noted quite often in the press, the Chinese government was able to pass a strategic $700b stimulus package within a couple of weeks of the economic meltdown last fall while it took the US 6 months to pass something that could politely be called “less-than-strategic”, looking more like a pork barrel appropriations bill than something designed to revive the economy or make long-term green investments in infrastructure.  

Another example is a recent meeting in of the world’s governments to pre-negotiate some of the terms of a climate treaty that is crucial to setting a global cap on carbon emissions so that our kids and grandchildren aren’t suffering too horribly through a dystopian future.  Among other sticking points, the issue of paying forested countries to maintain their forests (the logging of which is responsible for 20% of the world’s carbon emissions (see ).  A few of the questions: Who pays and who receives the payments, how does the payment system work, is there a market or just a transfer between governments and how are local people whose only wealth is forest products treated?  The complexity of this problem was accentuated by China’s chief climate negotiator who spoke recently to TNC’s Asia Pacific Council, explaining that REDD is very controversial, that China was not a payee or payor country (being not that significantly forested nor developed), and that it seemed unlikely that the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties would tackle this issue at this time.


So what does one do about governance—local, provincial, national, global—that is structurally incapable of solving the problems that we have brought on ourselves as a people?   Revolution, dictatorships, political movements, circulating petitions with members of your church or PTA, the and the UN, survivalism, changing the channel, etc. have all come to the minds of concerned people.   None of these solutions are particularly satisfying. 


We have, at the root, a relatively simple problem—air pollution, that we have dealt with effectively at national levels in the past through regulation.  The problem is in the nature of a commons (see my earlier post and where some of us on the planet have used up a common resource—carbon and clean air—in order to enrich ourselves materially, and now the rest of those on the planet are looking to take that same path to enrichment by burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon.  They have a legitimate claim to go through the same development path that we in the west took, and there is little we in the west can do, practically or morally, to dissuade them from taking that path.  So, the “World” must figure out a way to move everyone forward and reduce carbon emissions at the same time.   There are a myriad of relatively simple solutions (see e.g. Climateworks report describing a way to get to a sustainable carbon future), simple at least with respect to the methods.  The mechanism of implementing and enforcing these policies is just not there.  We have no global regulatory authority with power to enforce regulations.  We have no global market to price and trade emissions credits. 


But the good news is that there are a lot of smart people trying to help set these things up, trying with a parent’s motivation of making sure that our planet can sustain our children and theirs.  No one wants their children confronted with the long future nightmare portrayed by Cormac McCarthy in his recent book The Road. 

Chinese Television in New York

Zhang Shuang (Shawn), the China Program director, and I recently spent an hour with an American expat in Beijing who has been working in the television industry here for 15 years.  His latest gig is a new network that broadcasts programs about China via cable to Chinese audiences in the big cities of the world.   He asked us to do a show on the environment and China. This link will take you to it.  It's about an hour long.  We were both nervous at the start, but I think we warmed up toward the end. 

Mass Market (Eco?) Tourism: Here come the Chinese…..

Family vacations are always a bit like the old English “busman’s holiday” for the Bedford’s.  We tend to like natural areas, go to National Parks, recreate on the public lands, search out wildlife experiences and natural beauty--the same things I work on in the rest of the year.   This year we headed south from Beijing to the beaches of  Thailand.   Carter learned to snorkel and body surf last year and was excited to do it again in a new place.   We booked a nice hotel on the beach at Khao Lak, about 90 minutes north of Phuket. 


After a few days, Tamera wandered into the hotel travel agents office to find out what the area had to offer beyond the gates of the hotel.  This part of Thailand has a number of National Parks; one of the most famous, Phang Nga bay with its signature limestone karst islands and lagoons, was nearby and can be accessed as a day trip.  So we signed on to something we rarely do—a tour.


The minivan picked us up at 9am, drove us about an hour to a big cement pier that had a number of double decker lagoon ferries that pack about 15 inflatable ducky style kayaks into the lower deck.  The all belong to a concessionaire called Andaman Sea Kayak Tours.  We got there a bit early, then the tour buses started arriving and the boats began to fill.  The orientation to the day was brief, “we will be on the boat for an hour, then we will have 3 sea kayak sessions through caves in the karst islands, then we’ll go to an isolated beach for an hour and we’ll be back by 5.” 


The staff was very friendly and accommodating, but either knew very little or couldn’t communicate what they knew about the park.  Simple questions went unanswered: When and why was this park established?  What is special about it?  How were these islands formed?  What sort of wildlife can you see here?   What does the park status do about local users of the marine resource—we can see fishing nets and buoys throughout the day.  What kind of monkeys are these, anyway?  And how did they get on this island? 


Instead of a real orientation, the head guide attempted to entertain the 20 clients with a running comic monologue in halting English.  (He may have been as funny as Leno, but the translation left it a bit lacking.)  400 foot high limestone pillars were passing by on both sides of the open boat, several sea eagles flew overhead, but everyone was looking in toward the guide.   We arrived at our first island (along with 4 other boats with 20 clients each) and boarded the duckies—2 or 3 to a boat, with a guide paddler. 


The main focus was on going through long caves that are accessible only during particular times of the tides.  I’m not sure why this was the focus—it was sort of interesting once to go into a pitch black cave hunched into the kayak and come out the other side, but it was no amusement park roller coaster ride.  The guides were able to point out some of the rocks that looked like various things—as rocks often do—like elephant rock, Buddha rock, Nixon rock, etc., but conveyed nothing of  the flora and fauna or the local history of the place. 


So a large number of wealthy foreigners on beach vacations go to visit this remarkable place every day, but come away with nothing but the impression that the park was created to protect our ability to paddle through caves and look at anthropomorphized rocks.   I can’t help but think that this must leave people feeling a bit cheated and empty at the dinner table that night.   Just through the sheer magnificence of the place, they may retain some connection to nature and its fantastic variety and glory. 


Sadly, from what I have observed, this is the rule, not the exception, in the mass-eco-tourism market.   It would be so easy for the Thai National Park Service to require that concessionaires invest in naturalist training, to put together a set of messages about the park to be conveyed by concessionaires to tourists, and to make sure that every visitor comes away knowing how unique and special Phang Nga bay is.   It wouldn’t take much—the audience is captive in transit for several hours, the stories and the wildlife are compelling, and the Thai people are very proud of the beauty of their country.  The tourists are clearly interested enough in the area to pay $100 a head and take a day out of their vacation to see something other than the fruity drinks and the pool.  And who knows what those educated Germans, Japanese, Australians and Americans might be able to do for places like this in the future.


Which brings us to the Chinese.  The numbers are impressive—1.4billion people, of which there are 600million in the city climbing the economic ladder into the middle class.  That’s about as many people as in the and western Europe.  There is a huge thirst for travel that has long been restricted because of politics or money, and the tourist attactions in a 6 hour flight circle around are seeing enormous growth.  Our group had 5 Chinese.  Imagine all of the coasts of southeast Asia as one long or , from , through , , , and .  What will that do to coastal ecosystems and human cultures?  What impact will there be on coral reefs and fish habitat?  How will these places sustain their natural beauty in the face of that kind of pressure?  Will the mangrove systems that saved so many people from last week’s tsunamis and the massive catastrophe in 2004 be completely eliminated?  What affect will sea level rise have? 


These questions raise and re-raise the issue of whether “eco-tourism” is a devil or an angel for biodiversity.   At the mass-market scale at least, there is little supporting evidence of any benefit.


Who plays, wins....or welcome to the new Chinese entrepreneurs

Wang Zhi speaks softly into the microphone and wears the traditional uniform of the Chinese worker—blue collarless jacket with large buttons, matching pants.  He introduces the evening with a history of the organization which he chairs—SEE or Society-Entrepreneurs-Ecology.  It is hard to discern in his manner, words or style that he is one of the wealthiest men in China.  Over the last 20 years he amassed a fortune through savvy real estate dealings.  Three years ago, concerned with China’s environmental conditions and the limits that the country’s polluted air and water, degraded soils and dammed rivers will place on its economy, he joined with over 100 other Chinese tycoons to take action on the issue.


They created SEE, an unprecedented new form of civil society organization in .  This would be unremarkable except for the fact that he and his friends created this organization in a country in which civil society had been virtually subsumed in government for the last 50 years, where “membership” has long been a concept reserved jealously for the communist party.  SEE has forged a new power movement, with non-profit/NGO rules and a personality unique to .


SEE, quite simply, is a club of likeminded entrepreneurs with a commitment to support the government’s environmental agenda by funding local NGO’s that also embrace that agenda and that are committed to principles of “cooperation” and “win-win” solutions.  They have raised and spent millions of dollars.  They have grant cycles and annually give out over 70 prestigious (and monetary) awards for good works in the field that meet their criteria.  SEE acts like a cross between a foundation and a country club—members pony up a certain amount every year and participate in the grant-making and awards decisions in what can only be describe as a very garrulous democracy.


Later in the evening, Wang Zhi is questioning one of the finalists for this year’s awards when an argument erupts about whether the ballots should be anonymous and who should be in charge of the vote tallying.  The room explodes in spirited, but smiling, argument.  After 20 minutes and 7 voice and hand raising votes and recounts, unanimity appears to have broken out that the ballots will not be counted unless they have the judge’s name and phone number--Proto-democracy at work in civil society.   Wang resumes his questioning which becomes a debate between he and the finalist about whether the methods they used can be characterized as “cooperative” or should be thought of as “independent.”


The next contestant gets grilled by the sharp finance minds in the room about the cost/benefits of pollution control equipment in a monosodium glutamate (MSG) factory on the .  After asserting that the benefits far exceed the costs, the potential awardee claims that his water quality monitoring project not only had a one year payback, reduced emissions to 10% of the previous year’s levels, but also literally “saved” the MSG industry in the country by driving the technology changes necessary to bring the industry into compliance.  The claim is verified by a SEE entrepreneur who has visited the site and gotten involved intellectually and financially with the local organization.  The entrepreneurs erupt in shouts of approval mixed with disbelief.  Mr. Wu, whose diversified holdings include province vineyards, leads the questioning about the organization’s financial backing and structure.  It's a venture philanthropy audition.  You can almost hear the checkbooks being pulled out.


SEE has evolved over the years from trying to implement its own projects, such as planting trees in the desert, toward acting as a foundation and discussion group for grassroots conservation.  Its governance has evolved as well, from a “vote your amount of contribution” model to more stable processes of decision-making.  Additionally, it reached out to The Nature Conservancy to bolster its engagement and fundraising systems as well as partnering to create this extraordinary media event highlighting the power of grassroots organizing on the environment.  The awards are covered on CCTV and all the national papers—in glowing terms.  Contrast this with religious expression like Falun Gong, Uighur or Tibetan separatist or the 1989 student movements and the impression you get is of a set of party elders working behind the scenes on the massive hot water boiler that is modern China, making adjustments to this valve that that pipe directing pressure towards social goals and away from disharmonious activities.  The management of the economic system seems to happen in this way as well, having allowed the wealthy young entrepreneurs in the room to, as Deng Xiaoping said, “get rich is glorious.”


The evening continues to roll along, changing from pep rally to venture capital pitch-meeting and back to discussions of scoring.  The prevailing attitudes are hope, optimism and humour, which serves these entrepreneurs well in this incredible Chinese context—worst pollution on earth, most populated country, wealthiest country, poorest country, fastest developing country on the planet, mega-biodiverse country.  The view in the room is of the future, the future of the world, which is happening fast.  And these are the new leaders of this world, perhaps the only ones that can save the rest of us. 

Deja Vu all over again

Last post I made the observation about the similarities between Potatso (Pudacuo) National Park in Diqing, Yunnan and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  The parallels are quite striking.  We also visited another protected area that is a little different--Haba Snow Mountain Nature Reserve. 


The 2500 Nature Reserves in China can be managed by any level of government, get a sort of 'charter' from the national government, are generally off limits to most human uses, and cover about 15 percent of the land area of the country.   They can be as developed for human observation as Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, or Yosemite national parks, or as little visited, patrolled and enforced as a BLM Area of Critical Environmental Concern (that is, not at all, usually).   Haba is a 17500 ft tall mountain that sits on the north bank of Tiger Leaping gorge (photos and video of both on this page).  It was formed by the upthrust of the Asian plate from the collision of the Indian subcontinent, which happened gradually enough that the Yangtze river carved an 11000 foot canyon between it and it's sister mountan on the south bank, Yulong Mountain.  


Haba is pretty remote--about a 7 hour drive from Lijiang, Yunnan (which has a big airport) on windy (but good) roads.   Haba is a farming village nestled into the eastern flank of the mountain that is at the first stage of developing a tourism economy.  They have decent small hotels and hostels here, some rudimentary, but quite good, restaurants, and a service that will horse pack your gear up to a mountaineering hut at 12500 ft.  From there you can hire a guide to take you up to the peak across a glacier and peer down to the Yangtze far below. 


When Zhang Shuang, TNC's China director came here to climb this peak 3 years ago, there was a very small hotel in the town and nothing else, and no mountaineering hut.  This place is now on the map for people who want what I would call a taste of the alpine, or a mini-mountaineering experience.  The downside to this is that the development of the base camp has not taken the local flora and fauna into account--fuel wood is cut from the reserve, the development (base camp) inside the reserve itself is technically prohibited by the National Nature preserve law, and the owners/managers of the hut are focussed on building a business--without a lot of thought on preservation of this natural place.  


Shuang was quite surprised to see the change over 3 years and sought out the owner--a clever entrepreneur from the village below, to better understand what his vision is for the future.  Since it was rainy, we all had a whole morning to find out about his passion for this place and his desire to bring people to it in a way that would not ruin the experience.  Shuang talked with him about ways to decrease the use of fuel wood and take the pressure off of the forests and ways to educate the tourists about what they are seeing here.  The guy is clearly a very motivated and smart businessman and understands the connection between his economic activity and the ecological health of the area. We'll see how this experiment in protected area--essentially managed by a private (and not particularly formally licensed) contractor as opposed to the Potatso government run model--turns out.  The future of China's wild places rests with these type of experiments. 



Kunming or Denver?

Our first stop is the capitol of Yunnan, Kunming.   Kunming is like the Denver of Yunnan--capitol, center of political power, about 3m people, regional hub for southwest China.  TNC's main office was in Kunming until a couple of years ago when the center of gravity of the program shifted to Beijing as our work broadened beyond Yunnan.  Still, the importance of Yunnan cannot be overstated.  This really is the real deal for biodiversity, and our programs here are mature, world-class and deliver results that you can walk around on. 


I sit in on a periodical staff meeting where our conservation staff present their plans, what they accomplished last quarter, what they will accomplish next, and what help they will need from their peers.  It sounds a lot like what we do in Colorado to ensure accountability and group ownership of projects.  It is an interesting and energizing meeting.  Next we meet with a group of government officials--Yunnan parks and wildlife deputies and Secretaries, govt think tank directors, Governor's advisors--who have convened with TNC to talk about how to advance the idea of National Parks.


China has over 2500 nature reserves, but no National Parks until a few years ago.  TNC worked with the Yunnan provincial government and the Diqing county governor to create China's first national park--a Rocky Mountain National Park sized swath of land in the north part of the state where the government has invested heavily in a classic US national park infrastructure--roads, tour buses, boardwalks, interpretive programs.  It was a bit of a head scratcher--the landscape looked like Yellowstone and so did the roads, lodges, tour buses, stops and signs, but this is China.  They spent (borrowed) something north of $100m US on the infrastructure and are generating a very large income stream to pay off the loan.   We worked with them on the signage, design of infrastructure, land plan, etc.  Oh yeah, they designated, designed, constructed, and implemented this new national park from what was basically lightly used high country grazing land in a little over 3 years.


Here's the really interesting thing, though.  The Diqing county governor was the driving force behind all of this.  He set aside the land, he borrowed the money and oversaw the design of the project, he pushed the idea with the Yunnan provincial authorities, and he made the park happen.  He did it so fast that two Ministries in Beijing are still arguing about who the park belongs to (even though it is administered and managed by the Diqing county government, others want "credit") and whether it can really be called a national park.   Legend has it that the Diqing governor (sort of like the Alamosa, Colorado county commissioners) visited Yellowstone and said something akin to "This is the Place," came back to Yunnan and made it happen here.


So the group in the room is trying to figure out how to get the national government to embrace their concept of national parks to promote tourism, nature education, conservation and local economic development.  It's a bit like in the late 1990s, when the Alamosa county commissioners petitioned Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard to champion a new national park at the Great Sand Dunes.  It is an interesting illustration about how wrong most of our perceptions of China are--we tend to think this is a place with one authoritarian government where all rules flow from the center, Beijing.   Nothing could be further from the truth.  


It's hard to conceive of a more dramatic landscape than Yunnan, China.  The Indian Plate slams into the Asian continent, thrusting the Tibetan plateau into the air and sending three of the world's great rivers north and east and then south to carve a series of gorges off of the plateau, and into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  The altitude varies in this Chinese province from almost 7000 meters to nearly sea level.  The terrain is nearly all vertical.  Yet for thousands of years a variety of native ethnic groups have made a living in this country--from Tibetan buddhists in the high country to the Mosu, Naxi and others along the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers as they carve an impossible landscape sculpture.  


The biodiversity is remarkable as well; multiple primate species, elephants, cats, pandas and other charismatic species have survived until today because of the wildness of the terrain, though not without some serious difficulties.  In the 1950s, loggers from the boreal forest of northeastern China were relocated to establish a logging industry.  The steep slopes eventually succumbed to the poor logging practices of the era, and in 1998, following devastating floods on the Yangtze due to poor watershed health in the headwaters, the Chinese premier banned all logging in this area.  The mountains have begun their recovery, but the demand for wood products has pushed logging to Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, mostly done illegally. 


TNC's work here began with finding alternative (to wood) fuel sources for villagers so that forests would be less threatened.   We expanded to help the Yunnan government pioneer the creation of a National Park--a land status and concept not yet in use in China.  Now we are working on creating more National Parks and helping the Three Gorges Dam Company and others to manage the Yangtze River between the many dams so that it sustains the host of aquatic species still inhabiting this remarkable landscape. 


In the next few posts, I'll be reporting on a 10 day trip through Yunnan, starting and ending in Kunming, going up country to Lijiang, up river through Tiger Leaping Gorge and into the high country of Haba Snow Mountain provincial park and to Yunnan's slice of Tibet--Zhongdian, now known as Shangri-La.  The mix of issues is rich here--ranging from the decentralized structure of Chinese governance, to unsustainable eco-tourism, to botanic gardens and native plant gatherers, and the pace of change of modern China.  More later. 

Tragedy of the Commons

Everywhere I've been outside of the US in the last few years has a property system that looks like the classic regulated "commons", or resources that are collectively owned.  Mongolia's lands are owned by the "people"; try doing a title search for that.  China's land is owned by a variety of government agencies with conflicting mandates, and they are in the midst of their 3rd or 4th land reform, heading toward privatization of some of the bundles of sticks, or rights, that make up each parcel of property.  The forests and seas of Indonesia are owned by the government and sold off to resource extraction companies to raise funds for government's general operating budgets.  These shared resources, like all commons, begin to fail when too much pressure is placed on them. 
Garrett Hardin's influential 1968 Science Magazine article, The Tragedy of the Commons ( seems more prescient now than ever as I witness the mining of the oceans protein, overgrazing of the world's last great grassland to produce wool for the fashion industry, the degradation of clean air and water, and the destruction of forests that harbor enormous biodiversity, protect the watersheds of people and store more carbon than any of the most wildest sci-fi fantasies about carbon capture.   What resource will we have left to leave our children?  The bumper sticker cry of the anti-environmentalist backlash of the 1980s, "Earth first, we'll mine the other planets later," is beginning to sound like the collective official policy of the governments of the world--most of whom are not thinking about what they leave future generations, but merely how to get re-elected in 4 years.
As mentioned above, China is taking it's 3rd or 4th step toward land reform, steps that have each been toward a more vested property rights system.  I am taking a crash course in this movement since it will truly determine what the country looks like, what wild nature remains, what ecological systems will stay intact, etc over the next 70 years--(the length of the leasehold interest being offered in many cases for rural land).  
One of the great things about the US is that we have done a reasonably good job of maintaining biodiversity in a strong private property rights system through tools like: the Endangered Species Act and other regulatory tools, local planning and zoning, government purchase of sensitive lands or conservation easements, and other financial incentives for landowners to maintain the ecological attributes of their land such as wildlife, soils, wetlands, etc, incentives, public land management for species.  We evolved these tools from a base of pure private property rights that relied on tort law (or the ability to sue your neighbor for damages that he caused your land) as a way to protect the common good. 
In China, the evolution is happening the other way around:  land, since 1949, has been held by the government for the common good, which government is now tacking on attributes of private ownership to specific parcels of land.   It would be easy to layer on the old English private property system and have the common good fade away--allowing one's neighbor to build a hog slaughter facility next to the pre-school.  Many of us, especially in the Western US, believe in a strong private property system, but we also have the luxury of living in a region of low population density and great natural resources.  Given the massive population of this country and the demand for resources, this unfettered deregulation and privatization would cause further degradation of the air and water resources, of soil stability and of wildlife habitat.  China's government, in search of what they call "ecological civilization," seems to be headed down a different path, unclear at the moment what it will cause, but unable to stay where it is now.  

Biking in Beijing

How's the running and biking in the center of one of the worlds biggest cities with the the horrible air pollution?  Are you going crazy yet? 


I've been sidelined from running due to a pesky knee problem for a couple of months, but the big surprise for me is the road cycling in Beijing.  The countryside around the city offers the best cycling I have ever done.  The roads are all brand new.  Mountains surround the city on two sides, with networks of small roads lacing throughout them.  The climbs are as much as 4000 feet of vertical through cultivated fields, small villages, through steep valleys of abandoned terrace agriculture, back and forth across the Great Wall. 


And, best of all, there is no one on the roads.  Very few cars, 5 or 6 per hour is a lot, and virtually no other cyclists can be found, even on Sundays in July.  The scenery is spectacular.  So, I have found an outlet, once a week while I'm not travelling, that should maintain some level of sanity.  And the air is quite nice in the hills, and even ok in once or twice a week.  So I get by with a long weekend bike ride and lots of time on the spin bike at the gym.


A very nice Belgian cyclist is the heart of the cycling community.  Here's his website for those of you tempted to forego the hills of Tuscany for the next big cycling thing! 

Berau, Derawan and a freshwater lake full of stingless jellyfish

Bill Raynor, who's lived in the middle of the Pacific in Micronesia for the last 30 years, saw 16 green turtles in 20 minutes--a new record for him.  (For those of you non-geographers out there, Micronesia is where the ocean flows off of the side of the flat earth.)  We saw more coral than you can shake a stick at, endless reef fish, a troupe of yellow macaque monkeys and some endangered proboscis monkeys (Halim said they have noses like humans, or at least like my big human nose.)  And we swam in a brackish lake formed from the upthrust of coral by tectonic places where there are 4 varieties of jellyfish that have evolved, because of a lack of predators, to have lost their sting.   And there are a lot of jellyfish--it's like a huge soup of them, and they don't seem to mind being bumped into or swam amongst. 
The jellyfish provoked a couple of reactions from our group.  First, evolution creates remarkable niche players in a place as hospitable as earth.  Second, we worried how easy it is to lose these parts of our natural history, keys to understanding this world, and how casually we seem to take their fragility and passing.  It always amazes me to hear people whine about the Endangered Species Act in the US, how it stands to deprive people of jobs and income and ruin the economy.  The same complainants cite the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act as ruining business through regulation, and petition the government to put the public lands to more "beneficial" uses than harboring our national natural heritage. 
It seems to me that a better logic ought to be deployed.   I'd like to see the economic research that correlates regulation and enforcement of things like air, water, wildlife, etc. to standards of living, wealth, education and health care, happiness and prosperity.  Instead of fearing the bogeyman of lost revenue, companies should be pushing for stricter regulation of our shared resources. 

Conservation by Bogeymen Boat

Our progam here starts in the headwaters, working with native villages and timber companies to put in place better land use planning, sustainable forest practices, and to respect old hunting grounds.  It continues down the river and offshore 70 miles to create and sustain a vast marine protected area in the huge bay of Berau. 


And that is an interesting story.  We walk across the street from the office in Tanjung Redeb, the capital of the district, and jump onto a Floating Ranger Station.  It's about 50 foot wooden diesel sloop that TNC has had made by the Bugi people, world reknowned boatbuilders from southern Sulawesi, who are also more commonly known by the name given them by English sailors--the Bogey man.   It's made of ironwood, ironically found and sustainably harvested in the Berau watershed and prized by Bugi shipbuilders; and it is beautifully carved and finished.  Our strategy here is to provide a boat and small crew for the District government to move their marine police around the district to where the illegal fishing occurs. 


Abdul Halim, the head of 's Marine Program, calls it the 'bait" to catch the longer term investment of the local government.  I guess people who work on marine conservation always use fishing metaphors.  Getting them intellectually and programmatically invested in policing this vast Berau Sea is the first step to ensuring that it can continue to sustain the remarkable natural resources found here--most diverse coral, largest nesting area for the green turtle, most diverse mangroves in southeas Asia and a brackish dolphin that exists only here, on the Irrawaddy and in Australia.  It's a strategy that has worked in places to the north and to the south, but the road forward is not clear here. 


Still, it is hard to believe you can buy one of these boats fully outfitted for US$75k and run it with salary and staff for a little bit more.   Sure it's a risk, but we've taken plenty of longer odds for much bigger investments.   And when do you have a chance to make a difference at this scale?  I rarely gamble, because the casino always wins.  But this seems like a pretty good invesment in a larger portfolio that may serve to save the Coral Triangle, an area larger than the that harbors the richest and most diverse marine environment on the planet.   And, more importantly, it contains the areas most resilient to climate change and coral bleaching--maybe the nursery of the next era of marine species that make it through the climate change extinction of the next 100 years. 


The urgency is palpable.  

Pippi goes to Borneo

Having a 5 year old in the family puts you in a 5 year old mindset.  For Carter, the world is fresh and new.  Everywhere we go she sees, hears and smells a novel world.  And when we read, we read about explorers and far away places and magical universes.  Astid Lindgren's classic, Pippi Longstocking, is a girl that has no parents, lots of treasure, doesn't have to go to school and recounts her adventures in the Seven Seas.   What's not to love?


Here in the District of Berau, , , , , Pippi would have been fabulously at home.  Up the massive Berau river still live the Dayak, a communal tribe best known as relatively recently giving up the practice of headhunting.  She might identify well with the 3 spinster daughters of the last Sultan of Berau, who never settled down to produce a male heir to the sultanate.  Perhaps it was a final act of rebellion, a sister pact to end an ancient dynasty.  Maybe they saw the changes around them, their palace sits at the junction of the Berau and the Segha river.  The latter is muddy brown from upstream coal mining and bad timber practices; the former clear.  They stay separate for awhile, then mix and empty into the massive delta that spills into the bay.  At any rate, I am sure that Pippi and Carter would approve.  

Sulawesi Redux

In Wuasa, a town in a broad agricultural valley that is  several hours drive from Park headquarters in Palu, we meet with several hundred elementary school teachers.  Many years ago, we helped develop a simple curriculum about the resources of the park for 4th, 5th and 6th graders and trained a few instructors to "teach the teachers."   The program has taken off, with the teachers hungry for more classroom resources like binoculars and Bahasa text to use with their students.  They too hope that TNC will be able to stay.  We have tea, cassava, corn and peanuts.  Three school girls in school uniforms present us with a local cloth made from bark and decorated with batik painting.  I recognize my own daughter in one of them.  I see Mrs. Graydon, Mr. Moddelmog, Ms. Atencio, Mrs. Bacon--the teachers of my youth--in the audience.  Walking out the schoolhouse door, I see the farmland of northern Colorado, the foothills and forests of the Rockies rising from this valley.  A momentary hallucination, perhaps, but powerful enough to transport me back to the familiar.  Much is different here on the surface--religion, language, culture, the plants and animals, buildings, skin color--but the core of it is the same.  This community, like the one I grew up in, is ambitious for its children, is rooted in the land, and is committed to each other.  picture of girl presenting gifts attached


We drive south along the road that borders the park.  Here and there we see a patch of open ground on steep slopes where once was forest.  Nizal, TNC's Sulawesi Program Director, explains that tensions between the Park staff and villagers ebbs and flows in places that do not yet have CCAs in place to govern their relationships.  When tensions get really bad, the villagers will taunt the park staff by clearing a patch of forest, provoking a reaction.  In many places Park staff have been threatened, are viewed as enemies and do not go alone. The guys in the uniforms greet us at our next stop, in Kaduwaa Village, and walk up through the cacao trees with us to the "Living Boundary" where the head man from the village and a half dozen others are waiting for us.  Speeches ensue.  The uniformed Park Service guys are treated with respect and friendship.  One villager says laughingly, "10 years ago, I might have killed you if I had seen you here."  The officer nods as if to say, times change.   video attached..


In Betue, a very orderly village with white and blue striped fencing throughout, we are greeted on a hilltop with, you guessed it, tea, cassava, peanuts and corn.  The sun is setting behind the mountains to the west casting long shadows across the terrraced rice fields.  The head man invites us to plant a durian amidst the eucalyptus trees they've been replanting.  They ask TNC to stay, thanking Bill and I, incorrectly of course, for the work of dozens of their fellow Indonesians working through TNC over the last 16 years here.  Some of the TNC alum in have started their own foundation to continue aspects of our work.  Nizal, our program manager, In'am and Cito, who are in charge of negotiating the CCAs with the villages are proud of their work and worried about the future of this park, their people, this country.  They are patriots and it shows in the respect they have in these villages.  There are smiles all around.   pics attached


We collapse at the small roadside motel in Bariri under the full moon.  In the morning we get to see thousands year old stone megaliths, granite statues and massive pots decorated with odd human or monkey bodies.  Not much archeology appears to have been done here and the access has us walking through someone's rice terraces.  The rest of our visit to Lore Lindu connects us with other villagers and communities, all expressing a gratitude for the work we have done and their hope for a bright future.  The head man in the town of shows us the result of a small project we did many years ago--introducing beekeeping.  It's not a conservation strategy that pops up much in the , but he explains.  When their crops go bad or prices are low, they rely on the income stream from the honey and no longer need to cut trees in the park to keep them afloat financially til their next harvest.  It didn't take a lot of work to introduce this alternative livelihood, and it sounds like something the Peace Corps could do if they were here, but it seems to have done the job here in Bobo.  pics attached


The work we do is about humans ultimately and our care for the natural world so that it can ultimately care for us.  The sweet spot of overlap between economies and ecologies is elusive, but this trip gives one hope.   



The hot and humid wind sweeps the cold air out of the plane as soon as the doors open.  The guys in the uniforms are waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs off the plane.  They walk us toward a building set apart from the main terminal where more uniforms are waiting.  Widagdo, a man in his late 50s, greets us from the porch and ushers us inside where a custom that I'll get used to over the next few days begins.  A speech from the head man, women in scarves bring tea, sweets, corn, cassava, boiled peanuts, small oranges to the table, translation of 5 minute chunks of Bahasa into 20 seconds of English, discussion between our local staff and the head men, thank yous and leave takings.  I usually give a short speech about how impressed I am by the beauty of this place, by the effort to conserve it and by the similarities I notice between Sulawesi and Colorado. 


Widagdo is the head of Lore Lindu National Park.  He, and many others that we will hear from over the next two days, are concerned that TNC may be withdrawing from Lore Lindu .  The rumor stems from the budget cuts that we undertook here, and in many other places, earlier this year.  After almost 60 years of year after year growth, 2008 was a down revenue year, as it was for virtually everyone on the planet.  Widagdo makes the case that park would not succeed without our work to secure the borders from encroachment, that the park would degrade--fraying like an old fabric--if we do not continue our work to secure the novel contracts, Community Conservation Agreements ({CCA"), that we have been constructing betwwen the Park Service and each of the 70 local communities that ring the park.  He says, over and over again, "You have saved the park, saved our work here many times.  We need your continued support."


Song Shan

TNC's program has long been focussed on creating new nature reserves in and improving the existing ones.   has  approximately 2500 nature reserves, places that are set aside primarily for biodiversity reasons, but many of them are reserves in name only due to the low level of funding available.  Some of the reserves are managed by the national government, some by provinces, and some by municipalities, so there is not much by way of consistency. 


Ideas in development to bring up the management to, for example, have visitor centers, add and train rangers, have a minimun budget, enforce regulations, etc., include focussing on working with the managers of a small subset of  model nature  reserves (51) to create the gold standard for management that others would then rise toward.  This problem of having "paper parks", or parks in name only, is not unique to --many of the world's countries have designated parks or protected areas that show up only on the maps and not on the ground, lacking  adequate enforcement against illegal logging, poaching or other destructive uses. In the , the closest parallel is BLM lands--low levels of investment per acre and subject to a host of threats like invasive species, mining, inappropriate recreation, etc.   So, if we are able to make some set of reserves or parks "real" by increasing their budget, management and enforcement, it's as good as the old strategy in the of buying a nature preserve in terms of our mission.


I went along on a visit to Songshan Nature  Reserve, about 70 kilometers north of Beijing. "Song" means pine, and "Shan" means mountain.  The visit was coordinated by Fu Wei, an MBA student from Dartmouth, who is doing an internship with the China Program to survey the current levels of operational and capital funding of nature reserves in China.  The idea being that this will help us understand what the current baseline level of management is, the range of practices on the ground, and assist in setting a target for a "model" reserve. 


The "gateway community", a la West Yellowstone or Estes Park, for Songshan is pretty simple, a couple of ladies show up with bags of fresh picked fruit to sell to hikers.  A side attraction at their store is a couple of butterflies in a plastic water bottle--a bit like taffee stretchers in the fudge shop window. 


The reserve is about 12000 ares and is comprised of a number of very steep granite foothills rising from about 2000 feet to over 5000 feet in elevation.  There is a small patch of old growth  (older than 200 years) Chinese pine, once common on the hills, but now constrained to only a few hundred acres.  We hike up a steep concrete sidewalk for over 3 miles. At the end of the trail, we run into a group of twenty-somethings on a medicinal herb gathering expedition--something theoretically not allowed in the preserve, but common practice as we have seen from the returning picnickers whose bags have plants and small shovels or trowels sticking out of them.


Back at the headquarters, Fu Wei has finished her interviews.  This park is particularly well funded, run by the city of and capital improvements were put in place for the Olympics.  Gate receipts are steady, the city continues to invest in management and will likely develop a second trail in the near future. 


TNC-China worked with park to complete a conservation area plan--essentially a master plan and evaluation of the threats to the park.  We also helped to design and built their visitor’s center  and trail interpretative system,  to train their management staff,  and to conduct a fire survey to determine the best way to manage for occasional wildfires.  The infrastructure at this park is something that the TNC staff here are justifiably very proud of and a vast improvement from the state of things 2 years ago . 


So the challenge is setting, and bringing the other 51 nature reserves up to, minimum standards, even if not up to the Songshan or panda reserve level.  It's a beautiful place--appropriate to it's lyrical name--and not unlike  the  park  near my home in  Boulder, Colorado. It seems well positioned (as long as the herb harvest doesn't get out of hand!) to sustain itself over time.


Civil Society in China

 The first week on the ground in has been mostly occupied with checking the various paperwork boxes involved in moving to another country: medical exams, registration with the Public Security Bureau, visa applications, work permits, etc.   The sensitivity around the H1N1 virus is quite noticeable--our temperature was taken on the plane coming in, in the airport, as we walk in the hotel, at schools as the kids arrive. 


The most populous nation on earth, especially one so densely populated, has a very good public health service; honed apparently after the SARS epidemic.  Treating the symptoms of our booming world population is a most expensive proposition, just as restoration of our natural environment--once disturbed--costs far more than preservation of sustainable economies that depend on healthy ecological systems. 


This Monday was the first meeting of the nascent China Board of Trustees, an august group of businessmen and women recruited by Jim Zhang, TNC's director and former telecom executive.  The gathering was a two hour orientation to TNC's work and conservation goals in China. 


I gave a presentation of best practices of US boards of trustees, showing off our chapter, structure and leadership.  I prefaced this presentation with a couple of observations based on my very brief exposure to Chinese culture:  first, that civil society--non-profits, volunteerism, civic leadership--is a relatively new and evolving concept in .  Second, our customs and practices are the product of a very long evolution of non-profits and may not necessarily be useful for the context. 


Finally, the rate of change here, coupled with the pride and desire for a sustainable society (the party calls it "ecological civilization," an ambitious phrase that I particularly like!)  and the pent up energy of China's new wealthy class to contribute and give back to the society that made them wealthy are all extraordinarily encouraging indicators that a unique Chinese civil society is just around the corner. It was a room of talented, brilliant, charismatic leaders who are acutely aware both of 's environmental issues and of their obligation to solve them. 

Boldly go where.......

As most of you know I am now in China, on a one year assignment assisting TNC's , and programs.  I do want to keep in touch and look forward to hearing from you and sharing my work and impressions of this part of the world.   The first two weeks on the ground have been quite an adjustment--I sometimes feel like Joseph Conrad's Kurtz: plucked from the river, equipped with an MBA and sent to the set of the movie Bladerunner.  China is a far cry from Boulder, Colorado, and truly calls the question of whether the human species can manage it's footprint on the planet in such as way to sustain ourselves.  The connection (or, perhaps, current disconnect) between our economy and our ecology are nowhere on earth more apparent than looking out the window in Beijing; but similarly, there is no society making greater increments of improvement toward a sustainable future. 


For a nature loving boy, this place is certainly personally challenging (where's my trail run going to happen? which canyon can I bike up today?  should I be inhaling this air?), but ultimately it is also the place that will define our collective future, and, so, very exciting to witness and to engage with our incredibly talented and dedicated staff here. 




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Welcome to my site. Here you'll find updates on my work with TNC in China, Mongolia and Indonesia, including pictures and video.  You'll need to sign up with Shutterfly above and then a button called "Ask to be added as a member" will appear.  Then you'll get notified of changes and additions to the page!  Thanks.  Charles Bedford


Hard at work

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China's Tree Fetish

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Year of the Tiger

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Haba Snow Mountain

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Born to Run

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Ma and Mongolia pics

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Bogd Khan National Park

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Song Shan

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Message board

You may want to see this
Since you two (or at least Charles, but I'll bet both of you) read Born to Run, you'll enjoy watching this 10 minute film.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TAMERA.  I can't remember the date, but I know it was one of these first couple of days of February.  And I know that you just achieved some age that's so far in my rearview mirror that I'd need binoculars to detect it.

We haven't been to Castle Valley in a couple of months.  It's been bitter cold over there.  Someone told me the other day that they've had their coldest winter in 77 years.  

Charles, I see I just received an email announcing your latest posting, and I plan to dig into that right after dinner.  

Sure do miss you Bedfords.  


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1/3/2010 7:09:07 PM - 002099459812
How do I stop all the Shutterfly e-mails? Love the Chucky & family stuff, hate being bombarded with spam. Anyone figure this out? Happy New Year. m.
12/6/2009 11:22:25 PM - 003005817968
Charles, We've had much fun finally linking to the site! What a fabulous time you are having! The hair cut piece just cracked us up!

Audrey & Jim
9/10/2009 2:36:02 PM - 002087943252
hi, Charles, good to see you here.

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