Wetlands, education and water schools

by on Tuesday, 28 September 2010 Comments

Behind the building sites and the mountains half eaten by the mechanical diggers, we discover the large wetlands. Traditional houses, stacked like the teeth on corn on the cob, sit imposingly in the middle of multicolored flowerbeds and amongst huge racks used to dry crops. A bit further on, there is the seasonal lake Napa, now almost dry, refuge of a rare ecosystem and of lots of birds. Wende Gomba sets out in the 4x4 to the Shangri-la Institute. Sitting up on the front passenger seat, a cow-boy hat glued on his head, a sparsely grown moustache and goatee underlining his thin mouth, he turns to us and speaks in fluent English about the wetlands. “The rapid industrialization and urbanization of the area threatens the ecosystem and the livelihood of the surrounding villages. The new hostels and restaurants throw out their waste water directly into the wetlands.” Some time ago, in cooperation with students from several “Water Schools”, they organized a day to clean up the rivers because “it's the only thing that works. Endless debate and just waiting for something to happen would have been fruitless. (...) We also asked the villagers around the lake to participate. It was extremely dirty. We were all covered with black and putrid mud up to our knees. (...) The people of the city do not care at all about this form of activism. They think it's useless. However, having observed the results of the clean up, I feel that the residents are more aware of the need for these kinds of activities.”

The Shangri-La County in Yunnan province is predominantly lama(1). We are on the Tibetan plateau, rich in ecology and culture. From the plateau flow three rivers, one that turns into the Salween that flows on to Myanmar, another becomes the Mekong that irrigates southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and South Vietnam and finally the Yangtze, the longest river in China. UNESCO has declared this area a protected region of nearly two million hectares, where those three rivers flow in parallel from north to south. It is “the richest region of the world in biodiversity and an epicenter of biodiversity in China.”(2)  The lives of millions of people depend on the resources of the plateau. “Demographic pressure and rapid economic development cause an increase in pollution, threatening ecosystems and communities that depend on the Yangtze River for their survival. Current statistics indicate that the Yangtze contributes to nearly 60% of the total pollution in China and is the largest source of marine pollution in the Pacific Ocean.”(3)

But as Gomba reminds us, the development and the maintenance of a society which is sustainable ecologically, economically and socially will work only with the active participation of its citizens. Everything starts at the grassroots level.

Wende Gomba is a hard worker. He is sick of the time, energy and money devoted to the management of large international organizations to the detriment of direct benefit for targeted populations. Thus, enriched by long years of experience within conservation and community development projects, together with some colleagues, he established the “Shangri-la Institute for Sustainable Communities” (SISC), funded by international donors, (香格里拉可持續社區學會).

hist_recyclables_Shangri-La-Institutes-flowery-grassland5 years ago, the Institute launched “community education for sustainable development on the Tibetan plateau”. Nothing is imposed on the villagers; there are long preliminary stage discussions with 80 villages surrounding the lake. Discussions revolve around resources, such as logging, which is a major source of income, but timber is increasingly rare. Timber is used for heating and in construction. With regards to water quality, elders have noticed the extinction of some species ... and the ever growing dependence of villagers on depleted natural resources. Through Community Learning Centers, the Institute wants to strengthen the role of communities in environmental protection, to enrich their cultural heritage and to improve their livelihood. Classes are held on ecotourism, cooking, bird watching, Thangka painting(4), embroidery... Awareness campaigns on renewable energy are regularly organized. People involved in the respective industries that are involved with natural resources and local actors are involved, as well as monasteries, schools, NGOs and government bodies. Thanks to everyone's participation, a few villages have managed to equip themselves with solar water heaters (that save 5 tons of wood per year), as well as biogas technology (2-3 tons of wood)... Gomba explains that gradually the villagers appropriated this initiative for themselves, because they realized the benefits to their own community that would result. They began construction of the Centre of the Institute, independently. As for the satellite Community Centers, these became forums for discussion within the villages. They hold their meetings, ceremonies and festivals with the requisite dances and songs that are so important in their culture. These places and these initiatives managed by the communities are replicable models. This is one of the biggest hopes of the Institute.

Gomba guides us around the Institute. It is surrounded by a large garden full of flowers, where we hear the hum of bees and other bug life. The timber they used was purchased from those who were renovating their houses in town. Rainwater is collected in gutters filling tanks. The water from these tanks is then used for the garden or the shower. In the garden itself, the gutters are made of PVC which may purge water of toxic materials. The showers are made of polyethylene, more expensive, but whose composition is very stable and non-polluting and dry toilets provide compost for the garden. As for shower and kitchen water, it is drained to an infiltration trench. On the ground floor a cozy lounge welcomes members of the Institute, teachers, students and guests. Upstairs is the resource center, a rich library of books in Chinese, Tibetan and English, dealing with the environment, local cultures, painting and religion ... Other rooms are dedicated to Tibetan, English and Thangka classes ... Six rooms can house visiting experts, volunteers and other visitors. Gompa is still working on an intelligent way to heat the house. This is in line with his emphasis on coherence between philosophy and behavior. As well as the need for a replicable model ...

hist_recyclables_Shangri-La-Institutes-libraryThe SISC is also working on children’s education for a living Yangtze. These projects are called “Water Schools” financed by the fantastically wealthy Swarovski Crystal Society. The philosophy of these schools is to teach young children between the ages of eight and thirteen years the importance of water and how to preserve it. They have opened schools in Europe, in Africa along the Nile and in China along the Yangtze River. There are nearly thirty Water Schools along the river including nine in Shangri-la. “Children are not empty vessels to be simply filled” whispers our guide. This initiative creates a platform for children where they can think and understand by themselves, through the innovative and participatory learning practices students engage in during classes, and the field trips they can take part in... Their teachers receive training every two years on the latest water and teaching methods. Student exchanges between schools are regularly undertaken. The Ministry of Education of China is involved in these educational programs and approves their content. Gomba hopes to highlight the participatory nature of the educational schemes, which can easily be replicated elsewhere. The county has also established these special “Water Schools” in monasteries. The monks are trained as teachers. In the monastery, the faithful show so much respect that monks cannot interact with them, thus, holy men participate in meetings and discussions in the Community Centers where everyone feels more comfortable, sitting down to a coffee on the ground floor of the Institute.

We exchanged notes on our respective projects. As Gomba has a rendezvous in a monastery, there is no time to eat lunch together. In silence, we return to the 4 x 4 that brings us back to the old town of Shangri-la. It is hard not to be slightly in awe of this man, both for his project and his tenacity. The strengths of the Institute are the communities that are themselves the guardians of natural resources. We think back to long days during which we saw “Water School” signs hanging here and there, without being able to find their offices. Nobody in town had been able to help us. The impact of the activities of SISC on the living conditions of rural populations and their environment is indisputable. But the sheer amount of tourism in the old town hints at a lengthy combat in years to come.

www.shangrilainstitute.org

A special thank to Gomba’s colleagues who welcomes us at the Centre: Suonam Jiangtu and Suolang Gyatso from Lhasa.
Photos by H.R.

 


(1)Tibetan Buddhist
(2)Source “UNESCO World Heritage”
(3)Source “Water school for a living Yangtze” Swarovski Waterschools
(4)A Thangka is a painting on canvas, a feature of Tibetan culture

 

Histoires Recyclables

Histoires Recyclables (Recyclable Stories) is a project initiated by Amandine and William, two young French adventurers and travelers who want to ally their interest in discovering other cultures and their will to volunteer in humanitarian projects. Thus, they aim to bring about a reflection on our lifestyle and habits of consumption, through accounts of holders of projects and local stories about water, recycling and biodiversity. Amandine and William will travel from Luang Prabang (Lao PDR) to Toulouse (France) over 18 months, going through China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Iran, Caucasia, Turkey, Europe.

Website: www.histoiresrecyclables.net

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