This time around, it has nothing to do with pandas. Rather, CeCe has a semester-long internship with Wisconsin’s International Crane Foundation to finish up her degree in conservation biology and sustainable development. (I finished my master’s in agroecology in June.)
We’re stationed in a gritty town called Weining in Guizhou, China that wraps around the northern shore of Cao Hai Lake. Weining is in China’s diverse, mountainous southwest and is about 500 km north of the Vietnam border. ‘Cao Hai’ translates fr0m Mandarin as ‘grass sea’. And while the name embellishes its size just a tad, Cao Hai is just that: a marshy expanse, half covered in aquatic plants, and that boasts an average depth of 2 meters, and is just 20 square kilometers (7 sq mi.) in size. The Nature Reserve that surrounds it is less than 100 square kilometers (39 sq mi.) and within those boundaries live over 30,000 people, mostly poor, Han Chinese and people who consider themselves members of three of China’s minority groups, Hui, Yi, and Miao (Hmong).
The lake has a troubled modern history. Like many of China’s natural places, it suffered during the Cultural Revolution and was mostly drained in 1958 to provide the local community with farmland. During the same period, its watershed was largely denuded of trees leading to erosion and siltification. Weining, which has grown in size especially in recent years, has insufficient water treatment facilities leading to pollution and eutrophication of lake waters. The lake was partially refilled in 1982, taking farmland away from peasants, and the formation of the Reserve in 1985 added unwelcome bureaucracy and regulation.
The lake’s saving grace is its wide array of bird species, especially during the winter. Cao Hai’s elevation is over 2,000 meters, but for a variety of reasons, its climate in winter is mild. Most notable among the 170+ species is the Black-necked Crane, a talismanic, graceful bird native to a few high lying areas of Asia. They number perhaps 10,000 in the world and are categorized as ‘vulnerable‘.
That’s where in the International Crane Foundation (ICF) comes in. They’ve had a presence here since the early 80’s and have pioneered a series of strategies to tie together environmental conservation with community development, poverty alleviation and environmental education. Along with an organization called Trickle Up, ICF was doing microfinance projects at Cao Hai long before it was a global phenomenon.
CeCe’s internship is part of a burgeoning relationship between ICF and the University of Wisconsin. Her goal is to lay the groundwork for a series of other UW interns who will come in subsequent semesters. Right now, her immediate tasks entail documenting the implementation of a middle school environmental science curriculum and preparing for the development of additional curricula. In addition, long range plans entail working with a Reserve farmer’s association to expand community development projects and also to use UW resources to enhance biodiversity monitoring.
But first things first. We spent much of this week cleaning and decorating a room on the second floor of the Reserve’s former headquarters to serve as our home, and as lodging for subsequent UW and ICF visitors. Aside from purchasing a painfully hard mattress, I think we’ve done a good job. CeCe and I have also spent time getting to know many of the stakeholders in town: teachers, principals, leading farmers, among others.
Mandarin continues to vex us, so we’ve had help with translation, both from project visionary, Li Fengshan, who’s sadly back in Wisconsin now, and our translator, Shi Mei (English name: Cinderella, named after the fairy tale, not the 80’s hair metal band) who has kindly shuffled her schedule as a high school English teacher to help us out many afternoons and weekends. We intend to reciprocate and spend some time helping teach Shi Mei’s English classes. I’ll also be serving as CeCe’s intern sidekick. Without a command of Mandarin, there’s little else I can do. In all honesty, there’s plenty of ICF work to split between the two of us.
So far, so good I guess. We’re the only Westerners in town. Trickle Up left town a few years ago, as did Oxfam. Few Western tourists visit either, and when they do, it’s usually during winter for birdwatching. So we’re largely on our own. (Click here for a Google map of Weining. Unfortunately a cloud obscures the city in the satellite image. That should tell you how far off the beaten path we are.)
There’s still plenty of down time of course, so please keep the emails coming. We appreciate it.