Chu Xuexian first left her village in 2017 to find paid work elsewhere. About 400 villagers in Liju do the same, while two-thirds stay to farm. He Jieshan said that after 2000, the county forestry bureau suggested Liju villagers plant fruit-bearing forest like walnuts and plums. “But walnuts didn’t bring us as much money as we expected as the selected variety was not the best,” He Jieshan said. Planting plums did not provide a stable income either due to fluctuating prices.
“That’s the major problem with developing agricultural products,” He Jieshan said. Villagers rush to plant a certain product when the price is high, but at harvest time, the price drops. Then farmers try other products, and the vicious cycle continues.
He Ronghua, Party-secretary of Liju Village committee, believes the chief difficulty of improving villagers’ lives lies in the limited area of cultivable land. “If we encourage planting a medicinal herb, planting one or two mu (one mu = 666.7 square meters) per family will not generate the desired scale effect and produce only limited revenue,” he said.
NGOs are trying to help Liju. Around 2013, an NGO sponsored by SEE started two programs, one focused on planting Gastrodia elata (tianma), a medicinal herb in the orchid family, and the other on beekeeping, but neither was successful. SEE introduced Western-style beehives, while Liju, at a higher altitude with low temperatures, requires smaller and warmer beehives.
“The problem with many NGOs is they hold meetings and post tweets expressing their expectations and goals, and they think that’s enough. Most of the time the plans go nowhere,” Xiao Jin said.
In 2015, TNC helped Liju establish a cooperative to help villagers sell agricultural products such as plum juice, white kidney beans, honey and woolen felt handicrafts. TNC also helped them find a shop in the old town of Lijiang to sell their handicrafts. At first, the villagers in the cooperative were enthusiastic and united, making as much as 200,000 yuan (US$31,040) a year. But later, they found some people “only wanted the money without putting any effort in.” Some also questioned the fairness in distributing the income among them. Besides unstable sales channels, the cooperative started to decline, according to Liao Haohong, who is in charge of TNC’s program in Yunnan.
Liao added it is difficult for more specialty agricultural products to find a big market. He admitted that NGOs are not professional businesses which may handle this type of trade better. “It’s not really possible to entirely substitute the villagers’ traditional means of livelihood in this way. It’s hard even for the government,” Liao said.
Cui Liangwei believes the government should play the main role in helping villagers develop pragmatic and market-oriented industries. “The government should organize professional teams engaged in exploring long-term and sustainable means for villagers to support themselves. It requires a joint task force from the government, NGOs, enterprises and villagers,” Cui said.
Around 2001, Long Yongcheng and the local government proposed building a natural reserve around Mount Laojun, but the proposal was rejected. A natural reserve means that many ecological red lines would limit economic development in the area. Besides, it would have required a lot of money from the cash-strapped local government, several interviewed experts and government officials explained.
Instead, Yunnan established several Western-style national parks, claiming to use 5 percent of the area in exchange for preserving the remaining 95 percent. Laojun Mountain National Park was established in 2008. It was planned to combine the functions of scientific preservation, community development, ecological tourism and nature education. But in fact, since the management body of Laojun Mountain National Park overlaps the county forestry bureau in responsibility but is subordinate, it does not have a substantial effect on protecting the ecosystem. Also, the park’s ecological tourism and nature education programs have not developed well. Since visitor traffic is low, it has not boosted tourism in local areas, including Liju, as they hoped.
Yang Yuming believes that to really protect Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, a big national park centered on them should be established to connect three natural reserves for snub-nosed monkeys as well as the habitat on Mount Laojun. “At present, about one-third of the monkeys live outside protected reserves. And if the monkeys migrate outside the boundaries, they’ll be in danger of people,” Yang said.
“But it will still involve the livelihood of local villagers. It’s important to completely change traditional farming and develop an ecological service industry, exploiting non-consumptive use of forest resources and developing high-end ecological tourism,” he added.
In building a larger national park, it is necessary to nurture corridors between different monkey troops, Cui Liangwei said. Increased human activity has fragmented the habitats, which could cause geographical isolation. Lack of gene exchange between troops and inbreeding will weaken resistance to disease and eventually lead to extinction. “For better protection in the future, first there should be a suitable living environment. Second, the corridors need to be identified, protected and repaired,” Cui said.
“The habitat for snub-nosed monkeys should not be an island [isolated from human society]. We should try to structure a space where human beings and nature can coexist in harmony,” Yang Yuming said.