In Jiabi, Chinese government and local people build dike together

By Annaka Peterson Carvalho

Jiabi village hugs a mountain slope along the Mekong River in the rugged, northwest corner of China's Yunnan Province.

This land is dotted by native conifers and flowering rhododendrons, but through the years outsiders have come to exploit timber and other natural resources. Deforestation has led to landslides, and landslides have threatened villagers' crops and homes.

In the past, the plans and activities of the county government and the needs of the local people, mostly Tibetans, were not coordinated. When problems arose, the right solutions were hard to come by. Oxfam America worked to change that.

First, the research. Oxfam partner organization CBIK, the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, has helped local government officials, academics, non-governmental organization (NGO) workers, school teachers, and villagers conduct research on issues related to their environment and development.

Then the sharing. CBIK has worked to share the research among the participants, creating multi-stakeholder forums where government officials sit down with local residents to discuss topics as varied as: animal husbandry, the collection of non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, water resource management, land use management, and even Tibetan medicine.

The forums give participants the opportunity to discuss issues of concern, and have inspired new projects in response to the issues raised.

After one multi-stakeholder forum, Jiabi villagers and county government officials agreed that a new dike needed to be built along a stream that flows through their village. The dike will guard against flooding, erosion and landslides, and help ensure that the people have access to a reliable source of water.

Instead of the government hiring an outside company to build the dyke—a typical solution in the past—the villagers built it themselves. The county government gave them financial and technical support.

"The old dike, built by a private company from outside, was so weak a small monkey could knock it down. But the dike we built is strong," said Riqing Pinchu, the head of Jiabi Village. "We used to wait for the government to come to us, but now we can take responsibility for our own development."

The county government learned that involving civil society—not always an easy concept in China—has its benefits. "When villagers participate in their own development and prioritize their needs, we get greater buy-in and can increase their capacity at the same time," said Lurong Yixi, the county director for minority affairs.

Experience has taught the Jiabi villagers an important lesson—their natural resources sustain their lives, so they must protect them. And by collaborating with the government, sharing their collective knowledge, and using venues such as the multi-stakeholder forums they can make decisions about their own future.