Prayer flags, praying stones, and stupas stud the rugged landscape of the western part of China's Sichuan Province. Symbols of faith adhered to by the Tibetan Buddhists indigenous to the region, they also mark the boundaries of areas protected by local tradition and knowledge, and indicate how the land may be used.
A Tradition of Sacred Lands
Tibetans consider certain natural sites such as forests, mountains, and lakes to be sacred. Each village and monastery designates sacred sites with various levels of protection. In some sites, limited resource use is allowed. In others, even setting foot within the boundary is completely forbidden.
The sacred land tradition in which faith and stewardship of nature are intertwined has allowed the unique ecosystems of the Mountains of Southwest China Biodiversity Hotspot to thrive even as the environment in other parts of the country has come under increasing pressure.
New Era Brings New Threats
While these lands have escaped resource exploitation, such as China's late twentieth century logging boom, threats to both land and traditions are shifting. Infrastructure development building roads, power grids, and dams combined with resource extraction, have imperiled numerous wildlife species and destroyed 85 percent of the forest cover. Meanwhile, an upswing in tourism has led to growth in the market for illegal wildlife products.
These lands are critical to all of China. The upper reaches and headwaters of Asia's four great rivers the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Mekong, and the Nujiang are all located within or adjacent to Tibetan sacred lands, making the region critical for the 500 million people who depend on these rivers for their water supply.
The sacred lands are also home to some of Asia's most stunning biodiversity. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), red pandas (Ailurus fulgens), golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana), and takin (Budorcas taxicolor) make their home amid some of the most spectacular alpine plant life on Earth. The stakes are high for this beautiful region and its rich traditions.
With Local Groups, A Survey of Sacred Lands
Conservation International has worked to establish and build the capacity of Tibetan nongovernmental organizations in local communities. In partnership with the communities, CI has undertaken to survey the sacred lands. CI is also working to develop local capacity for protecting their biodiversity and revitalizing the Tibetan cultural values of respect and reverence for nature.
Monasteries may prove to be the key to protecting sacred sites. Buddhist monks patrol the mountains and forests designated sacred by their monasteries, protecting them from hunting and regulating herb collection.
About 20 percent of monasteries have effective protection mechanisms in place. CI is working with them to spread their tactics more widely among Tibetan communities, and to promote awareness of the need to preserve nature.
Tibetan Buddhists were treating their environment with reverence and respect centuries before the rest of the world realized the pressing need to conserve flora and fauna. Now, as the region's rich traditions compete with outside influences, it is critically important to preserve and empower them. They may be the best hope for an ecosystem that is home to some of Asia's most critically important biodiversity.
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