Rose Niu gave up on China in 1997. A veterinarian-turned-environmentalist, she saw few opportunities for meaningful work in her native province of Yunnan. So she emigrated with her husband and two young daughters to New Zealand, where she worked briefly as a market researcher. But then a professional friendship led to a sudden opportunity to start up an American-backed environmental project back in Yunnan. That brought her home just six months after her departure. Today, Niu, 41, is a leader of a growing group of pioneers who are working to protect China's over-stressed environment.
Probably no sustainable development and environmental protection project in the world rivals Niu's Yunnan Great Rivers Project in ambition. At stake is the fate of one of the world's last wild places, an Ireland-size chunk of southwestern China. Four of Asia's great rivers, including the Yangtze and the Mekong, pass through the region, separated by just 88 kilometers of rugged landscape. The deep gorges and forbidding mountain ranges that slice through this landscape have nurtured ecosystems dating to the last Ice Age, 14,000 years ago.
But the fragile ecosystem is under siege. The area's 3 million people are among the country's poorest. About one in six lives on a cash income of less than $80 a year. In their scramble for survival, they've ravaged the environment by stripping hillsides for firewood. Until a recent ban, commercial logging made matters worse: Plants and animals unique to the area, such as the Yunnan golden monkey and certain varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, are in danger of extinction.
Niu's goals are ambitious. She aims both to protect the environment and improve the living standards for the region's people. That means shielding rivers and forests from pollution, protecting plants and animals from extinction, and simultaneously raising incomes. A member of the Naxi ethnic group that is clustered around her hometown of Lijiang, Niu draws on both her deep roots in the local community and skills she developed overseas to tackle that challenge. Niu first trained as a veterinarian in Kunming, Yunnan's capital. She then received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study natural resource management and planning in Bangkok, where she lived from 1992-1996.
Niu started out with just $2,000 in seed money from the Nature Conservancy when she returned to Yunnan to head its project. She initially ran the operation out of her childhood home, a traditional Naxi courtyard house in Lijiang. Within a few months, she brought the Nature Conservancy together with the Yunnan provincial government in a crucial collaboration. The U.S. organization contributed a sophisticated system for environmental assessment designed to zero in on highly endangered swatches of land within a large area. The government provided hundreds of researchers to do fieldwork. "We look at killer threats to these hot spots and develop strategies to protect them," says Niu.
She and her crew assembled a package of recommendations that led to an action plan incorporated into the province's official five-year plan. The action plan lays out the steps needed to set up protected nature reserves, reduce pollution, and nurture jobs that would have minimal environmental impact. "Working with the government gave us great leverage," Niu says. She also has backing from the private sector. Goldman, Sachs & Co. Chief Executive Henry M. Paulson Jr., a member of the Nature Conservancy's board, is a big supporter. He flew Goldman's corporate jet to Lijiang last October, bringing bigwigs involved in the project. Paulson's support also helped secure a meeting with then-President Jiang Zemin in February, 2002.
Now, Niu and her 40 staffers are working on a range of projects, from promoting ecotourism to reducing firewood collection by installing more energy-efficient stoves and alternate power sources such as solar and mini-hydro units. A Web site () promotes Naxi culture tours and trips to beautiful Lashihai Lake, where 50,000 birds rest during the winter migration season. From five-year plans to promoting backcountry tourism, Niu is doing her best to preserve one of China's remaining bits of paradise.