XINING, China — There’s a building boom on the Tibetan plateau, one of the world’s last remote places. Mountains long crowned by garlands of fluttering prayer flags are newly topped with sprawling steel power lines. At night, the illuminated signs of Sinopec gas stations cast a red glow over newly built highways.
Ringed by the world’s tallest mountain ranges, the region long known as “the rooftop of the world” is now in the crosshairs of China’s latest modernization push, marked by multiplying skyscrapers and expanding high-speed rail lines.
But there’s a difference: This time, the Chinese government wants to set limits on the region’s growth in order to implement its own version of one of the U.S.’s proudest legacies — a national park system.
In August, policymakers and scientists from China, the United States and other countries convened in Xining, capital of the country’s Qinghai province, to discuss China’s plans to create a unified system with clear standards for limiting development and protecting ecosystems.
Zhu Chunquan, the China representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based scientific group, notes that the country’s economy has boomed over the past 40 years. But priorities are now expanding to include conserving the country’s key natural resources.
“It’s quite urgent as soon as possible to identify the places, the ecosystems and other natural features” to protect, Zhu says.
Among other goals, China aims to build it’s own Yellowstone on the Tibetan plateau.
The ambition to create a unified park system represents “a new and serious effort to safeguard China’s biodiversity and natural heritage,” Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm says.
One of the first pilot parks will be in Qinghai, a vast region in western China abutting Tibet and sharing much of its cultural legacy. The area also is home to such iconic and threatened species as the snow leopard and Chinese mountain cat, and encompasses the headwaters of three of Asia’s great waterways: the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers.
While construction continues at a frenzied pace elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau, the government already has stopped issuing mining and hydropower permits in this region.
But a key question looms over the project: Can China marry the goals of conservation and tourism, while safeguarding the livelihoods and culture of the approximately 128,000 people who live within or near the park’s boundaries, many of them Tibetan?
China has previously undertaken vast resettlement programs to clear land for large infrastructure projects such as Three Gorges Dam, which left many farmers in new homes without suitable agricultural fields or access to other livelihoods.
But in developing the national parks, the government is giving conservation-related jobs to at least a swath of people living in the Qinghai pilot park — called Sanjiangyuan — to stay and work on their land. The “One Family, One Ranger” program hires one person per family for 1,800 yuan a month ($255) to perform such tasks as collecting trash and monitoring for poaching.
From his main work raising livestock and collecting caterpillar fungus for folk medicines, Kunchok Jangtse says he can make about $2,830 annually. He is grateful for the additional income from the ranger program, but hopes his main livelihood won’t be impeded — and that he won’t eventually be forced to leave.
“I’m not a highly educated person, and I am very concerned it may bring many difficulties in my life if I would switch my job and move to another place,” he says.