Leading the Change: China’s Next Generation of Environmental Leaders

Lobsangshilo, Luorogzhaxi, Geda the Living Buddha, and Yudingnima in their scarlet and orange Tibetan monk robes scramble across the rocky outcropping that hides the razor sharp wildlife snares that were strung days ago. So far, they’ve uncovered heaps of snares and traps along with wildlife carcasses in this remote mountain along the Yangtze River in Yunnan, China.

Thibet student monks removing illegal wildlife snares from a Mt. Rizhanigai Nature Reserve, considered a holy mountain.  Photo by QW Sun

Thibet student monks removing illegal wildlife snares from a Mt. Rizhanigai Nature Reserve, considered a holy mountain. Photo by QW Sun

Twenty miles away, three students – He Peng, He Xiaopeng and Gerongchuipi – are at a garage to find out what happens to used car batteries. Car batteries dot the Yunnan landscape, from roadsides to riverbanks. With a solid base of data from their investigations, they plan to put together a community battery recycling program.

These students from two schools – Dongzhulin Monastary Monk School and Shangri-la Ethnic Vocational School – are part of a youth leadership program in China that National Geographic Society has launched with the Shangrila Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Chinese NGO.

Student group discussing ways to offset pollution caused by tourism. Photo by QW Sun.

Student group discussing ways to offset pollution caused by tourism. Photo by QW Sun.

Why?

China’s environmental problems have reached epic scales. Thousands of dead pigs were found floating down a Shanghai river. China’s major cities routinely experience air pollution levels considered unsafe to breathe. More than half of China’s surface water is untreatable for drinking, and some so dangerous that they can’t even be used for industrial purposes. Deforestation and agricultural development have created massive deserts. ‘Cancer villages’ are popping up all over the country. According to livescience, China holds the unenviable distinction of having two of the ten most polluted places on earth. And China’s growing population, now at 1.35 billion, with Western-style consumer patterns, is putting massive pressures on China’s environment.

Since 2012, National Geographic has been running a grant program called the Global Exploration Fund Air and Water Conservation Fund supported by the Alibaba Group. This fund supports Chinese scientists and conservationists who are working to help solve China’s air and water issues. We’ve had great success but we realized that China is facing a long uphill battle, and that it’ll take a new generation of leaders to fight this battle.

So our youth leadership program is mentoring youths to make a significant, tangible, and positive difference toward a better environment and life, and a stronger community. Encouraging, supporting, and teaching children in China to take on leadership roles in their community and schools is critically important for China’s environmental future.

Student monk handing out Buddhist writings on nature at a community gathering.

Student monk handing out Buddhist writings on nature at a community gathering. Photo by QW Sun

“We’re doing this because we think protecting the environment is good. Should you not fund us, we will continue to do this anyway” a 13-year old monk student told National Geographic.

Shangri-la and Yangtze River

Shangri-la and Yangtze River

Our two schools are found along the Yangtze River near Shangri-la, the fictional paradise on earth described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, and photographed in the 1920s and 1930s by the National Geographic explorer Joseph Rock. Our locally-based mentors are working closely with students, teachers, and community members to identify key environmental and community issues, and mentor the thirty or so student groups in project development, proposal writing, budgeting, project implementation, and presentation skills. These projects – on river pollution, illegal hunting, environmental education through Buddhist teachings, organic farming, energy use, and others – will be carried out over the next year, and their results will be presented at an award ceremony. We hope that they will inspire and trigger similar efforts by fellow community members.

We look forward to featuring different stories and people from the program in the coming months, and we welcome your thoughts.


This post was written by Dr. Rob Lee, Director of the Global Exploration Fund for the National Geographic Society, wildlife biologist, and conservationist.

2 responses to “Leading the Change: China’s Next Generation of Environmental Leaders

  1. I have heard of the pollution issues in China, but this article opened my eyes to the other environmental problems that go along with that. Thank you for informing me! It is great to see young people getting involved to make a difference in the Earth that they will inherit.

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