A Toast At The Frontline

Of what use is biodiversity?

I stand on a small tributary of the Irrawaddy River. Across it is Myanmar—formerly Burma: I’m about as far west in the Chinese province of Yunnan as I can be. Borders between countries fascinate, for they illuminate different experiments in how we manage our natural world. Across the river, the land is going up in smoke. There’s a dense blue haze. At night, I see dozens of small fires, while overhead a satellite maps them from their thermal infrared radiation.

On returning to Duke, I look at what those maps show. China’s border is obvious. For a thousand miles along its southern and southwestern frontier, it has very few fires, while thousands carpet the land of its immediate neighbors.

Across the river unfolds a human tragedy, repeated across the developing world. Poor farmers burn the land each year to clear forests and brush and to enrich the poor soils with the nutrients the burning releases. On steep slopes, the inevitable heavy rains will wash away those nutrients, the soils, and often people’s homes too. The land’s fertility degrades each burning season.

Globally, burning tropical forests adds 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year, almost as much as all the emissions in the U.S. and more than those from the European Union.

On the China side, there are no fires. There are fields, already planted with corn and other crops. Between them are lots of forests that are just leafing out; they cover the mountains with a soft green on this lovely spring morning. An odd analogy strikes me: They are like a school class, all the same size and age, all dressed in their identical, green uniforms, their shining faces full of hope. The trees’ age is not an accident, and the trees are full of promise.

In the early 1960s, China learned the hard way that when we harm Mother Nature, she bites back. Massive, country-wide deforestation cleared forests off steep slopes leading to massive erosion and catastrophic flooding. Those young trees are the result of recent country-wide policies to restore the land.

Why am I here in a remote part of China?

My fieldwork involves watching wildlife, usually endangered species, and often birds and mammals. The mountains that stretch from western Yunnan across northern Myanmar to India, just 200 miles away, and then to Bhutan, are one of the most biologically diverse parts of the planet. This is a frontline for saving biodiversity. It’s not just the number of species. Many of the species of animals here—and plants, too—live only in these mountains. That restriction means the species are especially vulnerable to the loss of their forest habitats. This area has unusually many species at risk of extinction.

I love the peace of fieldwork. Alas, no chance of a good night’s sleep, for while I am here, the United Nations released an international assessment of the status of the world’s biodiversity. Reporters’ deadlines were in the very early hours of my morning. “Yes, the world is losing species a thousand times faster than it should,” I tell them. “And, yes, biodiversity matters to all of us, as the report makes clear.” (I would tell them this; after all, the report was quoting my research.)

That’s not lost on the local communities here in Yingjiang. Within a few years, they have built hotels and thriving businesses of showing mostly Chinese wildlife photographers the area’s exceptional species. Far better than eking out a desperate living growing subsistence crops on land where that cannot be sustained. Signs near our hotel proclaim President Xi’s vision of “ecological civilization” and that “green is the new gold.”

Governments can set the tone of a nation’s environmental choices. Just how much is nature worth? The Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway get 30 million visits a year, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore adds another 2.5 million and North Carolina state parks another 20 million. Is trashing national monuments and parks in the U.S. really our nation’s best strategy economically, given the hundreds of billions of dollars visitors spend?

Protecting biodiversity must benefit the people who live next to it. Outside the U.S., that’s not always easy. We rich visitors to Africa’s national parks must heed the needs of the poor outside the expensive lodges where we sip our gin and tonics. That park may have lions that can eat your wealth in cattle in a night. I’m not always in a lodge. Sleeping in a small tent with lions sniffing around just outside always takes practice—the first time I lay awake terrified. For villagers nearby, the threat is always there.

Here, at Yingjiang, there are no lions—or the tigers that were once here—but the question remains of what use is biodiversity? How to convert that green to gold? Local resourcefulness and vision, plus national government policies, admit a more promising future than on the opposing banks of the Irrawaddy.

The wildlife blinds in which the wildlife photographers and I sit testify to local initiative. The blinds are simple cloth structures with crudely crafted log benches. Village women ensure that an irresistible drip, drip, drip of water through a bamboo pipe attracts thirsty laughing thrushes, quail, and sunbirds. That evening, the photographers show me what they captured with delight, and we toast each other with beer.

Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of conservation ecology in the Nicholas School and an expert on biodiversity and species loss, received this year’s International Cosmos Prize for contributions to his field.

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