GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. In China, decisions about economic development and infrastructure projects are generally handed down from above. Affected communities rarely have any meaningful say in the process, and are left to deal with adverse social and environmental impacts as best they can. But, as reporter Elise Potaka discovered, in southwest Yunnan province, at least one community is forging a new path. [MUSIC, SOUND OF CROWDS] POTAKA: On the cobble-stoned streets of Lijiang, an old man plays the Chinese erhu to passing tourists. The town's traditional architecture, as well as the view of the snow-capped Mount Yulong, make it one of China's most popular tourist destinations. Last year, five million visitors brought in around seven billion U.S. dollars. [SOUND OF RUNNING WATER] POTAKA: A major attraction are the streams, canals and wells which criss-cross the town's narrow alleyways. [MAN SPEAKING IN CHINESE] POTAKA: The water in Lijiang is very sweet, this tourist says with a smile, as he drinks long mouthfuls from one of the wells. [SOUNDS OF TOWN] POTAKA: In the past, Lijiang's water came from the snow melt of Mount Yulong. But the snow has been disappearing for more than a decade now, probably due to a changing climate. With less run-off, the city's water levels also began to drop. Concerned that the diminished water in the canals would draw fewer tourists, local officials went in search of another water source. [SOUNDS OF BIRDS, LAKE] POTAKA: It's early morning, and at the edge of Lashi Lake - about half an hour out of Lijiang - birds preen in the warming sun. It was here that the government, in the late 90's, built a dam, diverting forty percent of the lake's water to the streams and canals of Lijiang. With a total area of over 2000 acres, and more than 3000 people living close by, the impacts have been huge. [PEOPLE SPEAKING IN CHINESE] POTAKA: Niang Yao Jun lives at Xihu village, just uphill from the shoreline. He says they used to live off fishing and growing crops near the lake. But the dam changed all this. NIANG: [translated from Chinese] Our fields were flooded, so we asked the authorities to solve the problem and give us farmers other land. They helped us plant potatoes but when the rainy season came there were landslides, erosion and other problems like that. POTAKA: Looking for a longer term solution they engaged the support of researchers from a small local environmental group called Green Watershed. They wanted to find a more environmentally sustainable way to make a living. The researchers suggested that agro-forestry could be one part of the solution. Along with their crops and livestock, villagers could grow trees to hold the soil. They could sell some of the timber. NIANG: [translated from Chinese] We started with just ten thousand households in 1998, on an area of 20 acres. Two years later we were already seeing profits. It's reduced the problem of erosion, and increased our income. POTAKA: Now villagers can make an annual profit of around 3000 US dollars per acre from the timber. This has almost replaced the income that villagers lost when their fields were flooded. [VILLAGE SOUNDS, FOOTSTEPS, A WOMAN SPEAKING IN CHINESE] POTAKA: Walking along one of Xihu Village's dirt roads, He Cui Ma, picks up rubbish as she goes. She says they don't want plastic pollution to fall into the lake. She points to another initiative which villagers have started ? they now make money from fruit and vegetables grown using less chemicals. HE: [translated from Chinese] We use few pesticide and we've founded a committee to look into this. The most harmful pesticides are now banned and we use much less chemical fertilizer than before. Instead we use marsh gas fertilizer. [VILLAGE SOUNDS] POTAKA: While the group Green Watershed has been integral in setting up the programs, it's a partnership which emphasizes the importance of local knowledge. Hu Chengshen is a program officer with the group. HU: [translated from Chinese] Local people understand this area more than we do. In our opinion they're the real experts. For example, they know where and when you can harvest wild food to take back with you, what you can and can't eat. They are our teachers. [COFFEE CUPS RATTLING] POTAKA: In Beijing for a conference, founder of Green Watershed, and winner of the Goldman prize for the environment, Professor Yu Xiaogang, takes time out in a cafe. He believes the project could be used as a model for other communities affected by developments like dams. He says the key is to give the community a stronger voice. YU: We first found that local people were very angry but they don't know how to raise their idea, their opinion to the government. Local people cannot participate in the decision-making because many decisions are made top-down, and made by the outside people. But local people are marginalized, neglected from decision-making. POTAKA: To change this they set up local committees to make decisions about fishing and water use. [VOICE TALKING AT MEETING] POTAKA: At gatherings like this one, villagers can now exchange views and present their ideas to other stakeholders including local government representatives. And Professor Yu says those powers are listening. Most recently, villagers and NGOs proposed that some of Lijiang's tourist profits be shared with upstream communities. YU: They got a lot of money from tourism because of the water, so they should also feedback some profit to this lake area. And now the local government gradually appreciates this kind of concept. They've decided to allocate some money from the tourist business, pay to the upstream, to the lake area. This payment will further encourage the local people to have more sustainable projects to manage this resource. POTAKA: Starting next year, some of Lijiang's billion-dollar tourist profits will be sent to Lashi Lake to be used on nature conservation and poverty alleviation. The aim is to channel around $290,000 U.S. to villages each year. [SOUND OF HAMMERING] POTAKA: Back at the lake, villages are working together to rebuild the fishing industry, as well as initiate small-scale tourism. Here at the lake's edge they're building a small wharf. Local Liang Zhong Kun explains. LIANG: [translated from Chinese] The purpose of the wharf is to manage the boats and fishing industry in the Lashi Lake area. We hope to extend the wharf into a leisure venue where people can watch birds, row boats and relax. [SINGING] POTAKA: As the sun sets, locals gather together to eat, as well as to sing and dance. They know the challenges are far from over. But at least now, they have a new set of survival skills and, more importantly, a seat at the decision-making table. In Yunnan, I'm Elise Potaka for Living On Earth.

Related Stories