The Shangri-La Institute for Sustainable Communities: an Interview with Lucy Binfield

This interview was conducted by CDB's Gabriel Corsetti

Editor’s Note

Lucy Binfield is originally from Britain, and works for the Shangri-La Institute for Sustainable Communities. This interview took place in Beijing on September 27. 

 

China Development Brief: Hello Lucy, thanks for taking this interview. So could you tell me something about the Shangri-La institute for Sustainable Communities which you work for?

Lucy Binfield: Yes, I work for the Shangri-La Institute (SSI) for Sustainable Communities, a Chinese NGO that registered in June 2007. Core team members from the organization have been working since about 1996 in Southwestern China, in Yunnan, particularly in the area of Shangri-La, which is where its name comes from. The core team members had all worked as a part of the WWF China Education Program, which was about working with communities and schools to achieve conservation and sustainable development goals through approaches promoted by education for sustainable development (ESD), which is now the theory that underpins all of our projects. So after working for WWF China, my boss and a few other core team members left the organization in around 2006, and started their own NGO to deliver these projects across China. The theory of ESD remains the philosophy behind our projects.

So they registered this NGO in 2007. It’s the same team and similar projects, but they changed the name and started to do their own thing. It’s the same locations, the same schools, and even a lot of the networks that we have developed come from that time. This means they have been working in Southwestern China, in Shangri-La, and across the country for over 20 years now, which is a long time to be doing this kind of thing. There are about 20 people in our organization, half in Beijing and half in Shangri-La, and I’m the only non-Chinese person there. Part of my job is to write reports, and also projects and articles.

The projects that we have range from educational projects in schools, where we will take a school and support them to develop their own environmental education curriculum, something that is place-based, innovative and participatory, right down to the more community-based project that are basically sustainable development projects. So in villages and nature reserves we facilitate local people to take charge of their own natural environment by developing their community in a sustainable way, for example by installing solar water heaters, or bringing scientific methods to those communities so they can test their local water sources to check whether they are polluted, and then clean them up. The idea is that we facilitate communities and schools to use their own skills or their existing traditional culture and methods to protect the environment. We’ve had lots of successful and amazing cases, and the impact has been really massive.

Our projects put the community and local people at the center of the project, a concept that is really important in ESD, the UNESCO endorsed-theory of education which I mentioned previously. We are the main proponents of that theory in China.

 

CDB: How do you work with local schools to modify the way that environmental issues are taught?

LB: In fact, it’s not really us going to schools. We have this really big program called Water School China, which is a component of a global program supported by Swarovski. They have eight programs in eight countries and we are one of them. So they are our funders. It is however really different in each country, so we have implemented our own version of this project. It’s not exactly that we go in to schools, it’s more that we have created a network of teachers and professors and universities. The role of the NGO is more to train the teachers, build relationships with the teachers and other important stakeholders like local governments, academics, international people and global NGOs.

We train the teachers and also give them funding and support resources to implement their own projects, and the projects start from environmental education, for instance they’ll have theme classes, they’ll have at least one hour a week of environmental education projects on climate change, water education, etc… For example in the art lessons in that school, they will convert all the art into something about the environment, they’ll have poetry competitions about the environment etc. The teachers are like good friends for us, we have trained them and they have Wechat groups through which they talk to us all the time. It’s now been eight years, so the teachers and professors are now good friends with a lot of the staff members. These teachers will encourage the kids to do their own project in the community. We’ve had some amazing results.

There was one case in the countryside of Sichuan, near Mianyang, where there are some villages whose local river, a tributary to the Yangtze River, is blocked up by rubbish. The teacher will ask the kids: what’s the problem in the community, and the kids will obviously say all the rubbish in the river. So SSIC will facilitate the teachers with a plan to help the kids carry out their own project to clean the river up. We had a lot success with that one. It was one of our most well-known projects. We’ve done this in two areas in Sichuan now. The kids will implement their own project, first they will research why the river is so blocked, go into the community, ask their parents and shopkeepers what is going on, and then compile these reports and research, I imagine with the teacher’s help.

So they’ve been testing the water with these little kits we provide them, we also give them money to buy all of the equipment, and then comes the key step, which is the most exciting thing: the kids will work with the local government, which is actually the village administration, to clean up the river, picking up the rubbish. We have this mechanism by which they can install rubbish bins in this small village and then they can either find matching funding or find funding from other channels to provide them with garbage collectors and get people to clean up. That’s one example of how that project has been implemented. In each school we implement it differently, because the teachers might see there’s a certain problem, and the government can be more or less amenable…they might have to go by another route or there might be more activities to sensitize the locals.

 

CDB: What are your relations with local governments like? How do they react to this outside NGO trying to solve the local environmental problems?

LB: It’s a really long, slow process and it really depends a lot on which local government you are talking about. In the example of Piankou, Mianyang, we are not doing something against their principles, because of course everyone would like to clean that river up. So the key is to start with things that everyone agrees upon and then move from there. That’s something really inspiring for me to see, because I know that at the start the relationship could be one of distrust, or perhaps non-communication, or sometimes there could be language difficulties between the local people and the village administration.

One of main tenets of our strategy is to slowly work on stakeholder management from the very start to build a good relationship. There’s another village in Yunnan called Bazhu Village, which we’ve worked with in different forms since 2002. We’ve opened a community-learning center, which is a center where local organizations can meet and make decisions. It’s like a place for participatory meetings. The village administration and sometimes local policemen will now come to all the meetings, and they have a say on what decisions have been made, and what is being done by the villages themselves to solve problems. For example, they are having a problem at the moment with rubbish collection, because the road is being repaired and the garbage truck can’t get up because it’s a really steep valley. They haven’t actually solved the problem yet, but their village administration is really on board with it, coming to the meetings and asking “why don’t we do this, or that”. It’s amazing.

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The main square of Shangri-La, Yunnan

 

CDB: We all know there are some serious environmental problems in China. So do you feel that in these areas you work in your intervention has really made a difference to the local environment, in a way that really impacts people’s lives?

LB: Yes, especially in certain cases, we’ve had some big successes. But there are some things that the local people, and even the local government don’t have any power over. That’s why we always say that the main point of our project is not to actually change the environment that we are working with, the watersheds and the forest, but it is to change the people’s mindsets. There’s a conflict in all development projects, which is that if you work with the existing power structure, you can’t be criticizing and changing the existing power structure. But we certainly have contributed to the improvement of people’s lives, we certainly have allowed people to keep or rediscover their local traditions and we certainly have helped them to clean up their rivers.

 

CDB: In what way have you helped people rediscover the local traditions?

LB: Another aspect of the process that we’ve developed is to meet with community members and talk to them about their local traditions, for example music, food, and art. It’s not all about saying ‘you have to clean up the environment‘, it’s also about seeing what can you find in the local traditions which is in touch with environmental and sustainability principles, and in lots of cases there are things that are in common. But what we’ve found is that in places which have seen really rapid economic development, we can propose projects related to learning traditional dancing, reading books in the local language, rediscovering Taoism, but the people are not that interested. While in areas with a slower development, where maybe they have less job opportunities, the people are really keen, and they can see the value of their traditions. So the success of these projects really depends on their starting pace.

 

CDB: I know you have a lot of projects in Shangri-La, and that’s why the organization is called the Shangri-La Institute.

LB: Actually there is another story about why we are called that. Although we started in the town called Shangri-La, at that time it was actually called Zhongdian. It has only recently been called that name, but since Shangri-La actually refers to the idea of this utopian society, as in the novel Lost Horizon, and we are working towards a more equitable society, the name is still relevant even when we are not only focusing on projects in that area. In fact we are not only based in Shangri-La but all over China, including the Pearl River Delta, Beijing and Shanghai.

 

CDB: I see. But I was also wondering about the impact of mass tourism in Shangri-La on the environment, and to what extent it affects your projects.

LB: To be honest, the impact is massive. I’ve only been working since April 2016. I’ve been to Shangri-La four times. And even I can see that in this one year, it’s got much more developed. When we started these projects, it was not the same place. We have a Community-Learning Center in Shangri-La itself, about two or three kilometers from the main town. When it was built it was in a small village, near a lake, very remote. But now, it is not remote any more. A high-speed train line is being built 100 meters from this beautiful community-learning center. The high-speed train is coming to Shangri-La, and it’s going to change everything.

The community-learning center is right on the edge of this huge wetland, the Napahai wetland. This area is very important for bio-diversity because it’s an area for migrating birds, some of which are rare and endangered, and also it’s on the Tibetan plateau, there are lots of plants, animals and birds there which are really important. So we’ve built this community learning center, this garden demonstration plot where we’ve made these plants that filter the water that go through them to clean it. And 100 meters away they are building this high-speed train.

Another thing is that we have fewer projects now, because it has got very difficult to find funding.

 

CDB: Could you tell me the reasons?

LB: I think the reasons are as follows: the funding’s traditionally all been from international sources, but now China is no longer perceived as a developing country and is excluded by international donors. We are looking to diversify, and do eco-tourism projects, but that has so far not been that easy because like I said tourism is now going down in the area. And the economy’s bad. It is still an amazing place though, when I go there I feel so peaceful.

The other thing about funding is that we have been trying to apply for Chinese funding. At the moment, unfortunately for us, there seems to be a disconnection between potential Chinese donors and NGOs like SISC, which has lots of capacity and a rich experience working on the ground with local communities, putting these local communities at the front and centre of project-design and implementation. Finding the best way to tell our story to better connect with potential partners and funders is the biggest challenge we are facing at the moment.

 

CDB: You have a lot of projects connected to water pollution, right?

LB: We had a lot of experience with water protection, so we have done a lot of work related to river care. We think that when it comes to the people’s deep psychological connection to their local environment, the rivers are a really good example, because the river is like a tangible thing that’s local to you that you can really care about. We also had a couple of forestry protection projects.

 

CDB: What are the main sources of pollution in the rivers, is that because the local people throw rubbish into the river?

LB: It really depends on which locations we are at. Part of the process is for the kids or the local people to test the river’s water quality, and in some of our projects they have to find out what the biggest pollutant is. So sometimes it’s open sewage, or they walk along the river and they can see some pipes there, which are releasing pollutants into the river. In one of our project locations, there was an abandoned mine, and they did a trip all along the river, and they found out that the mine was blocking up the river and nobody knew about it. They petitioned the government, and the government put pressure on the company to clean up the river. That’s a great story.

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A photo of Lucy (at the front) with a colleague in Shangri-La

 

CDB: Could you relate any interesting anecdotes from some of the projects you took part in?

LB: When I first went to Shangri-la in November last year there was a young guy who worked for us. This guy was 25 years old, the same age as me, so we became friends. He was a driver and also a dancing teacher, a local Tibetan guy. He’s a very sweet guy everyone loves, no one will say a bad thing about him. He worked as our driver and taught Tibetan dance and was a very calm guy. He was the sweetest guy in the whole team, got along with everyone. A few months after I first met him, it turned out that he had to leave our organization, because it turned out that he was a living incarnation of the Buddha.

 

CDB: So how did he find out he was a living Buddha?

LB: He was only 25, and he didn’t know. Monks from the monastery close to where he grew called him and told him, you’re the new living Buddha. So at the moment he is in Tibet studying in a monastery – we hope he will still work with us, but he might have lots of other responsibilities now. Amazing story isn’t it?
CDB: Can you tell us about any interesting projects you have for the future?

LB: We have an education program and we want to invite students and people who want to learn about sustainability in China to come to Shangri-La, and the activity will start next March. The activity should be about three weeks long, and it would include a community aspect and a study aspect in which people could learn about the culture and the challenges we face.

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