People, parks, and prosperity: A story map project in China’s new National Park

By Wenjing Xu

Feature image: The working landscape of eastern Tibet where humans and nature co-exist and co-thrive © Wenjing Xu

Protected Areas are among the major strategies used to conserve declining global biodiversity. However, the establishment of protected areas has also led to the displacement of tens of millions of people worldwide who formerly lived within these areas. Voices of communities that are directly impacted by the establishment of these sites are often absent among public and academic discussions.

Yak herd in front of a snow mountain in eastern Tibet © Wenjing Xu

This project looks at the “park vs. people” dilemma through the lens of China’s first and largest national park – the Sanjiangyuan National Park. Designated as a national park in 2015 and officially opened in 2020, Sanjiangyuan comprises an area equivalent to the size of 13 Yellowstone National Parks. Furthermore, Sanjiangyuan contains the headwaters of three major rivers of Asia: the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong. In addition to unique fauna and flora, Sanjiangyuan is home to Amdo Tibetan pastoralists, who have traditionally herded yaks and sheep in Sanjiangyuan. When the national park was established, some regions adopted a community-based conservation regime, allowing villagers to continue herding livestock and to participate in the management of the park. Yet, other regions carried out conservation displacement programs that moved pastoralists to nearby town centers. The sedentarization and concentration of pastoralists heavily disrupted their pastoral livelihoods. Many have stopped herding altogether.

Tibetan prayer flag in a valley of eastern Sanjiangyuan © Wenjing Xu

This project is a collaboration between two GEN members, Wenjing Xu, a wildlife and rangeland ecologist, and Inanc Tekguc, a photographer and videographer with a background in anthropology. Combining our academic and media expertise, we aim to produce a web-based multimedia multi-lingual story map that documents the livelihood transformations of communities that live and used to live in Sanjiangyuan. The story map integrates maps, legends, text, audio, photos, and video and provides functionality, such as swipe, pop-ups, and time sliders, that help users explore the content. In spring 2022, we will visit three villages in and around Sanjiangyuan and utilize interdisciplinary tools, including audio-recording, photography, videography, and participatory mapping, to document communities’ stories with their own voices. We will weave these personalized stories with scientific and historical contexts of ecological resettlement and livelihood transformations induced by the establishment of the protected area.

Tibetan pastoralists and their black tent made of yak fur © Wenjing Xu

Due to the interactive nature of the project, we will share the diverse experiences of different Sanjiangyuan communities to tourists, students, and the general public who are interested in conservation within and beyond China. Ultimately, the story map will be a glimpse into the hidden world of Tibetan conservation migrants, a documentation of the drastically changing pastoral livelihoods, and a contemplation of the effect of environmental conservation on societies. More broadly, we hope this project can add to the global discussion on conservation regimes to reconcile the needs of both humans and nature.

The People, parks, and prosperity: A story map project in China’s new National Park project is a collaboration between GEN members Wenjing Xu and Inanc Tekguc, and is supported through GEN Project Packages.