The Yunnan Great Rivers 

Creating environmentally safe economic solutions

More often than not, expeditions are spurred by the western, explore and conquer mentality that is so much a part of European and North American heritage. The places and people where these expeditions take place are little more than a side note, chalked off as another part of the experience within the collective brain of the undertaking.

During the winter of 2002-2003, Boise residents Matt Yost and Jim Norton participated in a project that went against the stagnate grain of exploration.

Six years ago, after devastating floods ravaged the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, the Chinese government contracted the Nature Conservancy, an American based, not-for-profit environmental organization, to come to China and assess the environmental blowout that had occurred after the flood. Logging in the upper reaches of these two drainages had made the area susceptible to mud slides that wiped out thousands of homes and wreaked havoc on the all important farmland that sustains the people of the region. "Nearly 300 tons of sediment came rushing down those rivers, destroying everything in its path," says Jim Norton a former Middle Fork guide. "One thing about a communist country, when something like this happens there are no congressional hearings or environmental impact assessments. They just stop logging. Period."

And with the halting of timber extraction, so went an important way for the local people to make money. Most of the time, when environmental protection is enacted by governments, the local economy is sacrificed. A comparative example here at home is our own logging industry. It is the ultimate conundrum. Save the environment that we need to sustain ourselves but in the process, sacrifice a way of life.

Enter Norton and Yost. The Nature Conservancy contacted these two river guides to put together a team that would travel to China and participate in the Yunnan Great Rivers Project.

"We were contacted in October and told that we needed to be there in December," said Yost, the Outreach Coordinator for Idaho Rivers United. "We called everybody we could think of trying to gather funding and put together a crew."

In the end Outside Television helped foot the bill along with companies within the whitewater industry. Three kayakers would lead as safety boaters and the crew would guide several Chinese officials down the rivers as well. The mission: Explore the Salween, Iriwati, Mekong and Yangtze River drainages to find out if they would feasibly support a bourgeoning whitewater industry.

Whitewater rafting, hiking trips and eco tourism in general, are ways for Asian countries to create jobs and boost the economy without destroying the land that they live in.

"And the money stays local," Norton added.

Similar undertakings are already well established in countries like Nepal and India.

The group found that the rivers were definitely capable of supporting a whitewater industry with their big, powerful rapids and gorgeous scenery. The problem? The definition of wilderness is so vastly different in western culture than in the east. In our world, we generally look at "wilderness" as a place of leisure. We protect it, coddle it and romanticize over it. In eastern society, most people are still completely intertwined with "wilderness." Subsistence farming is the way of the land. Norton estimates that one household can go through six tons of fuel annually.

So the Nature Conservancy is constantly looking for environmental solutions that fit into the fabric of these people's lives. One example of this is bio-gas, a mini phenomenon throughout Asia.

"This is the animal that is going to save China's forests, the hero of our story," says Norton as he stands over a pen occupied by fat black pig during the early part of the film that Outside Television ran on the Outdoor Life Network in late February. "The ass end of this beast produces over 135 gallons of fuel per year."

Disgusting yet ingenious, bio gas is produced from feces through a very simple process. A rubber tube is stuck down into a collection bin for human and animal excrement. When the pressure builds up the fuel produced from the gas is used to heat homes and cook food. A constant blue dart if you will.

After Norton explains the process the camera pans out and shows the untouched woodpile that the farmer says he hasn't touched since his bio-gas system was installed the year before.

Along with environmental protection projects, the Conservancy is also working to create a bulwark of cultural landmarks. The organization is mapping out the sacred places that the native people of the Yunnan region hold in great esteem.

"The mapping of this sacred geography can encompass a lot of things and is important to have if you're going to try and do commercial trips in the area," Norton said. "These places can be creeks that the people don't drink from or a stand of trees that is sacred as a place of prayer."

The project continues today with the training of Chinese guides and more exploration of whitewater options in the western part of the country.

"We're bringing people over to train them on the Grand Canyon and in Idaho," Yost said.

Returning home, Yost settled back into the daily grind, "surfing a desk" while Norton traveled to Los Angeles to edit the Outside Television film. The cultural shock hit them squarely.

"It was just incredible how happy those people were with how little they had," Yost commented. "They just don't need much to be content."

Our society, on the other hand, continues to be bogged down with the bottom line. Lessons learned from another country's mistakes should be fully embraced but instead the line at the pump and rising gas prices continue to make headlines on a weekly basis. Our connection to disposable resources never seems to end or find reprieve. Perhaps projects like this will set an example of alternative solutions to problems that aren't going to go away without active pursuit. Maybe the metaphor of the river can someday lead to a progressive baptism into the world of alternative resource production.

Check out the Outside Television film about the Yunnan Great Rivers project produced by Jim Norton on Earth Day, Thursday April 22 at the Egyptian Theater. The doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30.

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