Oasis in the concrete wilderness

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2006, 12:00am

Qi Zhala is the governor of the tiny town of Zhongdian, Yunnan province , which calls itself 'Shangri-la'. An ethnic Tibetan, he wears a dark Tibetan robe with long sleeves, rather than the western tie and jacket of an ordinary cadre.

While other cities in China are busy destroying their old sections - obliterating their own heritage in the name of development - Mr Qi has placed old Zhongdian under a protection order.

The Zhongdian approach contrasts starkly with Beijing's razing of the old city for the Olympics, which has destroyed virtually everything of heritage value except the Forbidden City.

'We think differently,' Mr Qi said confidently. 'The old should be kept old, and it should be preserved with cultural protection as the central objective.

'Some places ... tear down their old city, replacing it with steel and cement structures. We have chosen a separate path - to protect the old heritage, because history is continuity.'

Mr Qi points to Lhasa's Barkor Street, and the cities of Lijiang and Dali in Yunnan province, as good examples of preservation. But, for the most part, cities in China have followed the capital's example and are today just concrete landscapes seemingly covered with bathroom tiles and blue glass.

Indeed, the country seems fixated upon bathroom fixtures as a decoration theme.

'Shangri-la is in a rare ecosystem zone, with an enormous diversity of environment, ecology and culture,' Mr Qi said. 'Protecting the environment, architecture and traditional culture is an integrated effort. Forests, water and mountains need accelerated protection measures that also involve fighting pollution and rubbish.'

Mr Qi became a household name in Yunnan when he banned the use of plastic bags in Zhongdian. Since then, he has regulated agricultural pesticides, applying strict rules to protect soil sustainability and prevent adverse side effects.

This method is so different from Beijing's, where the city government has obliterated its cultural heritage and is turning the city into an unliveable, environmental disaster.

By contrast, the Shangri-la approach to development emphasises protecting indigenous culture.

'We feel our environment is part of our human heritage,' Mr Qi explained. 'We must protect it, and the culture that is an integral part of it. We Tibetans herd animals, which is a traditional occupation in conflict with industrial development. We do not need industrial development here in Zhongdian. We have selected sectors to develop, such as traditional herding, agriculture and crafts.

'We do not want the kind of industrial development that will destroy our ecosystem. People and nature should be in a close relationship and should not be in conflict. Nature is not to be destroyed or we will destroy ourselves.'

Clearly, the Shangri-la approach conflicts with China's established development model, which measures success by the growth of gross domestic product; how much cement and steel can be churned into development projects; or how many big cars choke the streets.

'Real development involves protection,' said Mr Qi. 'Recognising and protecting what is really important represents true development. Actually, ecological protection is a sector unto itself. This sector fits our traditional lifestyle and our own region, and it is what we have chosen.

'Sure, you can urbanise yourselves, but this does not necessarily mean you are developed,' he added.

'Development is not only large-scale industrialisation. We have over 300,000 people here. We see development in a larger perspective. Protecting our mountains, forests and lifestyle is development for us.'

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation