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Global Environmental Leader: Yi Xiaohua Balances Tourism and Conservation in Rural China

Ford International Fellowships Program

In 2001, the Ford Foundation granted $280 million—the largest single donation in the Foundation’s history—to a new initiative called the Ford International Fellowships Program (IFP). IFP set out to prove that an international scholarship program could help build leadership for social justice and thus contribute to broader social change. What followed was the creation of a fellowship that provided access to higher education for talented leaders from marginalized communities, giving them an opportunity to further develop their skills and capacities and serve as better agents for social change.

Over the past decade, the program enabled a total of 4,314 emerging social justice leaders from Asia, Russia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to pursue advanced degrees at more than 600 universities in almost 50 countries. Many Ford International Fellows have become leaders in the fields of environmental leadership, protection, and research. Over the next several weeks, EcoWatch will be profiling some of these incredible graduates, sharing their stories and global environmental impact.

Yi Xiaohua spent most of her childhood in the bustling city streets of Shanghai, China. As a child, she dreamed of returning to her hometown—what was then a small, rural county—to run through mountains, rivers and farms.

When Yi was growing up, awareness of environmental issues in China was limited. Yet Yi knew she wanted to protect China’s beautiful natural environments, so she began working for Greenriver, a small, grassroots Non-governmental Organization (NGO) that focuses on conservation in the Yangtze River Area. But she soon discovered that despite her enthusiasm, she didn’t have the knowledge or training she needed be a truly effective agent for change.

“I still had no understanding of NGOs or much knowledge of environmental issues,” Yi said of her job at Greenriver. “I was happy to be part of such a great program but wished I could have some professional background to help me contribute more.”

When Yi heard about the Ford International Fellowships Program, she was ecstatic. “I felt like my dream would come true,” she said, and resolved to sharpen her English language skills over the next year and to decide what, precisely, she wanted to study in graduate school.

Yi had learned from her experience with Greenriver that a new tension was mounting in Southwest China between tourism development and environmental protection. It seemed to her that the key to the solution was to educate people about the problems posed by unregulated development, and to inspire in others the same appreciation for nature that she and her coworkers had. She decided that she wanted to pursue a graduate degree that would give her the skills she needed to teach others about the environment.

Yi was then awarded an IFP fellowship, which she used to attend Antioch University, where she earned her Master’s degree in environmental education in 2010. After successfully completing her degree, Yi returned to Southwest China where she took a job with the Yunnan Office of the Nature Conservancy. There, she was charged with the monumental task of solving a mounting trash problem in the Yubeng and Xidang areas of the Meli Snow Mountain National Park.

The area is home to various key conservation targets, including an endangered Evergreen Oak forest, and also provides important habitats for a diverse range of wildlife. The ecosystem faced serious problems as a result of increasing tourism. Trash began accumulating in the area, and was almost impossible to remove as the region’s average altitude is 10,000 feet and the nearest road is over seven miles away.

Yi had her work cut out for her, but using her new knowledge and skills, she adeptly created and implemented a new “low impact tourism program.” Through the program, she recruited and trained local volunteers to conduct field surveys and educate residents and tourists about conservation. She inspired both villagers and tourists to take better care of the environment, creating new legions of advocates for the protection of the park.

Building on this effort, she completed a problem-solving report for the local government, convincing the authorities to become involved. The government in turn took her suggestions, providing more waste baskets for the road system and setting up signs prohibiting littering and other damaging activities.

Yi-Xiaohua working with the community to protect the fresh water resource in the Haizi Mountian area, Sichuan.

The government is also now in the process of establishing a working group that will negotiate an agreement with local communities to develop better infrastructure to reduce the trash problem.

Most recently, Yi became a program officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and oversees their China Border Wildlife Guardian Award, which is the first award of its kind in the country. Yi creates incentive structures for wildlife law enforcement in China’s border areas, and promotes country-wide exchanges to increase collective knowledge and skills around conservation issues.

Yi credits her success as an environmental leader in China to her studies at Antioch. “All these great study opportunities and internships broadened my mind and increased my confidence for my future vocation. I really appreciate IFP giving me a chance to contribute to my hometown and my country more effectively.”

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