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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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"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine is creating the right conditions for lobster, so it's helped our industry—and it's been a big boost for the Maine economy," Porter, the current president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said. "But you never know what lies ahead. If it continues to warm, it may end up going the other way."

The Gulf of Maine is setting frequent temperature records and warming faster overall than 99 percent of the world's oceans, due in large part to climate change. Meanwhile, its lobster population skyrocketed by 515 percent between 1984 and 2014. In 1990, for example, lobster landings in Maine totaled 28 million pounds. Ten years later that figure was up to 57 million pounds. And in every year since 2011, the take has exceeded 100 million pounds, peaking at 132.6 million pounds in 2016 and turning lobster into a half-billion-dollar industry for the state.

Fishermen like Porter have been reaping the benefits of the boom, but he's right — as the Gulf of Maine's waters inevitably continue to warm, lobster populations will almost certainly decrease. The crustaceans thrive at temperatures between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water hits 70 degrees, its oxygen levels plummet, to the detriment of a host of marine plants and animals, lobsters included. According to a 2018 study, the gulf's lobster population could fall by 40 to 62 percent over the next 30 years, returning the industry — the nation's most valuable fishery — to early-2000s numbers.

"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."

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Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."

State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)

Such a head-on response to the impacts of climate change facing Maine offers a much-needed boost to the future of both lobsters and the coastal communities that rely on the fishery. Meanwhile, the iconic sea creatures have already benefited from generations of conservation efforts, as noted by Pershing and his fellow researchers. In addition to heeding minimum and maximum catch size limits, fishers must refrain from taking any egg-bearing female lobsters. Instead, when they catch these breeders, they clip their tails with a "V notch,"—a mark that will stay with a lobster through several molts—then release them. (The clipped tail signals to other fisherman who may encounter the same lobsters that they are off-limits.)

Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."

The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.

The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.

While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."

Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.

"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."

Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.

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Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.

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The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.

"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.

As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."

"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."

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