History Trails

The Yangtze cleanup

A childhood friendship leads the University to help make a difference

When Sam Chao returned to the land of his birth as a passenger on a Yangtze River cruise, he saw beyond the spectacular canyons and gorges, the great cliffs and the cultural treasures. He saw a river turbid and dirty, silt-laden and saddened.

Chao made a silent vow: he was only one person, hut he would do all that he could to make a difference. There and then he dedicated himself to finding a way to restore the river to the sparkling clear waterway lie had known as a child, a river supporting abundant plant and animal life, a river whose beauty had been the Subject of poets and painters since time immerriorial.

Returning to his Los Angeles home, Chao though about what he could do and who could help him. After discassing his vision with his wife and receiving her support, lie called one of his oldest friends.

Out of that phone call has evolved the Ecological Conservancy Outreach Fund based at the University of Alberta and managed through a trust account administered by the Office of the President. The sole purpose of the fund is the support of Chao's vision. Every dollar donated to it will be spent on the restoration of the Yangtze.

The co-founder (with Chao) of the Fund—the friend to whom Chao placed his phone call—is Larry Wang, a U of A professor of biological sciences who also serves as an advisor on international affairs to the University's president, Rod Fraser.

Wang and Chao share the bonds of a common history. Both were born in Chongquing in China's Szechuan Province, both grew up in Taiwan after their families moved there as followers of Chiang Kai-Shek, and both attended the same elementary school. When they entered junior high school, both were chosen to be a part of an experimental program that placed a cohort of the brightest children together for the remainder of their gradeschool years. Although they parted when they entered different universities, Wang and Chao have remained close over the years.

When Wang received Chao's phone call, he was amazed at the latter's commitment. There is a Chinese proverb, explains Wang, that says if one tosses a brick into a collection basket for a righteous cause, jade—representing wealth—will soon follow to support the cause. The "brick" his friend was prepared to toss in was nothing less than his entire life savings. A successful engineer whose children had graduated from university and were well on their way to making their own way in life, Chao was prepared to contribute US$1 million to restoring the river to something approaching its former grandeur.

"I was totally stunned," recalls Wang. Inspired by his friend's selflessness, he quickly agreed to help. Chao was looking to Wang for assistance because he didn't want to simply turn his money over to some large development fund. He wanted to know what his money was doing and to have confidence that it was being used wisely. He hoped that Wang, with his academic background and connections, could help.

Wang assured his friend that the University of Alberta had the necessary expertise in soil conservation, forestry management, and rural economic development to put his vision into action, and in short order he had secured the full support of a dozen or more of his colleagues from across campus. He also gained the enthusiastic support of President Rod Fraser, who was happy to take the project under the wing of his office.

The U of A president says the project is not only well suited to the University's capabilities but is a good fit for the role it sees for itself. "As a research intensive univcrsity with an international vision, we are committed to extend the impact of our knowledge and mind-power around the globe. By bringing together the right partners, we are are able to not only improve the well-being of the Yangtze tributary system, but also to ensure the sustainable well-being of the people who will tend to it. A project like this is so much more than environmental responsibility— it is economic; it is social."

Thc main culprit in the deteriorating water quality of the Yangtze is the intense cultivation that has taken place on the steep slopes that border the river and its tributaries. Where there were once vast forests that could absorb huge quantities of monsoon rain, there are now terraced fields from which rainwater pours into the river, taking with it huge amounts of topsoil.

Restoring the Yangtze calls for enormous efforts at reforestation, says Wang. The plan of action worked out for the ECO Fund involves identifyinr critical sites for reforestation and then working with local governments and farmers to find suitable solutions. "We have to be aware of the social conditions," explains Wang. "The local farmers depend on this land for their livelihood. Through sustainable forestry, we have to provide them a viable alternative to farming."

Although the ECO Fund was not formally launched until October 2000, two projects are already underway. Both are being done in collaboration with local agencies and both are based in China's rugged Yunnan Province, close to the river's source in the Qinhai highlands. Wang admits that, for sentimental reasons, he and Chao would have found it appealing to support projects in Szechuan, the province of their birth, but 50 per cent of the silt found in the river when it reaches the Three Gorges area downstream has already entered the river before it reaches Chongquing.

Fortunately, one of Wang's U of A colleagues, chemical and materials engineering professor Ming Rao, has cxtcnsive connections in Yunnan and was able to provide introductions to some of the provincial leaders, who proved extremely receptive to Chao's vision. (ln fact, the central Chinese government, motivated by the devastating annual floods resulting from heavy rainfall flowing unchecked into the river, had already issued a directive that all slopes steeper than 25 degrees were to be returned to forest.)

One of the ECO Fund's inaugural projects is being launched in a remote area of Yunnan Province in collaboration with the Yunnan department of forestry. In this outof-the-way corner of China, farmers eke out a meagre living (the average annual per-capita income is only about $80) growing rice and other crops on the mountain slopes above a tributary of the Golden Sand River—the name the Yangtze bears for the first part of its journey to the China Sea. These same slopes once nourished impressive bamboo forests, and the plan is to return 280 hectares of land to bamboo, a tree that provides an economic return to the landowners, who are able to harvest and sell bamboo shoots. In addition, a mountainous area of about 340 hectares will be completely closed to human activities.

The ECO Fund has committed US$250,000 to the project and the Yunnan government and local enterprises are providing funding totalling US$125,000, on a matching basis—a dollar for every two dollars the Fund spends.

In another part of Yunnan, closer to the Golden Sand River itself, the Fund is collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Forestry to plant 333 acres of new forest, which will include a variety of economically important species, such as walnuts, fruit trees, and medicinally important species. The US$250,000 the ECO Fund is prepared to commit for this project is being matched dollar-for-dollar by the Forestry Academy.

The U of A has a great role to play in both projects says Wang—everything from providing expertise in tissue-culture techniques and forest genetics to using remote sensing to monitor the land use changes taking place. Wang is particularly keen on getting University of Alberta graduate Students involved. "Applied research on the Yangtze River represents a prime opportunity for a broad-based international education," lie says.

The two projects now underway are only the beginning. A major proposal to the Canadian International Development Agcncy is in the works and a list of critical sites in Yunnan where soil erosion is severe and recurring is being compiled. A fundraising initiative is also being launched.

However, even before the official launch of tile fundraising campaign, Chao's "brick" had begun to attract jade. In addition to the matching funding coming from the Chinese agencies with whom the ECO Fund initiative has struck a chord, like-minded individuals have already stepped forward—one early donor pledged US$110,000, another committed US$350,000.

Wang is hopeful that when the fundraising begins in earnest more donations from overseas Chinese will be forthcoming. "This is a moveincur that transcends geographic and political boundaries," he says. "It is an opportunity to restore the ecological balance of this part of the world and help millions and millions of people who live along the Yanggtze River." And, he adds, it is an opportunity for the University of Alberta to do something special. "It's our opportunity to take a leadership role and show universities around the world that we can make a difference."

Published May 2001.

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