Engineer finds new calling on Tibetan plateau

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-9-18 5:03:01

Xiong Yang's self-portrait Photo: Courtesy of Xiong Yang


Garbage littered on the ground near the Qinghai-Tibet Highway in 2007 Photo: Courtesy of Green River

Xiong Yang, 55, never expected that a driving tour of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau 13 years ago would help him find his life's calling.

He was one of the first professional waste management volunteers to analyze, classify, evaluate garbage on the plateau and he has helped build China's second NGO ecological center on the plateau.

Xiong found his calling on a sunny autumn day in 2002 while driving his car on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. Xiong was deputy chief engineer at the Shenzhen Civil Engineering Construction Consulting Center in South China's Guangdong Province. He majored in water supply and sewage engineering at university during the early 1980s. He was among the first group of graduates with this major after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Dealing with garbage is just a normal part of his job. It also afforded him the means to satisfy his passion for travel.

On that day in 2002, he met 21-year-old Feng Yong, a member of the volunteer group - Green River Environment Protection Association of Sichuan. Feng explained to him the nature and wildlife protection work that the Green River volunteers were doing. Xiong was excited to hear this and filled with admiration for their hard work.

Three months later, he heard Feng had died while on a volunteer patrol at Hoh Xil, an isolated region in the northwestern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It is China's least and the world's third-least populated area.

"Feng's death shocked me. I had never thought somebody would die to protect the environment. His death became a calling for me to work in environmental protection," Xiong told the Global Times. 

Another three months later, he joined Green River.

Green River was set up in 1995 by volunteer Yang Xin to protect the environment and wildlife habitats around the headstream and upper reaches of the Yangtze River in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Since joining Green River in 2003, Xiong has spent one or two months each year doing volunteer work.

Raising awareness

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway came into operation in 2006. During the construction of the railway, hundreds of shops and restaurants opened near the construction sites and growing towns. Many of these businesses sold ready-to-eat food, resulting in large amounts of packaging and plastic bottles being discarded around the area. In some towns, the smell of garbage spread for miles, and huge piles of non-biodegradable waste dotted the landscape.

"The garbage problem came very quickly. The local governments and residents were unprepared. There were no garbage collection facilities in those areas then," Xiong said.

Transportation costs were high, and the majority of vehicles were used to transport food and construction materials. In 2006, Xiong led a volunteer team that went around asking tourists not to throw rubbish carelessly and refrain from hunting wild animals.

In 2011, Xiong participated in the "Bring out a rubbish bag" campaign. Volunteers worked to promote the idea on trains, cars and bus stops, as well as in cities and towns along the rail line. Tourists and residents started to respond. Most of them were glad they could do something for the environment by bringing one rubbish bag to collect waste in cities hundreds of kilometers away. 

Going to the source

The vast grasslands and prairies are great for taking photos, but a closer inspection reveals a much less picturesque side.

Xiong determined to understand the severity of the problem, and as a waste management professional, he had the ability to do just that.

In 2007, Xiong led a team of volunteers from Green River to conduct a survey investigating trash samples from the area around the source of the Yangtze River. Their team surveyed two major towns - Tanggulashan and Yanshiping.

They collected, evaluated and classified the average quantities and types of garbage they found and compiled statistical charts.

They then submitted their report to the governments of Qinghai Province, the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Government experts later evaluated their survey.

Local governments responded to their report quickly, building two garbage landfills, 40 garbage collection centers and hundreds of dumpsters along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway.

One advantage that makes Xiong stand out is his professional knowledge of waste management. He has written and compiled textbooks, written survey reports and organized evaluations. Their reports have become one of the key references for policymakers.

Spreading the word

A red, two-story Tibetan-style building has become the symbol of the environmental protection volunteers on the plateau. Located in Tanggulashan town, the Yangtze River ecological center is China's second environmental protection center built by an NGO. The center was built in 2011, and serves as a communication center connecting local residents, tourists, experts, volunteers and governments.

Dozens of volunteers based in the center monitor the weather, garbage collection and wildlife protection. For local residents, it is a place to learn environmental protection methods. 

Locals found lots of livestock died after consuming plastic bags and garbage. They started to understand the danger of plastic bags, empty beer bottles, used batteries and other garbage and waste. More locals started to voluntarily bring garbage to the center. After evaluating what they have brought in, the volunteers take locals to nearby shops to purchase food and other daily necessities.

"We ask local residents to bring garbage to us. We don't give them cash, but take them to shops to buy food," Xiong said.

There are hundreds of Tibetan monasteries scattered around the plateau. One by one, Xiong started to persuade the monks to lend their help. Xiong also visited Wuming Monastery  in Seda county of Sichuan Province. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist academy in the world. Khenpo Sodargye, the head of the academy, spent two hours discussing environmental protection with Xiong. Khenpo Sodargye told Xiong that although there is no formal course on environmental protection in Tibetan monasteries, Buddhism itself is about the harmony between man and nature.

The conversation gave Xiong and other environmentalists further confidence in their cause. Though he has now foregone most of his salary in Shenzhen in order to participate in environmental protection campaigns, he has no regrets. He is a man who has found his calling.

Newspaper headline: Taking out the trash

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