Lijiang, a booming southwestern Chinese town, is tucked away high in the mountains on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Like many cities in China, it is a beacon of paradox: an ancient town yet a booming metropolis, a cultural oasis yet a tiresome tourist trap, and a paragon of beauty yet surprisingly trashy – literally.
I've seen one Lijianger climb a mountain, scavenge a dirty bag, fill it with trash and bring it back down the mountain
Every morning, as I wait for my consistently inconsistent bus, I stand in awe of the snowy mountains and rolling green hills that surround me. Across the street, pristine ponds frame ancient Chinese pagodas in a historic park. Willow trees sway in the breeze and puppies happily skip alongside students on summer vacation. It's easily the Chinese version of paradise.
But as I wait, three orange-vested women plod down the road, each armed with a broom and dustpan. They are collecting litter. They gather empty soda bottles, small plastic bags and cigarette butts along the street. I hiked up a mountain recently and at the peak, my friends and I found trash gathered in ugly, deserted piles. All of a sudden, paradise is lost.
Small scale littering in Lijiang is an unfortunate social reality. Despite the fact that government is fairly attentive and progressive – the use or production of plastic bags is prohibited in Lijiang – the roaring tourism industry often breeds a sense of carelessness and encourages a detrimental short term outlook on environmental protection.
Most vacationers do not have an incentive to care about the type of trail they leave behind in historic Old Town or atop nearby mountains. They're here and then they're gone. This varies great from the environmentally conscious practices of many native Lijiangers and the local Naxi minority. Tourists expect purchases to be wrapped elaborately and to use convenient disposable products. It is possible that this carelessness is rubbing off on the local community. From a commercial standpoint, there are few reasons for merchants to be eco-friendly. As a traveler myself, I can be guilty of such expectations too.
Furthermore, in general Chinese people aren't raised in utter fear of being caught littering in public places. In fact, in Lijiang it is common to encounter the opinion that “someone else will pick it up” or “there are too many people in China and I know a person whose exact job is to clean up that trash anyway.”
Most vacationers do not have an incentive to care about the type of trail they leave behind in historic Old Town.
The challenge is that it will take at least an entire generation or two to create an innate awareness of environmental protection in China for both tourists and locals. It requires serious and simultaneous investment on multiple levels from the government to activists to individual families.
Of course, poverty is certainly related to the environmental paradox. Some Lijiangers are so poor they can barely provide for themselves and their families. Protecting the environment is well beyond their scope of reality.
But by and large, those who are creating the problem “tourists and locals alike” are consumers who can afford to prevent the problem. And the proof is in the pudding. There is nascent progress in Lijiang. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy, museums and the local government are working hard to make a difference by educating tour guides, tourists and citizens about an eco-friendlier way of life. There are passionate individuals who do their part. I've seen one Lijianger climb a mountain, scavenge a dirty bag, fill it with trash and bring it back down the mountain.
After many mornings waiting at that bus stop, I met one of the hard-working sweepers and discovered that she typically works twelve hours a day, collecting trash. She works through traffic, waves of tourists and even the rain. Although I'm no activist environmentalist, I wonder what would happen if each visitor and local had her job for a day. Would it be easier to keep Lijiang a Chinese paradise?
Jo Kent is a current Fulbright Scholar to China. She is presently working on a documentary that tracks the evolution of Lijiang (Yunnan Province) over the past 10 years. Jo will report from Beijing beginning in September.