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Goodbye Hardship
An ethnic minority in Yunnan's mountainous area steps out of poverty
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2019-05-10  ·   Source: NO. 20 MAY 16, 2019

An aerial view of Dulongjiang Township in Gongshan Dulong-Nu Autonomous County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, on April 18 (XINHUA)

Flanked by snow-capped mountains bordering Myanmar in southwest China's Yunnan Province, Dulongjiang Township, named after the Dulong River that winds through it, used to be one of the poorest areas in China. The township is home to people of the Derung ethnic group, one of the ethnic minorities in China that has the smallest population. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Derung people still lived an insulated and primitive life.

It was not until 1999 that a road was built linking the area to the outside world, making it the last township in China to be connected by road. Access to the township was still blocked by snow for almost six months a year until a tunnel was completed in 2014.

One of the smallest and most isolated minorities, with less than 7,000 people, the Derung ethnic group shook off poverty in 2018. On April 11, the people in Dulongjiang received a letter from President Xi Jinping, congratulating them.

"Making it possible for people of all ethnic groups to have a good life has been my aspiration as well as our common goal," Xi wrote in his letter.

Yunnan, which borders Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam, has 25 ethnic minorities. The vast mountainous areas in the province have been identified as a major target for the government's poverty alleviation.

A street in Dulongjiang Township on April 18 (GAO ANMING)

Paving the way 

Gao Derong, 65, the former head of the township and a key figure in leading local people out of poverty, read the letter from Xi to his fellow townspeople and could not hide his excitement.

"The life of the Derung people in recent years has changed dramatically," Gao said. "The president encouraged us to build a good homeland, guard the border and create a better future in his letter. We will keep this in mind and work harder on reaching greater goals."

After graduating from a normal school in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Gao returned to his hometown, worked as a teacher in a primary school and helped wipe out illiteracy. Gao is one of the few people of his generation in his hometown to have gotten an education. In 1984, he started to serve in the township government with the ambition of lifting the local people out of poverty.

 

Gao Derong, former head of Dulongjiang Township, works on an amomum tsao-ko field on March 18, 2013 (XINHUA)

Even after he was promoted to higher positions in Gongshan Dulong-Nu Autonomous County, to which Dulongjiang is subordinated, and higher Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Gao still spent most of his time working in Dulongjiang.

"Before the founding of the PRC, people in my township lived by hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture," Gao said. "No Derung people could speak Mandarin and people still used knot-tying to keep records."

His relative, Kong Zhiqing, was the first around them to learn Mandarin and go to school. In 1952, as the head of Gongshan Dulong-Nu Autonomous County, Kong went to Beijing to attend a conference. There, he met then Premier Zhou Enlai, who decided to make Derung the official name of the ethnic group based on Kong's suggestion.

When Gao served in the government, there were no roads, no regular schools and no businesses in the township. The rolling hills and harsh climate made it difficult to even build a road. School-aged children would have to slide along a steel wire above the roaring Dulong River to get to county schools. Landslides, avalanches, wild animal attacks and traffic accidents made life extremely harsh.

As a witness to the township's transformation from longtime poverty, Gao concluded that there were three major phases that were crucial to the township's development. The first was the founding of the PRC, which led the township from a primitive society to a socialist one. The second was when the road to the township was constructed in 1999, and the latest phase, which began after 2010, was when the government of Yunnan launched a project to lift the Derung people out of poverty.

A visitor surnamed Wang from Beijing visited the township in 2007. He still remembers a notice he found pasted on the wall in the township during the Spring Festival.

"It said that someone donated 10,000 yuan ($1,470) to the township and that the township decided to divide the money among all the residents. It meant in the end, each person got less than 2 yuan ($0.29)," Wang told Beijing Review. "It was the Spring Festival, the most important of all Chinese holidays, and each person only received that small amount of money. It was astonishing."

Under such harsh conditions, Gao meticulously explored methods to increase local income. As he saw it, the advantage of the township was its superb ecological environment, with more than 95 percent forest coverage, as well as rivers, waterfalls, deep valleys and mountains.

Thus, ecological protection was made a top priority. "A well-preserved ecological environment is the great treasure passed down to us by our ancestors," Gao said. "We will spare no efforts to protect it."

Eventually, he found a way to bring both economic benefits to the locals and do no harm to the environment: They started planting amomum tsao-ko, a spice and medicinal herb, which is well-suited for the local climate.

Gao set up a base offering free training to the townspeople and in order to encourage more of them to learn the process, he also provided free accommodations and meals.

This created a sharp rise in locals' income. So far, there are more than 4,000 hectares of amomum tsao-ko farmland in Dulongjiang.

"The market for amomum tsao-ko has been growing in recent years, which has led to a boom in locals getting involved in the business," said Zhang Jun, Deputy Director of the Publicity Department of Gongshan. "In addition, we have developed planting of paridis, another medical herb, and beekeeping, along with cow and chicken breeding, which have all greatly expanded locals' income sources."

Zhang said that in 2018, the average income of local people was 6,122 yuan ($900), an increase of 23.5 percent from 2017. Amomum tsao-ko alone brought in 7.43 million yuan ($1.09 million).

Furthermore, the forestry department in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture has made all the people from 195 impoverished Derung households ecological rangers, providing them with an income for protecting the forests in their native land.

In the process, various levels of government support has offered a boost. In 2010, the provincial government implemented entire village advancement projects as well as pilot projects for the improvement of entire townships, with Dulongjiang included. Financial aid and related programs from the government put the town's development on a fast track.

During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), the Central Government set the target of achieving an annual gross regional product growth of over 8 percent in ethnic minority regions.

In 2017, China demarcated three regions and three prefectures as the poorest areas in the country. The three regions are located in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, four areas in south Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and Tibetan-inhabited regions in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces in northwest or southwest China. The three prefectures are Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. More resources have been allocated to these areas.

In addition, developed regions in the country's east, including the metropolis of Shanghai, have provided targeted aid for construction projects, industrial development and personnel training.

Pupils at an elementary school in a village in Dulongjiang Township at class on May 27, 2017 (XINHUA)

Promising future 

As a result, Dulongjiang now has a brand new look. Many new houses have been erected along the road, as residents living in uninhabitable conditions have been relocated to new houses. The 4G network covers the entire township and is accessible to quite a few delivery service providers.

In the early 2000s, a school covering six years of elementary and three years of secondary education was set up in the township. Children don't have to slide along a wire to attend schools further away anymore.

Moreover, the improvement in transportation has brought tourists to the township, leading some local people to renovate their houses into restaurants and inns to increase their income.

Gao said that there are two directions for the township's future progress: One is to develop the ecological economy and the other is to develop rural tourism.

Tang Xiaocong, a 28-year-old local, runs a restaurant with his wife in Maku Village. Their average income each month is about 6,000 yuan ($882).

"We were relocated three times before we settled down in Maku," Tang said. "The houses we lived in before were made of either bamboo or wood. They were freezing in winter and leaked when it rained. Our house now is built of bricks and is steady and firm with three bedrooms and a spacious kitchen. My parents said they never dreamed of living in a house like this."

Tang received his education outside Dulongjiang and served in the army for several years before returning to his hometown. These experiences broadened his horizons. In 2014, he came back to his village and opened up a restaurant.

"It has not been just the road and tunnel that have connected the township with the outside world," Tang said. "The 4G network has also linked it up. A growing number of locals are selling their agricultural products on online business platforms."

Tang Jiajia, who also runs a restaurant in the township, is from Lijiang, a city in Yunnan. She followed relatives to Dulongjiang 11 years ago, seeking business opportunities.

She started as a food vendor with her mother, and although the business was not that profitable back then, Tang Jiajia chose to stay because the locals were all very nice people.

Shops in Dulongjiang enjoy a tax-free policy and rent is inexpensive. Thus, she decided to settle down in the township and married a local man. Her business has since developed into a restaurant. "Now we can easily earn 100,000 yuan ($14,700) a year," Tang Jiajia said. "With more tourists visiting in the future, we believe the business will get better."

Following the Derung people, two more ethnic groups from Yunnan, the Deang and Jino people, also declared that they had successfully climbed out of poverty.

Huang Yunbo, head of the provincial office of poverty alleviation and development in Yunnan, said a total of seven ethnic minority groups will be removed from the poverty list this year and in 2020, the number is expected to increase to 11.

"Just as President Xi said in his letter, poverty eradication is only the first step, and better days are yet to come," Gao said. "We will work hard to make the better days arrive sooner."

(Reporting from Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province) 

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo 

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com 

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