Last Updated on September 23, 2005

April issue, 2006

Translated from the Chinese

Ecolodge And Outsiders in Yunnan

A few month ago a friend of mine was happily driving towards a sophisticated Eco-lodge in Hang Po village ( Shangri-la county) when her car was stopped by angry local villagers claiming that they had been short-changed by the company who had bought their land rights to build the lodge . No amount of discussion could convince them to her car go through. Employees from the Lodge promptly arrived to carry her bags across the road block and to drive her to the lodge. Still, it was certainly a stressful start for what was supposed to be a relaxation retreat. My friend did enjoyed her stay and did not take the time to investigate to what extent the lodge had really abused the local inhabitants. But she did notice that the Lodge hardly used any local labor or local products.

Which ever the reasons for this specific unpleasant event, it is certainly not the kind of result one would want wants in a recently developed tourist site.

Tourism, and in some regions organic agriculture, is seen as the only way to bring badly needed additional financial resources to many scenic sites and villages in western China. Consequently it is of vital importance to understand how to achieve a harmonious development and how to avoid confrontation between local inhabitants and tourists. One has also to remember that the aim of this development should be to harness tourism to bring some prosperity to the local people, not to use the often scanty land of the impoverished villagers to create one more tourist site.

For a system to work, all the stake-holders must feel that they come out as winners. But who are the shareholders? originally they belong to 2 groups. The first group comprises the local people and the local governments, who, before the arrival of the tourists, were the owners/users of the landscape and eventually will provide the entertainment though their colorful customs and picturesque villages. The second group consists of tourists, who, through the organization provided by travel agencies and tour operators, are willing to pay for the pleasure of enjoying a specially beautiful and usually serene landscape or of experiencing a specially interesting or colorful and preferably genuine culture.

But before any tourist can even enjoy the site and contribute additional financial resssouces to the local economy, any community will face 2 problems

•  Wealthy tourists usually require a higher level of comfort than the one customary to the local inhabitant (bathrooms with hot water, reliable phone connections and relatively good road access.) These changes, usually labeled as “improvements”, require know-how and capital. Bringing “mass tourism” is not a better solution. These tourists do require less comfort but they also spend much less and by their sheer numbers they have a much greater tangible and intangible impact on the local environment, culture and society. Mass tourism is to be confined to the areas of fairly resistant environment.

2) The traditional use of the environment by the local inhabitants does not always result in the kind of environment sophisticated tourist would like to pay for. Local inhabitants consider the environment as a livelihood and enlighten tourists would like to see it as genuine as it can be. It is important to note that these traditional behavior of harvesting of natural resources (wild animals, wild plants, deforestation and extensive grazing of domestic animals) were nearly sustainable in times when transportation of these natural resources towards large group of consumers was extremely limited and when the offer of consumer goods (that is to say the choice of options to spend money) in remote areas was also very limited. The fact that these traditional behaviors are now becoming regarded as “backwards” adds to the local inhabitants' distress and lack of cultural self esteem.

The first problem, investment and know-how, is usually solved by bringing outsiders with capital. Often the outsiders also bring outside labor. This often leads to an insidious and pervasive destruction of the local social fabric as well as that of the local culture, some “invisible” destruction of the environment is also taking place, in form of more emission of carbon dioxide linked with increased energy consumption. (Unless the site is mostly run on renewable energy). But results can be devastating even if local inhabitants are given jobs, since these jobs are usually those of the menial kind which will, in the long term, fuel resentment. Previously, even if considered poor by western standards, each of these local inhabitants was its own boss and felt free.

The second problem is often solved by restricting the moves of the local population who then feel having lost on 2 plans: cultural and financial; not only they have to give up their traditional ways of life but they also loose the income provided by these activities... These restrictions can be achieved by different mechanisms depending on who owns the land rights. All these mechanisms are problematic because no solution can be satisfactory and long lasting unless people willingly and knowingly decide to abide by it.

Now a day, everywhere people understand that they have to adapt to the modern world, they are perfectly willing to do it as long as the see some benefits in it. Nobody, unless forced to, wants to change for the worse.

In the rural sites where tourism has been organized and harnessed in a way which brings new financial resources directly, and in an inspirational way, to the local inhabitants, these people have enthusiastically became the keepers and guardians their own environment, since it usually also give them a cultural self esteem boost many of them also became dedicated protectors of their own culture.

Obviously what will result in an “inspirational way” of making money will depend of the local conditions. It will usually include well thought and broadly consulted co-management ( government/villagers and/or community/villagers) plans of the touristy assets as well as innovative family run enterprises. Inside both the protected area and the buffer zone, the role of the outsiders will usually be limited to that of providers of educational and financial tools.

Obviously, in the real world, nothing is that simple, and more specifically so in Western China where any natural reserve or cultural landscape is always inhabited by both endangered species as well as by minority people who make for a lot of the sites' charm and attraction.

Will finding solutions be easy? Probably not, but it is important that we succeed. I am personally eagerly searching for practical solutions since, as you might remember from my first column, I am actively involved in organizing sustainable tourism in the remote areas where ancient towers are found.

February issue, 2006

Translated from the Chinese

Ji Gong and the Hainan Gibbon

The Hainan Gibbon is possibly the most beautiful ape. . The male is black, the female blond, and, after carefully selecting their mate, they pair for life. Each couple sings in duet.

For all of us, Hainan evokes a piece of paradise with its tropical climate and stunning beaches. But, as I recently learned, it is also the theater of an unfolding drama that mirrors the larger drama seizing the whole planet.

A few weeks ago, Bill Bleish, director for China of the English NGO “Fauna and Flora International”, and I were discussing one of our common projects when he mentioned his coming trip to Hainan Dao. As I wanted to know more, Bill then explained to me the sad story of the Hainan Gibbons.

In the late 90's, first because of differences in their morning songs, and later thanks to DNA testing, scientists realized that these gibbons were a specie in its own right and a Forest Reserve was created. But numbers kept declining and now the Hainan Gibbon is the rarest ape on earth with only 14 individual left because, even if babies have been born to the existing couples, no new couple has been formed. It is probable that youngsters wander in search of a soul mate and get shot once outside the reserve.

The Hainan forest is also inhabited by minority people most of whom are Li. The Li were the original habitants of the Island. Although many of them had been agriculturists since the Sui Dynasty and some were famous weavers during the Song Dynasty, back in 1994 when I first visited the Island, some of the Li inhabiting the forest were still living as happy-go-lucky hunter-gathers. But tree by tree the ancient forest was being cut down for timber and to plant rubber trees. Now the Li who still inhabit the forest live mainly of collecting rubber and all are very poor. They cannot even pay the “shu fei” to send their children to school. They also hunt wild animals including primates and eventually the gibbons.

The people who destroy the environment most are of two kinds:

-one kind is that of the richest individuals who, because of their life style, use a large part of this planet resources. We, the westerners, represent around 20 % of the world population but we use 80% of the world resources and produce 80 % of the world pollution. . But, in this world built on consumerism, wealthy people from all around the globe have TOO MANY CHOICES TO SPEND THEIR MONEY and consequently use a disproportionate share of the world resources.

-The other kind is that of the poorest people. These people have NO CHOICE, for they HAVE NO MONEY TO BUY ANYTHING, consequently they will cut the last tree, fish the last fish or, in this case, kill the few last Hainan Gibbons. These beautiful animals will then be gone forever since they are none in captivity.

China as a civilization has always done things “its way”, and, through its long history, has achieved many attainments the westerners thought impossible. Per example, China is the sole major civilization which did not build its morality around a religion, and, now, China is dazzling the world by demonstrating that a communistic political system can very successfully manage a capitalistic economical system. Obviously China's current economical success comes as a great surprise to most of the westerners since we have invented both capitalism and communism. Many of us also pretend that we have invented democracy. The only thing that is sure is that its current “Western” name springs from a Greek word.

We, the westerners, have also invented consumerism. Maybe this system was well adapted to a world with fewer inhabitants but is now destroying the planet because our western leaders do not have the courage to tell us that our rate of consumption is unsustainable (President Carter did say it but he got engulfed in other problems leading to his defeat in the 1981 elections)

Consumerism pushes one to always want more and consequently not to appreciate what one has but to always long for what one does not have. This is a perfect formula for unhappiness. The American dream of happiness through materialistic accumulation is showing its limits, both in the USA and abroad.

The world is hoping for leaders with other kinds of dreams built around less materialistic values.

China, because of both her sheer size and her ancient wisdom, can be a major player in creating this new dream.

Now China is also at a critical point of her development. The Chinese people could be wiser than we, the westerners, have been: You could avoid the West's mistakes and could leapfrog to another kind of society. A society based on humanitarian values many of which are very close to those of ancient China.

But the conception of this vision cannot be left to your government alone. All of you, political leaders, writers, artists as well as successful business men and woman, need to participate in the making of this vision.

In China, one does not need to be a superman or an overachiever to be a hero, as my friend Wang Shibo was explaining to me the other day…Chinese heroes are not like Schwarzenegger or James Bond, both pure products of the western materialistic world, Chinese traditional heroes are painters, poets or compassionate figures like Ji Gong,

Every one of you, armed with a little money and lots of good will, can become a hero… at the community level, at the township level, at the provincial level and, why not, on the world stage.

You can start brazenly by creating your own non-profit organization or proceed discreetly by joining an existing Chinese non-profit; there are plenty of them in every different field. (Try per example “Greener Beijing” that already has more than 6000 volunteers from different parts of China). Discover how much fun and how rewarding it is to help others. Each of you can become a hero and can help guide the world in a better direction.

As in everything, a lot can be achieved by solving problems one step at a time.


December issue, 2005

Translated from the Chinese

“Tourism is like fire: it can cook your food or burn your house”

Those who have read my first column, in the August Issue, might remember my efforts to research, help protect and help restore the amazing ancient stone sky-scrapers of South-west China. A ll of this is well on its way. The real challenge is now to harness this historical value to install sustainable tourism and to boost the cultural self esteem of the inhabitants.

At every level, everybody seams now to understand that, in order to preserve the authenticity and the integrity of the sites, the towers need to be protected and restored following World Heritage standards.

But few understand the necessity of a management plan. In recent years, such a plan has practically become mandatory for all UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. In Western China every natural or cultural site is also both the home and the livelihood of many minority people; consequently such a holistic plan is essential in any project of sustainable development which, in rural areas, will practically always be linked with tourism.

But one must remember that “Tourism is like fire, harness it and it will cook your food, let it run free and it will burn your house”

So establishing a management plan aims at MAXIMIZING the financial benefits for the local population while MIMIZING the tangible and intangible damages done by the tourists as well as guaranteeing the tourists satisfaction.

This dilemma between preservation (of both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage) and its utilization (for producing resources through tourism) needs to be addressed and solved, preferably before the situation becomes unbearable and before irreparable damage is done.

So my purpose in writing this column is to explain a strategy that can lead to a harmonious and beneficial development of the concerned areas as well as to some economical gain for the neibouring areas. This is a strategy in 4 points

1) Studying the problems and understanding the desires of the local inhabitants as well as those of the Tourism Industry and the tourists.

Many local governments try to bring rapidly as many tourists as possible. They do not realize that tourism, as any other human activity, brings profits but also has costs. Most of these costs, or damages, are somewhat hidden or hard to fathom. The damages are of 2 kinds:

-physical and tangible (on the environment and eventually the monuments) this can be minimized by information, education and establishing rules.

-psychological and intangible (genuine traditions being replaced by fake ones easier to perform, destruction of the social fabric when only “smarter” families or even outsiders get all the profits) This can be minimized by boosting the cultural self esteem of the inhabitants BEFORE the arrival of tourists and by making information material as well as micro-credits available to all the families.

The carrying capacity (maximum number of tourists able to enjoy one site at a given time) of each zone should be assessed depending of the intrinsic natural, cultural or human characteristics of each site.

Another key problem in today's tourism planning is the unevenness of visitor flows. It could be eased by concerted discounting of the “off seasons”

One must remember that the visitor's satisfaction is strictly linked to the ratio quality/cost of the visit experienced at the site.

2) Set the goals in a holistic plan.

At the beginning of the process, guidance is required on the political level. In cooperation with the local inhabitants, a set of priorities needs to be defined for a particular site and also what role it is to play in the regional economy. Cooperation between the different “towers areas” should be encouraged.

The overall desired outcome should be embodied in a "vision statement". The management plan is the organizational structure and operational tools necessary to reach these long term goals. For the towers areas these goals could be:

•  The intrinsic value and the specific culture of each of the sites are to be studied, documented, protected and promoted.

•  Preservation of the cultural landscape -made of ancient monuments interwoven with dwellings and agricultural lands- as well as of the bio-diversity encountered in the near by mountains

•  A balanced economic development in the interest of the people who have been living here for centuries

Achieving these goals will require

•  A high degree of public participation of all levels of the society,

•  Every visitor to gain a basic understanding of the site's specific culture as well as of the other “tower cultures”,

•  Inhabitants and visitors are made aware of how their activities have an impact on the environment of the site,

•  The help of tourist related media. .

3) Controlling tourism flow and maximizing resources through zoning.

This concept originated in the US some 130 years ago and has since been successfully used all over the world as a planning tool.

Different zones will be establish by taking in consideration their natural and cultural environment, their level of accessibility and also in function of the different experiences they can provide to different kinds of tourists.

In remote and mountainous Western China it is easy to control the flows by the sizing of the access roads and bridges. It is usually already done since the hardest to access areas usually have the most fragile natural environment (because of their steep slopes) as well as the most fragile, and interesting, cultural environment (since they have been less exposed to outside influences)

The most common model designates three types of zones:

- Zones of intensive (high density) touristy use

These zones, of resistant environment, can easily be accessed by bus. They allow as many people as possible to experience a good view at the main attraction of the given site.

Many visitors, most of whom will only stay one night, will be happy to remain in this zone, they have experienced the "spirit of the place", have bought souvenirs and taken good photographs to show their friends and family.

- Zones of extensive (low density) touristy use

Zones of fragile environment that can only be access on foot or by car. These zones will offer a fuller experience in an exclusive environment to the visitors who are either willing to accept the physical price of a longer foot march or to pay an adequate price in money. If necessary restrictive policies could be introduced (per example compulsory pre-booking) People planning to collect photo or video material for commercial purpose will pay a high entrance fee.

- Zones free of tourism

In the future some ecologically very fragile areas might have to be allowed only for customary use by the local population and for scientists. Eventually collection of material for commercial use could be allowed for a very high fee.

4) Monitor progress and new problems, do necessary adjustments.

This is a long term plan which needs to adapt to changing situations.

All around the World, we can observe an increasing awareness about policies and strategies for sustainable tourism development because, in the medium to long run, economical success will depend on the ability of destinations to preserve and protect their tangible and intangible primary tourism resources.


October issue, 2005


Translated from the Chinese

Rafting down the Grand Canyon

In 2002, when my then boy friend announced we were to go on a rafting trip on the Colorado River, I enthusiastically agreed. I was thinking of days of physical efforts and of romantic evenings around a campfire in the wilderness... But I nearly changed my mind when I learned that more than 30 000 tourists go down that river every year and that we were to travel with 3 other couples and a total of 16 persons including 5 guides.

My boyfriend insisted and I finally went along. A few months later, five inflated boats were waiting for us at Lee's Ferry, just downstream from the Glen Canyon dam

All was very well organized; we got to put our personal gear in special waterproof bags that immediately got tied up in a designated place on the boats where the tents, the folding tables and chairs, the food, the cooking equipment, the gas burners and the portable toilets were already professionally and securely loaded. There was to be neither a single human construction nor any way out of the canyon for the next 150 km so we had to take everything with us.

I immediately started regretting my usual “free spirit” way of traveling as we were explained the “ rules” of the trip: no camp fires, all our garbage had to be picked up and stored on the boats, men had to pee in the river at all times, women could do the same or use the portable toilets (that could be sealed for transportation) and no walking out side the trails.

So I somewhat reluctantly boarded on one of the boats and, by a gorgeous June morning we were off.

Contrarily to my expectations, this trip remains one of my very good memories. It certainly justifies having to book it many months in advance since the number of tourists in the Canyon is limited to about 150 at a time on any given day.

I very soon realized that rafting down the Grand Canyon has a dream-like quality

Life on the river was quite exciting because of the occasional rapids, the stunning scenery and the long talks with our very knowledgeable companions which included experts in climate changes, eco-friendly buildings, geology and water management, as well as Teddy Roosevelt as enlightened and outdoorsy than his illustrious grand father the American President, Teddy's charming wife and Jo Alston, the Grand Canyon Park Manager. It was also very relaxing since the only phone, a satellite one, was reserved for emergency use. Usually we would raft a few hours , stop at one of the many beaches lining the sides of the river where a simple lunch was followed by a nap or a walk, then get on the boats again for a couple of hours to arrive in time to set up camp for the night. Every one of us took turns for cooking, washing dishes and carrying and installing the toilets. Nights were warm but not too hot, we were lulled by the crickets' songs and sometimes visited by an occasional curious dear or squirrel.

The Colorado River used to run 2333 km from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico but now its last part has dried out and the river seldom reaches the sea.

The Glen Canyon dam, located upstream from the Grand Canyon was built in 1963 to prevent the silt for accumulating in the very large Hoover dam already standing some 400 km downstream. This resulted in transforming the once furious and “red” waters of the Colorado in a presently much smaller and fairly tame river running in a narrow gorge surrounded by the spectacular vertical walls of pink and green stone of what is called the Grand Canyon . This deep canyon, excavated in the Colorado Plateau starting at least a million years ago, well deserves its name since it is 350 km long and from 6 to 30 km wide between the upper cliffs. The walls, 1000 to 2000 meters high, drop in successive escarpments of 200 to 500 meters, and are banded in splendid colors.

In places the river has also created terraces of sorts and Indians, mostly of the Hopi tribe, had inhabited these terraces and cultivated their rich alluvial soils. Often, we would get of the boats to visit granaries excavated in the cliffs or ruins of 1000 year old houses .There were little paths marked by alignments of small stone to take us from one set of ruins to another and, to my surprise, it was both convenient and attractive.

Quite a few smaller rivers run into the Colorado. One of them is warm, turquoise-colored and falls from one limestone pool to the other in a pattern that reminded me of Huang Long. The lower pools were quite large and other rafting boats were tied-up on the shore while their passengers were swimming and playing in the warm waters. We heard that bathing might soon have to be limited because the excess of sun block was poisoning the fish. This is the only tourist related damage for which the park-rangers had not found a solution. Every thing else had been perfectly thought about and planned in a way to both protect the environment as well as to guarantee a good time for the tourists. Although every camping site was occupied every night, both the river and it environment were pristine, and we always had the impression to be the first ones to set foot on each of these ravishing beaches.

Most of these sand bars did not exist before the Colorado was dammed but they are now populated by many kinds of birds and animals. Another, different, but thriving eco-system has been created. The fish, though, have irremediably suffered, the water is now much colder so the native fish have died and are being replaced by non-native species. Some groups are calling for the destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam. It is very unlikely that it will happen since the Colorado dams enable water to be channeled to many towns of the American South-west and they also produce most of the electricity that is used in California.

This column is way to short to debate of the wisdom of buildings dams but it is, I believe an adequate place to show that fragile environments, if well managed, can deal with a large amount of tourists. I hope I have achieved that goal.

August issue, 2005

Translated from the Chinese

Frederique (Martine) Darragon, (Bin Yan), is French. She has a bachelor degree in international economy and is a self-taught oil painter, a sailor who crossed the Atlantic, a jockey of English thoroughbreds, a polo player who kept 2 records for 15 year and a philanthropist. She is the Chairperson of Unicorn Foundation, mainly dedicated to the building of schools and the promotion of education in poor rural areas.

Citizen of the planet

I sometimes wonder how much of a say destiny has in one's life. And is there such thing as destiny or it is all a web of coincidences? I will never know but I know that life has enabled me to live one exciting adventure after another. The latest one, and certainly the most rewarding, was getting into philanthropy.

I was born in Paris, and as many of the well off French children belonging to the “me” generation, the baby-boomers, I spent my summers in England riding horses and practicing English, and parts of my winters skiing in Switzerland.

From a young age I also was a communist at heart and soon I wanted to experience community life and went to spend a summer working in a kibbutz, in Israel. (kibbutz were rural atheist communities without any form of private property, practically all of them have now disappeared).

I was to meet an ecologist for the first time when I was 18. I was hitchhiking alone around the USA, he was the heir to a large fortune and he owned, in Los Angeles, a splendid property with an enormous swimming pool. The swimming pool was empty, as I wondered why, he answered “because using water and electricity is bad for the environment”. I then thought he was wonderful but a little crazy.

By the late 80's I had criss-crossed the world but I had never visited China. But when Deng Xiaoping decided (unofficially) to keep communism as the political system and move towards capitalism as an economical system, I was soon touring China, on my own and with a phrase book. As a youngster I had devoured all the Han Suyin and Pearl Buck books. The country I was discovering was even more fascinating than the stories I had read.

I was wandering happily, from north to south and east to west, for months at a time, by train, bus, truck, foot or even riding horses and yaks, carrying just a small back pack, buying a cheap jacket when it got cold, giving it away in warm weather, living a simple life and enjoying a total freedom. Freedom? In “Red” Communist China! Many people exclaimed incredulously. Obviously I was totally aware that my situation did not reflect that of most the Chinese people who had to toil hard for a living.

Still since the spread of Aids, I had realized that we, human beings, were all “in the same boat” because all problems had became global problems. I also knew that we were using this planet's resources at an unsustainable rate. But one feels so small and powerless faced with global challenges; even if I was aware of the problems, how could I help fix them? I felt the only thing I could do was to avoid squandering resources at my own personal level and be less of a happy-go-lucky consumer. Then, in China where western money goes a long way, I discovered that helping to protect wild life was in my financial and practical reach. As I was investigating how, where and when the Sichuan snow leopards were trapped, I had come across some incredible star-shaped ancient looking towering structures. Still, I did not become really interested until a French friend of mine, told me that nobody really knew who had built these towers, why and when.
I our globalized and over informed world, were there still some riddles in full sight? Was it possible that nothing was known about dozens or maybe hundreds of 20 to 50 meters tall towers, many of them of a somewhat star-shaped that I had never seen anywhere else?

To my surprise, it was. The towers obviously had been seen and mentioned in some books, but never researched as an architectural phenomenon in and of itself, never scientifically dated, never mapped. As I engaged in a thorough research, I became sadly aware of the harsh living conditions of the populations who lived in the vicinity of the towers; populations who had little use for a standing tower but were quick to use its stone once a tower started collapsing.

Ted Turner and I had met in England while sail-boat racing in 1969 and we had remained friends ever since. In January 2000, he separated from his then 3rd wife, Jane Fonda, and we decided to move in together. As much as I love and admire him, I am too much of a free spirit to be tied down for long. Less than four years later, we parted good friends. After being a brilliant sailor and business man, Ted had become one of the most creative philanthropists, determined to use his large fortune to make the world a better place. As I lived with him I learned a lot about philanthropy. Being generous, he twice gave me some money; since I did not really need these funds, I decided to create the Unicorn Foundation.

After that, everything went very fast. In summer 2001 I had filmed a documentary about the towers; in 2003, Discovery Channel, knowing that the profits were to be deposited on my Foundation, bought the 5 years worldwide –except China- broadcast rights for the high price of 300.000 dollars. The wife of Wang Guangya, the Chinese Ambassador to the UN, enabled me to display 47 photos representing the towers at the United Nations in New York, other exhibitions and lectures followed, the Sichuan University Unicorn Heritage Institute was created and, on June 24th, the exhibit “Secret star shaped Towers of ancient tribes of South-west China.”, displaying more than 60 photos for more than 2 months was successfully launched in the Sichuan University brand new museum. Following my application, on June 21, 2005 the World Monument Fund announced the inscription of the Stone Towers of Sichuan and Tibet on their 2006 Watch List.

At times I do regret my happy-go-lucky life but I feel we have no choice. Either the human race will learn to act in a responsible way or we will destroy ourselves. China, enlighten by its long civilization and now one of the most influential country because of its sheer size, may be able to leap-frog the errors that we, the westerners, have made. I believe that China will rise up to the challenge and lead the world in safer direction. The world future might depend of you, Chinese economical and political leaders, who are reading this text.