Since 2001, the Arlington, Virginia-based Nature Conservancy has equipped more than 220 people in 61 remote villages in China with inexpensive, point-and-shoot cameras and encouraged them to capture their lives on film: their chores and rituals, dwellings and animals, sorrows and delights—and especially their natural surroundings. Then the villagers talked about the resulting pictures to local oral historians. So far, this venture, called Photovoice, has amassed about 50,000 photographs, some of which have already been exhibited in Shanghai and Beijing. Additional exhibitions are being planned for venues in the United States and China in 2004 and 2005.
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The work is part of a collaboration between the Chinese government and the Nature Conservancy called the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, which was designed to create and protect a series of parks and wildlife preserves throughout more than 25,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia). The project is China's most ambitious attempt at preserving the ecosystems within the vast area of the YunnanProvince and will serve as a model for the rest of the country. These mountainous lands bordering Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet hold, among other biological riches, virgin forests, some 7,000 endemic plant species and 30 endangered animal species, including snow and clouded leopards, Yunnan golden monkeys and red pandas. The region is also home to three million people belonging to 15 ethnic minorities.
As China modernizes, many traditional beliefs become endangered. "I have come to understand how much these villagers have to teach us," says Ann McBride-Norton, the Conservancy's director of Photovoice, "and how deeply their love of the natural world is ingrained in their culture and religion.