Studying Intertwined Networks of Human-Natural Relationships in Northwest Yunnan, China

Last fall, Jodi Brandt started a new, exciting project studying intertwined networks of human-natural relationships in NW Yunnan, China. Jodi will primarily use high-tech remote sensing and geographic information system approaches to uncover some of the mysteries of her study region.

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A Tibetan village sacred forest, where Jodi will study the impact of forest change on songbird abundance and diversity.
In fall 2008, Jodi Brandt started a project studying intertwined networks of human-natural relationships in NW Yunnan, China. The multiple directions of the project fit well into the IGERT initiative, which funds team of scientists and students, including Jodi, who is a PhD student. Multifaceted studies foster cooperation between students with different backgrounds and expertise from earth, ecological, and human sciences.

Tibetans make up a majority of the regional population where Jodi studies, but are otherwise an ethnic minority in China. The study area is less populated than the country in general, but still contains thousands of villages scattered around diverse mountainous landscapes. Due to climatic conditions and high topographic variation, the area is one of the most biologically diverse in the world, with very high numbers of species within its temperate forests and alpine meadows.

Consistent with her previous research that took place in a region with comparable natural and socio-economic conditions on the other side of the world in Bolivian Andes, Jodi will primarily use high-tech remote sensing and geographic information system approaches to uncover some of the mysteries of her study region.

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Recently logged timber in a Tibetan village at the base of the Meili Snow Sacred Mountain range in NW Yunnan, China.
The system that Jodi studies represents a classic example of a coupled human and environmental system. Political changes in the area give unique opportunities to study the effect of changes in policies on the environment. Because of extreme remoteness of the area and the overall push for development in recent years by the Chinese government, an initiative to 'develop the west' is in effect in the region where Jodi studies, and it includes building roads and schools, and providing incentives to people to get more livestock.

Among other influential policy changes, there are two in particular that provide a natural experiment framework Jodi is taking advantage of to try to shed light on the wide-reaching effect of policy changes on land cover. One of these policy changes is the Southwest China logging ban of 1998, after which wide-scale clear-cutting was completely stopped and active plant cover restoration started. Using satellite imagery from before and after 1998, Jodi is going to answer the question of whether this change in policy made any difference in the amount of forest cover, or alternatively, whether the effect of the change in policy was negated by illegal harvesting that possibly still continues but may be harder to track. To distinguish between these hypotheses, she is studying the area at two scales. First, the regional context of land-cover and land-use change, and overall change in forest cover will be analyzed. Then, at a finer scale, and for a smaller area, more landcover classes will be distinguished to give more detailed information about changes in particular forest types that may be more sought after by loggers.

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Collecting field data in the alpine meadows at 4300 m altitude in the Chinese Himalayas.
Another ecosystem of interest, also affected by change in governmental policies, is alpine meadows. These meadows have been important subsistence pastures for hundreds of years, but recently are at risk to change dramatically, due to a another government-imposed ban, this one on burning. The ban, established to protect areas of China from large-scale devastating fires, was received negatively by local people. This is because it interferes with the traditional practice of small scale burning right after snow melt, which was used to create a patchy mosaic of productive and diverse alpine grasslands, dominated by favored livestock forage. As shrub vegetation is the climax vegetation type here, local communities are faced with the future projection that without burning, they will lose the ability to graze their livestock on nutritious grasses in their historic pastures, because woody vegetation will take over. To understand if this is really happening and at what rate, Jodi is going to use satellite imagery to analyze landcover change from grassland to shrubs in the alpine region through time.

One of Jodi's strong interests is conservation. In 1983 the federal Chinese government created a large protected area in her area of study, in which many activities are prohibited, including logging, grazing, and even gathering firewood. Jodi will examine how land cover has changed within and outside of this protected area. She is attempting to determine whether protected areas or well enforced government bans on logging and burning are more effective at maintaining, restoring, and conserving forest cover.

The ultimate question, from Jodi's perspective, is whether all this conservation and restoration activity conserves biological diversity as a whole. One indicator of biological diversity is the bird community. Jodi is approaching this question through the use of breeding bird surveys. Working closely with a Chinese ornithologist, she studied bird songs all spring, and then completed a season of point count bird surveys during summer 2010, in both protected sites- sacred forest sanctuaries maintained by villages, ranging from 1 to 200 ha in size- and outside of these sanctuaries, where logging and grazing occur. Her initial thoughts, based on her experience during these early morning bird surveys, is that there is, indeed, a much more diverse bird community in the sacred sanctuaries than in the grazed and logged areas nearby. The intertwining of Tibetan cultural customs (the sacred sanctuaries), and nature (represented by forest birds) in this case is a winning combination.

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