Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Profile of Chen Yongsong, founder of EcoNetwork

Profile: Chen Yongsong

Chen Yongsong is the founder of EcoNetwork (Yunnan shengtaiwang), an environmental NGO headquartered in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. In January of 2009, I arranged with Chen to meet him at his Green Home for Youth (qingshaonian luse jiayuan) located in a village in the Lashihai district of Lijiang. Lashihai is a large lake located about 8 km to the west of the old city of Lijiang. It is also home to a community watershed project started by Yu Xiaogang, the well-known founder of the environmental NGO Green Watershed. Our car took us through the new city, then up a winding mountain road which leveled off after a few hundred feet. To our right, we could see the clear, blue green lake nestled in plain surrounded by mountains.

Chen met us on the road near his school. He’s a middle-aged, small man with graying hair and a bookish look. He took us down a dirt path through red metal gates decorated with couplets on the side given to him by farmers in the village. The couplets said something about when the government provides security, and the people are at peace, then there is happiness throughout the land. Next to the door was a white plaque with the name of the school in black characters (see picture on right). He led us into the school, which was a traditional two story building inside a courtyard. He gave us a tour of the school which consisted of an office on the first floor with a few computers and a meeting table, and environmental exhibits of their biogas project, pictures of different kinds of renewable energy, pictures and models of bird species indigenous to Yunnan and the Lashihai area, and books about environmental protection for the students – one of which was written by him.

After the tour, we went back down to the meeting room and had tea. He poured us some tea which he called Pu’er forest tea that was given to him by a farmer in Xishuanbanna. Chen and I talked sitting out in the courtyard (see picture to left) in the warm sun under a bright blue sky. Here is his story.

Chen was born in August 7, 1960 and attended Yunnan Normal University where he was an English major and took classes in English literature and American history. After he graduated in 1985, he was assigned to a job in the Yunnan provincial government foreign affairs office.

In 1988, he quit his government job and jumped into the sea (xiahai). He originally wanted to study abroad in the U.S. but then got married and had to stay put. He took various jobs, going into real estate, helping start a factory, teaching. He had no idea of or interest in environmental protection at the time.

Then in Jan. 2000, he came across an informal network of people, most of them working for international NGOs who came together to discuss environmental issues. This network was looking for a coordinator who spoke English and could take minutes of the meetings and eventually set up an organization. Then in 2001, the Yunnan provincial government got nervous about foreigners and Chinese meeting to talk about environmental issues, and decided to break up the network. The foreigners left, but Chen decided to keep the network going. At that time, in 2001, the Yunnan provincial government and the British international development agency had a joint project planned for the 2001-2005 period to promote sustainable development. This project had a large budget. Chen decided to write up a proposal to use NGOs to disseminate the idea of sustainable development among the broader public. The British embassy liked the idea and gave him money for his project. Thus EcoNetwork was born.

EcoNetwork’s main office is based in Kunming, but Chen decided to select 4 project sites, each in different areas and addressing a problem unique to that area. In Lijiang, it was cultural preservation of the Naxi, who are ethnic minorities living around Lashihai; in another area of Yunnan, they have a project protecting the black-necked crane, and so forth.

When I asked him why he decided to join the network, when he had no interest in or experience in environmental protection, his first response was that he had tried so many other jobs and failed at them, or wasn’t interested in them, so he started looking around for something else. He first joined the network to practice his English. He had to write up the minutes of the network’s meetings, and began to realize that they were all about environmental issues. He also saw that there were few Chinese participating, most were foreigners, and felt that maybe there was a possible career here.

The lack of Chinese interest in these types of discussions also made him realize the importance of public participation if environmental protection was going to be a reality. Environmental protection wasn’t going to be solved solely by the government. But participation required a mechanism. He began to think about the importance of NGOs and volunteerism as a mechanism for getting people involved, and giving them a sense of social responsibility.

In 2001, he applied to the U.S. Embassy’s International Visitors Program to visit the U.S. and visit NGOs and find out more about volunteerism. He flew into the U.S. on Sept. 12, the day after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. His plane was rerouted from NYC to Buffalo, and he remembers having to go through extensive searches in the airport.

After he returned from the U.S., Chen began to set up opportunities for university students to volunteer in educating others about the environment. The Green Home for Youth is such a project that provides training to both Chinese and international student volunteers. Chen wants to not just protect the environment but also to change society through volunteerism. He gives an example of university students planting trees, and helping teachers in the village. These teachers don’t get much money and are burdened by other duties, so he asks university student volunteers to come and help teachers in different ways – providing activities to stimulate the children, observing classes and making suggestions to teachers.

Chen’s NGO is like many NGOs scattered across China. It is small, not well known, and isolated, yet seeks to promote awareness of two values that receive too little attention in China: sustainable development and public participation.