Sustainability with Local Perspectives: Project Highlights need for Enviromental Engagement

A research team comprising local Tibetans and academics from the UK and China has highlighted the importance of local community engagement in grassland restoration on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP).

Pastoralists on horseback being interviewed by researchers about grassland restoration on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the northwest of China
Pastoralists on horseback being interviewed by researchers about grassland restoration on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the northwest of China, Credit: Li Li

The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP) in western China, known as the “roof of the world,” is undergoing one of the world’s largest ecosystem restoration projects. Spanning an area approximately five times the size of France, this vital ecosystem is home to thousands of rare plants and wildlife and serves as the source of water for more than 2.5 billion people. However, the plateau faces significant challenges due to climate change and intense livestock grazing.

Grassland degradation in the QTP is a growing concern. Government initiatives aimed at restoring biodiversity and soil fertility often fail due to insufficient local community engagement. To address this, a collaborative research team, consisting of local Tibetans and international academics, has been studying two pastoral communities on the plateau for decades to understand local attitudes towards grassland restoration.

Published in the journal People and Nature, the team’s recent findings emphasise that local community members are indispensable partners in successful ecosystem restoration projects. They found that influential community members, termed “brokers,” play a crucial role in communicating new techniques, such as grassland replanting, in ways that resonate with local cultural views and values.

Huxuan Dai, lead author and PhD student at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in China and the University of Liverpool in the UK, states, “Top-down restoration strategies often rely on narratives dominated by scientific knowledge, which can ignore or fail to respond to local concerns. Understanding a community’s value system and fundamental views of environmental change is a first step in our efforts to facilitate community engagement in ecological restoration projects.”

For researchers and practitioners focused on sustainability in their supply chains, this study offers a critical lesson: integrating local perspectives and values can significantly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of environmental initiatives. This is particularly relevant for companies sourcing raw materials from ecologically sensitive regions where local communities play a pivotal role in maintaining and restoring natural habitats.

The study identified eight types of pastoralists with varying attitudes towards grassland restoration within two QTP communities, Nyanze and Kouta. The Nyanze community, particularly the group labelled Active Agents, demonstrated the highest level of community engagement in grassland replanting. This group comprises secular or religious elites such as village leaders, educated youth, and Buddhist monks, with the majority not considering themselves to be low-income.

“The Active Agents intentionally integrated novel grassland restoration measures with local worldviews and values, creating new inclusive narratives that made restoration culturally acceptable and aligned with local values,” explains Dai. For example, some pastoralists initially opposed replanting efforts due to concerns that ploughing the land might kill worms, which is considered a bad behaviour in Buddhism. By framing replanting as a compassionate act that provides a home for all beings, local leaders were able to align restoration efforts with Buddhist values, thereby increasing participation.

Dr Li Li, the corresponding author of the study, adds, “The research team, made up of locals and researchers like Mr Trachung Balzang and Mr Golog Drugkyab, who were born in this area, have dedicated decades to protecting their homeland. We have all lived in this area of the QTP, made friends with the local people, and care deeply about the place and its people. Our insights from these relationships have been instrumental in shaping our research and promoting sustainable ecosystem management practices.”

For those involved in sustainability research and supply chain management, the key takeaway is clear: the success of environmental restoration projects depends not just on scientific and technical solutions but also on the meaningful inclusion of local communities and their values. As companies continue to seek sustainable practices, especially in regions like the QTP, engaging local communities and integrating their perspectives will be essential for achieving long-term environmental sustainability.

The full research paper “Communities in Ecosystem Restoration: The Role of Inclusive Values and Local Elites’ Narrative Innovations” is available in the Journal People and Nature.

Staff Writer

Our in-house science writing team has prepared this content specifically for Lab Horizons

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