Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
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A S ONE flies over northwest Yunnan Province in an airplane, skirting along the eastern
edge of the Himalaya, there are points at which, depending on cloud cover, one can see all
Southeast Asia as the Salween), which cuts a path directly south into Myanmar (Burma); the
Lancang (upper Mekong), which meanders through western Yunnan before passing through
five other riparian nations in Southeast Asia; and the Jinsha, the headwaters of the Yangtze,
the longest river in China. The view from the air is of a rugged landscape of glaciated moun-
tain peaks and valleys crisscrossed by rivers. But it is only from the ground that one gains a
sense ofthe region'stremendous biological and cultural heritage, the threats currently facing
this heritage, and the multisided struggle to determine these rivers' future.
The Three Parallel Rivers region, a small corner of southwestern China, is home to 6,000
plant species and 80 species of rare or endangered animals, including treasured species such
as the Yunnan snub-faced monkey ( Rhinopithecus bieti ), an extraordinary and infrequently
encountered mammal that has become one charismatic symbol of the struggle to conserve
what remains of this repository of biological diversity. It is also home to twenty-two of Ch-
ina's officially recognized minority nationalities ( minzu ). The people who live here, sup-
porting themselves mostly by subsistence and small-scale market farming, are among the
poorest in the nation. The region has become a focal point in the conflict between those who
wish to develop China's rivers for their hydropower potential, including government agen-
cies and hydropower corporations, and those who place a premium on preserving species
richness and protecting the rights of vulnerable people.
The World Heritage Monitoring Center, which is part of the United Nations Environment
Program (UNEP), has called the Three Parallel Rivers region an “epicenter of Chinese en-
demic species” (UNESCO 2003:4). This extensive area of varied microbiomes supported by
a series of deep gorges and glaciated peaks, called the Hengduan Mountain Range, began
rising skyward with the collision of the Indian tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate more
than 50 million years ago. The mountains, like those of the main Himalayan range farther
west, are still growing. Within a comparatively small land area, there are glaciers and scree,
alpine meadow, alpine conifer, deciduous forest, cloud forest, mixed forest, savannah, and
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