High (but not dry) in Yi Country, China.

Dala Amo and Waxi Town, high in the mountains of southwestern Sichuan province, aren’t necessarily the kind of place you associate with China. The ethnic Yi people who live here are dark-skinned and exotic-looking, with fantastical costumes right out of Witches of Eastwick. They love to drink beer and liquor; raise (and eat) buckwheat, potatoes and sheep; and drape themselves in gorgeous necklaces, earrings and ornaments. Needless to say, they’re my kind of people!

But the Yi people are also some of the poorest in China. Their remote and isolated environment is infertile and dry as a bone, their towns often have no running water, and education in the mountain schools is half-hearted and spotty, without teachers they can depend on to show up.

So Heifer China has implemented projects in Dala Amo and Waxi Town, helping 55 families in the higher Dala Amo to breed sheep, and 120 families in Waxi to breed calves, to replace yak-raising that has been prohibited because of the environmental damage those animals cause. (Yaks eat the entire grass plant when they graze, including the root, so they destroy the vegetation that protects the mountains from catastrophic mudslides.) Cows and sheep that can be kept in pens and fed forage crops are far better for the environment.

But since this is Heifer, people don’t just receive animals, they also get the trainings to ensure they can raise, breed, feed, and keep the animals, their families, and their community robust and healthy. Since the project’s inception in 2010, women like Qubi Buxi in Dala Amo have reaped the rewards of these trainings, fueled by her own inexorable enthusiasm.

The remarkable Qubi Buxi

She and her husband Jikemuxia are poor but motivated, married for 30 years, with 5 daughters and 1 son. (Ethnic groups in China are not bound by the 1-child restriction but can have three…or however many children until they get a son). Qubi received 8 sheep through the program and now has 26; and with the funds she earned from selling sheep, she has bought two cows and 5 pigs; and paid the university tuition for two of her children.

The happy couple & their herd (his rainproof Mick Jagger coat is made of palm leaves).

Qubi is delighted with her sheep and says her herd is healthy because she learned from Heifer to grow a variety of forage for their feed: grass, radish leaf, bamboo leaves and oats. She can use the sheep wool to make the thick, warm ubiquitous capes seen everywhere, kill the goat for meat, or sell the best specimens for about 1100 RMB (almost $200) each. She also uses the manure to grow the few crops that thrive at this altitude (why am I always going to thin-air places??): radishes, potatoes and oh yeah, potatoes.

Down below in Waxi Town, the 120 families who were given cows are having a somewhat more difficult time of it. Moke Xiaoming received two female cows and they are doing well, but of the 240 cows gifted, 34 have died in this pilot project. Yaks thrive in cold, wet, windy places but cows are not native to the area, and the people aren’t used to raising them. Even the Heifer vet techs in the area have not been able to save all the animals – but Heifer is confident they can help Waxi inhabitants make a success of the switch from yaks to cows – and generate community activism through the self-help groups that manage the project.

Dala Amo’s village leader, Enzhalani, describes the progress of the villages in stark terms: eighteen years ago, when he was first elected, no one in the village had shoes and without a road, it was a 6-hour walk to the market. But today, people can afford to eat two meals a day and the children look relatively healthy (if dirty) –maybe because the people still use indoor, fire-pits that smoke up the entire house – in direct contrast to most Heifer programs where clean-burning, vented hand-made energy stoves are the norm.

Sheep soup on the boil for lunch, on a very smoky inside fire (notice the tire base).

In China, Heifer always partners with a government agency to implement projects (it’s required)… but that contact has had the beneficial side effect of the communities learning to advocate for themselves, interact with officials, and petition authorities for services. In 2010, two roads were built linking to the outside world (increasing incomes ten-fold) and the day we visited, more electricity was coming to Dala Amo, with water projects being planned as well.

Life is not easy in Yi villages, but one of the things I loved to see was the Heifer respect for traditional culture, children being raised to know the dances, language and songs of their people, and farmers given a chance to succeed on their own land. As we lifted one final shot glass of beer in the last of about 25 toasts (I felt like I was auditioning for Hangover 3), I was giddy with the sweetness of the people, their hope for the future, and the merry faces of the children, all dressed up and so excited for the festivities (that would be my arrival).

Can you find the Westerner in this picture?

I really hope all those cows make it!

Categories: Animals, China, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “High (but not dry) in Yi Country, China.

  1. Martha Radatz

    Why can’t yaks be kept in zero grazing pens? I will root for the cows!
    Must be very windy there—I noticed the rocks holding down the roof.
    Did not know ethnic groups were allowed to have that many children—must they then stop after they get a son?
    Love the women’s outfits—the hats look rather French!

    • It’s very windy, very exposed and VERY cold up in Dala Amo in particular so very little grows there. Sheep do better there because they are used to the cold and can survive nicely but the cows in Waxi town are a bit newer … plus the people have to learn to not feed them human’s food (like potatoes) and to grow the grasses and protein oats & buckwheat they need to survive. I’m not sure why they can’t keep yaks in pens … but I know that in Tibet, they pretty much always graze. I’ll ask my Heifer peeps! Yes, the ethnic groups have to stop after they produce a son … but sometimes it takes a passel of girls (which is good because there are 30 million more boys than girls in China now — due to elective abortion, girls being put up for adoption or abandoned, etc…. I hate that they don’t value girls!

    • I know some of these things but as my habnusd and I start our little farm, we learn everyday. By experience and by reading about all the skills we hope to someday master. I did want to share a comment that a friend of my dad asked when we started raising laying hens on my parents land. So, at what age to the chickens start laying white eggs? we have all brown egg layers and I thought he was kidding, he wasn’t. And this was from my dad’s generation (now in late 40 s or early 50 s) who I thought would have some experience with livestock. Ha!

  2. amy

    I hope you got a Qubi’s winged hat…..those tires next to the fire and the smoke inside the house are a sure fire recipe for lung cancer…..Do they call themselves a Communist country? See any red Ferraris? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Amy

    • Hi Amy! SO happy to hear from you. They don’t really call themselves Communists as far as the people I met, but they are definitely aware that The Party rules. The smoke inside these houses without vented energy stoves is extremely toxic .. and they sleep in the houses after they cook, sucking down all that smoke! I didn’t get a Yi winged hat because let’s face it …that’s a hard look to pull off AND I only had carry-on luggage … but I got the photos so I’ll never forget! (p.s. there is about a 300% markup on all cars in China, so you can IMAGINE the price of a Mercedes — saw some — to say nothing of the red Ferrari (didn’t see one but then again, I wasn’t in BEijing or Shanghai!

  3. Oh those tires must stink as the fire gets going.

    What lovely costumes. Sorry but your western wear looks pretty drab next to the locals.

    The winged hats made me think of Sally Field as “Sister Bertrille”, aka, the “Flying Nun”. boy that takes me back.

    • You know, the tires didn’t smell at ALL … but boy, was it smoky in that house! It makes a world of difference to vent the stoves and saves so much firewood, too! Wish they had gotten that going in those communities!

  4. you almost never look out of place, but wow, you looked like you dropped in from outer space in that shot.

    • Oh really?? What a laugh — I always tried not to dance, because I felt so on display … but they really get sad if you don’t participate. BUT I need to say that I am not going in the wrong direction .. it was a do-si-do kind of move .. so I’m actually doing it properly!

  5. I’m especially fascinated by the people’s features: Asian, South American, Mongolian. I can’t tell you how much I look foward to each post.

    • Thanks SO much, Renee — it’s really true that Chinese people can be very perplexing in their facial features. The Yi ethnic group is one of 55 recognized minorities but there are 8 million of them .. and they are also in Laos and Vietnam and called Lolo people there. Aren’t they beautiful??!! So exotic and intelligent and powerful looking — and those cheekbones! Wow!

  6. Gosh, Betty, another fascinating post. Thanks so much for addressing the issue of government partnerships. I suspected that would be required. Imagine living in homes with so much soot and smoke. Did you eat the sheep soup?

    • Hi Kathryn … SO happy you liked the post on the Yi people!! I have to say that I didn’t eat the sheep soup. And I also didn’t eat the big slabs of meat (I don’t even know what it was) they served later … and I feel badly admitting that, but since I don’t really like meat anyhow, and I absolutely have no sense of adventure when it comes to trying meat that I’m not sure about … it just isn’t some place where I try to push myself. I also can’t afford to get sick, with my travel schedule, and one of my best friends almost died eating meat in Nepal years ago (and her health is still deeply compromised) so … I just quietly eat the vegetables and give my meat to the biggest guy at the table. But all the food in China is gorgeous, no matter where you are, so I had plenty to eat & LOVED being with the people no matter what was being served!

  7. teresa hart

    I want one of those outfits, especially the hat, really is “flying nun” like.

    Very cool people, amazing that people so poor and repressed can find ways to kick up their heels and have fun anyway, sounds like you had a hoot!!!!

    God bless those cows, maybe they just need time to get used to the climate, just like a person would?

    You gotta get yourself one of those hats to bring home.


  8. You know, Teresa, it always touches me that some of the poorest people I’ve met are also the most generous, the quickest to find a reason to smile and the surest to find something to be happy about . The Yi people could probably do with a little less drinking (they don’t drink milk from the cows, for instance, which would be very nutritious specially for the kids .. just beer, water and liquor) but who am I to say?? I am really hoping the vet techs of Heifer and all the trainings will result in the cows breeding successfully, staying healthy and being passed along to new families .. and YES the hats are incredible! Also .. those coral necklaces and solid silver earrings are gorgeous …and represent pretty much all the wealth of these women. Aren’t they SO glamorous and dramatic?? LOVE it!!

    • teresa hart

      What happens to the milk,if they don’t drink it , I don’t thank there could be much refrigeration there. Do the sell it or make cheese? Just wondering.


  9. thanks Betty, amazing images, the terracing looks amazing, as powerful a tool as in Peru.

  10. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Another beautiful people. This environment sounds like a real challenge for Heifer. Sheep are definitely hardier then cows. I hope they can find a way to help them understand the need to ventilate the smoke. Also we need to give them Hershey syrup and there will be no more problem drinking the milk!! AND you were pretty easy to spot in the picture!! Ha!!

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