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.
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.
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.
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).