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Preserving biological and cultural biodiversity along the great rivers of Yunnan


In southwestern China lies the province of Yunnan — which means “south of the clouds”. The northwestern corner of Yunnan is a landscape of towering mountains, deep river canyons and sacred sites and is also home to 15 of Yunnan’s 24 officially recognized ethnic minorities, who have lived here for many generations and who continue to practice many traditions lost elsewhere.

To protect this unique area, the Chinese government and The Nature Conservancy joined together in Yunnan Great Rivers Project, a collaborative effort to preserve biological and cultural diversity in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province. Environmental conservation, including establishing protected areas and promoting alternative energy, are some of the strategies to safeguard Yunnan’s rich diversity.

The Photovoices project was initiated to engage the public in the Yunnan Great Rivers Project. Many villagers live in remote mountain regions, speak only local languages and cannot read or write; most had never held a camera in their hands before participating in the project. Photovoices enabled them to use photographs and their own words, written down by others, to communicate their knowledge, values, and concerns to those making plans for the future and to a global audience through a year-long exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The Nature Conservancy in China has created a data base of all of the photographs and stories, providing an extensive visual record of the environments of Yunnan and village life. Most importantly, the photographs provide information not available from any other source to government, policy makers and others making plans for the future.​​



sites in Northwestern Yunnan were selected


small villages participated


members of the local communities were behind the camera


photographs and accompanying stories were produced



A year-long global exhibition

Through Photovoices method, the local community in Yunnan was able to use photography to bring their voices, knowledge, values, and concerns out into the world. A year-long exhibition at the American Museum of National History in New York was held for the decision-makers as well as the global audience. 

A national database and guidance

Since the project completion, a complete database of all the photographs has been created by The Nature Conservancy in China. It provides an extensive visual record of Yunnan's biodiversity and insight into the villagers' lives. Most importantly, it serves as a guide for policymakers and others making plans for the future.  


A landscape of towering mountains, deep river canyons, and sacred sites, the northwestern corner of Yunnan is home to one of the world’s most complex biodiversity hotspots. 

  • 30 species of endangered mammals live in the area, including the golden snub-nosed monkey, lesser panda, and snow leopard.

  • The region is also known to be home of 7,000 endemic plant species, 700 flowering plant species, and 165 species of rhododendron/azalea, as well as primula, gentians, anemones, clematis, and lilies. 

  • 400 bird species are known to live within or migrate through the area.

  • It is also home to 40% of Chinese medicinal herbs and 75% of Tibetan medicinal herbs.

Traditional Ceremonies from Yunnan

Traditional ceremonies in the villages of the 15 ethnic minorities that live inChina’s Northwest Yunnan Province — including Tibetan and Naxi– are an important part of the rhythm of life, covering everything from marriage and building a new house to pilgrimages around holy mountains to the “Torch Festival” which is a special ceremony that is held to honor the gods. In this photograph a woman from the Yi minority blesses the crops during a harvest festival.

Daily life in Yunnan Villages

Daily life in the villages throughout Yunnan province follows the changing seasons, the harvest of crops and is very much centered around working and playing with friends and family. Life can often be difficult, but these intimate portraits of Yunnan’s villages give us fascinating glimpses into a rich and varied culture.

Scenes of the Yunnan Environment

Mountain peaks capped white with snow tower above steep valley slopes dotted with small villages where daily life continues along much as it did centuries ago. The environment is an ever-present influence on the lives of villagers throughout Yunnan province as captured in these spectacular images.

Agriculture in Yunnan Villages

Most of the villagers in Yunnan province derive their livelihoods from the land and many forms of agriculture and tending livestock form the basis of the daily routine for most people. These images take us into the daily working lives of the villagers and help us better understand their way of life.

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