After ten years of developing and coordinating such projects, the Center has come to the conclusion that there is an urgent need for coordination between the conservancy of culture and nature, in conjunction with economic and social development. The Center's experience demonstrates that with a strong network of international partners, multidisciplinary specialists, and community mentors, it is possible to conceive strategies that integrate actions needed on behalf of each of these mutually dependent areas of interest, so as to ensure desired results to all while avoiding potential damage to any.
The Center believes Yunnan, in view of its ethnic and ecological diversity, is one of the ideal sites in the world for an initial effort in developing such integrated strategies for conservation and development. Yunnan protrudes from China’s southwest corner bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, and is only a short distance from Thailand and northeast India. It is sizeable — comparable to France — with a dramatically diverse environment and an impressively high level of plant and animal diversity. More than one-third of its population — about five times that of New York City — is of minority nationalities. Twenty-five of the fifty-five minority nationalities in China are found in Yunnan, sixteen of which are exclusive to the province, while thirteen share ethnic and cultural traits with ethnic groups living throughout Southeast Asia. Not only is Yunnan an area diverse in its peoples and ecosystem, it is also a region steeped in history and cultural exchange. Ancient kingdoms flourished here, playing an important role in the transmission of Buddhism, and in cultural interaction between Southeast Asia and China. The Southern Silk Road, which connected China with South and Central Asia for centuries, runs through the province.
Today, Yunnan is in the midst of rapid socioeconomic development, uprooting many minority communities, drastically altering their social and economic structures while threatening the destruction of their cultural heritage as well as their natural and built environment. That Yunnan now appears to be a prime location for the study of conservation versus development is not new to the Center. Invited by the Ford Foundation ten years ago to study the need for cultural conservation, the Center quickly came to the conclusion that Yunnan is a rare geographic area under a single political and economic entity that exhibits a prodigious combination of diversity in ethnicity, culture, and ecology, as well as in its social and economic conditions. Today, the Center further recognizes the added advantages offered by Yunnan as a promising site for developing strategies; the layers of networks of professionals and community participants the Center has established throughout the province over the years; the teams of experts from the United States and Asia the Center has sent there who remain committed; and the concrete partnership the Yunnan Provincial Government has offered.