Youth Environmental Leadership Program

Young people are quickly learning that unless they take an active role in changing the environmental attitudes and daily practices around them, the environment and their living conditions will continue to worsen. Encouraging and teaching youth in China to take on leadership roles in their community and schools is vital for China’s environmental future.

The National Geographic Society (NGS) has worked with the Shangri-la Institute for Sustainable Communities (SISC) to implement a grant-making program in China, aiming to mentor students to make a significant, tangible, and positive difference toward a better environment and life, and a stronger community and civil society.

In order to concentrate its efforts and to have a more comprehensive effect the project will focus on the Yangtze River Basin. Our hope is that innovations and solutions along the Yangtze will create national attention and similar efforts in other parts of China.


The project provides a platform for students in a process of learning and action through significant projects in the environment and with communities for the restoration and maintenance of the ecosystem of the Yangtze River. It helps students develop high-quality, sustainable school-community leadership projects within their local ecosystem that will lead to knowledge, skill and commitment within the communities to better understand and care for their environment.

The program aims to tackle this issue with student-directed, interdisciplinary, hands-on strategies that link student learning with real local watershed needs. In the process and with the help of chosen experts, students have the opportunity to hone their skills ranging from monitoring and evaluation to management and publication. We wish to help students develop a sense of place in nature, an awareness that they can make a difference, and a lifelong quest for knowledge about the environment.


Although growing concern about environmental degradation has led to various conservation efforts, there is a general disconnection between these efforts and schools. This is due to a lack of awareness of how much significant work students can do toward monitoring, restoration, and public education.

At the same time, schools are becoming increasingly aware of the need to teach students about the environment. Unfortunately, they have little connection to real, local issues. For students, participative learning has a strong and positive educational impact, as research and action on real issues in their local ecosystems not only helps the students increase their understanding, but also helps elevate their sense of self-worth and interest in the learning process. Moreover, by doing projects in their local community they develop a sense of stewardship and civic responsibility.

The Yangtze River basin is home to a wealth of students from different cultural backgrounds, who through this project, can be engaged to enhance ecosystem education and stewardship. Thus, environmental and community initiatives also need to address cultural diversity, which includes multiple ethnicities, religions, and social groups. It is important that all students and their families can understand how their actions affect the ecosystem and become a part of the effort to maintain or restore its health. They can tap into their rich cultural traditions for knowledge, skill and wisdom that are in line with living in harmony with nature.

Not only will the Youth Leadership Program help improve the local environment, but it will also foster civic advocacy in the community through the efforts of these youths. A cadre of youth will inspire their schoolmates, teachers and community to develop new environmental projects. The implemented structures will establish a model for student leadership that can be replicated and expanded into other regions.

Finally, a team of experts will select outstanding projects to reward the students with award certificates and to present those projects to a wider public through NGS media. The Youth Leadership Program Awards and the publication serve to recognize and celebrate their achievements.


Bazhu Community-based Watershed

The “Bazhu Community-based Watershed Research and Protection” project was designed to facilitate and demonstrate a process of community-based learning and action in sustainable river basin management. Funded by the NGS Air and Water Conservation Fund, this one-year project started in August 2013 in Bazhu, a Tibetan community made up of 21 villages located along the Bazhu River in Weixi County, Diqing Prefecture in northwest Yunnan Province.

Bazhu River is around 15 km in length and is a unique watershed surrounded by 88 square kilometers of one of the most bio-diverse forests in the world. It flows into a tributary of the Yangtze (Jinsha Jiang). This area located in the UNESCO world heritage site, the Three Parallel Rivers, is of great ecological importance. This region is also an area of great cultural diversity with local ethnic minorities including Tibetan, Naxi, Yi and many others.

Due to rapid economic growth, residents are no longer solely dependent on local resources, and traditional customs are being replaced by a more consumerist lifestyle. As a result, new challenges arise such as soil erosion, river pollution, and other environment problems caused by increased use of agricultural chemicals, illegal logging, and overuse of natural resources. Through focusing on community-based watershed monitoring and protection, the project was able to build the individual and institutional capacity of Bazhu community to protect the Bazhu River.


In several workshops at Bazhu Community Learning Center the local community was engaged, highlighting the role of indigenous knowledge, traditional practices and cultural values relating to water conservation, to promote understanding of the importance of the watershed, basic scientific methods and approaches to watershed conservation.

A permanent River Care Leadership Team was established to explore, monitor and preserve the watershed. All results were shared with and explained to villagers at the Bazhu Community Learning Center.


58 students and teachers, alongside Shangri-la Institute staff, implemented a community river care project activity. Among other achievements, a total of 7 environmentally friendly watermills were renovated, benefitting the entire community.


Various community-initiated water care actions were organized among 72 members of the Bazhu Association for Elderly People. At the same time, indigenous conservation knowledge and local legends about sacred mountains and holy rivers were collected among the elders.

Documenting both the traditional preservation and the improvements of the project, a Book on Bazhu Watershed Care was drafted with the assistance of Waterschool China, another SISC project.


The motivated community participation in every activity, the increasing number of project beneficiaries, and community members’ calls for further project development are evidence that the project was successful and that it has achieved its purpose with the consent of the locals.

Through capacity building workshops and new infrastructure, through the Community Learning Center and newly established organizational structures, locals are now able to protect their watershed and other natural resources by using their traditional belief systems in combination with learned scientific knowledge. The project has demonstrated successfully how local communities can become a major force in watershed protection.

Youth Environmental Leadership Project at Dongzhulin Monastery

Dongzhulin* Monastery is located on the upper reaches of the Jinsha River, in the Sichuan-Yunnan fault belt region at an elevation of 3000 meters above sea level. The Jinsha River cuts through the high mountains and valleys of the Hengduan Mountains, forming this region’s characteristic hot and dry climate. The Dongzhulin Monastery is located in one of the most arid sections of the Jinsha River basin. The combination of intense sunshine with very little and seasonal rainfall has led to very poor soil quality in the already thin soil layer. During the rainy summer months, soil erosion due to rainfall is an extremely serious problem.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau has many fragile ecosystems that are in need of protection, and for a large portion of the local population, conservation is a part of their belief system. However, due to development caused by urbanization, adherence to traditional beliefs is on the decline, and environmental problems are becoming increasingly serious.

To address this, the Dongzhulin Monastery has been working for years to integrate promoting traditional Tibetan cultural heritage and religious beliefs with advocating for environmental conservation. With the support of the NGS Air and Water Conservation Fund and SISC, the monastery has utilized the sermons by Living Buddha as an opportunity to reach out to society and bring information about environmental protection to local people.


Planting and protecting trees has long been an important component of the Dongzhulin Monastery’s daily efforts, and the pine forest outside the walls of the monastery is a testament to the monks’ many years of hard work.

NGS Youth Environmental Leadership Project has created a platform for the young monks at Dongzhulin Monastery to learn that their own activities can be the driving force for change and progress. From 2014 to 2015, 30 young monks from ages 12-25 participated in the project. Guided by project teachers, the students completed 10 smaller environmental protection projects that addressed environmental education in the community.

Today, the Buddhist concept of protecting life extends to engaging in activities that influence others and bring about a positive change.

* “Dongzhu” means “beneficial to all”. With over 300 years of history, Dongzhulin Monastery is one of the 13 largest monasteries in the Tibetan region and has enormous influence within the local Tibetan community.