Four Great Rivers


The Four Great Rivers Project was inspired by Future Generations’ success in the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, which is one of the first nature preserves to be managed by local volunteers under existing government structures. This holistic approach to management has resulted in great progress in conservation and development and Future Generations is bringing this approach to the Four Great Rivers Region. In the same way that Pendebas have improved social and environmental conditions in the QNNP, they are helping communities across the Four Great Rivers region develop sustainablity solutions, paving the way for official protected status.

In 1994, Future Generations and its partners began advocating for official protection of the Four Great Rivers area. In 2001, the Four Great Rivers Ecological Environment Protection Plan was approved by the Government of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since then, in cooperation with the Tibet Science and Technology Department and the David Suzuki Foundation, staff have been working on gathering data for a conservation management plan that when approved, will protect 46 million acres of land and would be the 4th largest protected area in the world.

Throughout the project Future Generations has been leading innovative efforts to develop participatory and sustainable approaches to conservation. A local GIS (mapping) laboratory set up specifically for this project enables local scientists to continue ongoing fieldwork and base data analysis. With continuous training in GIS modeling and mapping, local management teams are using ecological and cultural data to designate core areas to protect biodiversity, to enable wildlife migration, and to support sustainable economies through human-use zones. The Pendeba Program also plays a key role in the protection of the Four Great Rivers region, as over 1,346 trained Tibetan villagers are helping lead their villages toward sustainable practices in health, education, environmental conservation, and income generation opportunities.


The Four Great Rivers region is known for its remarkable biodiversity and stunning geographical features. The region covers the upper drainages of four vital rivers: the Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong Rivers. It has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in Asia, with more than 7,000 plant species and 600 species of birds and 250 species of mammals. In addition to its wealth of flora and fauna, it has a concentrated, yet wide range of climate zones as a result of huge variations in topography and precipitation levels. The rivers flow through myriad climate zones including alpine environments, warm and cold temperate forests, and subtropical and tropical jungles. The Four Great Rivers is a living museum holding the biological diversity representing the wild wonder of what Asia used to be before people changed the landscape and altered the species balance.

Living amongst these pockets of pristine environments are 800,000 people from 12 ethnic minorities, many of whom live below the poverty line. In recent decades communities have lived more intensively on the land, cutting down surrounding forests, hunting animals, harvesting large proportions of non-timber forest products, and overgrazing their livestock on sensitive land. As a result, these ecosystems and species are facing mounting pressures and once remote, old growth forests are at risk of exploitation. In recognition of Tibet’s impressive environment and of the growing pressures on it, the Tibetan Government has begun to protect large swaths of land using a more integrated, grassroots approach.

With assistance from the David Suzuki Foundation local scientists and leaders have been trained in GIS methodologies and are now using these skills to map the region and collect ecological and cultural data. This data serves as the basis for the final Conservation Master Plan and will enable leaders to designate specific zones for human-use, conservation areas, and for wildlife corridors. It will also allow them to identify opportunities for sustainable income generation through ecotourism and the sustainable harvesting and sale of non-timber forest products and medicinal plants.

Future Generations’ approach to nature conservation, as demonstrated in the Four Great Rivers region, ensures that both conservation and social development are being developed simultaneously through local leadership.