Poverty is both a worldwide problem that hinders human survival and development, and a spatially heterogeneous phenomenon, i.e., poor people tend to be clustered in specific places [1
], which is particularly evident in minority regions of China compared with their important geographical positions [4
]. The eradication of poverty and the realization of common prosperity is a major task for China to build a well-off society successfully. Being an important component of China’s economic and social development, ethnic regions are responsible not only for ecological safety (such as supplying natural resources, and conserving soil and water), but also for ensuring national security and ethnic unity [6
]. However, the development of minorities and their regions was relatively hysteretic because of geographical, and cultural factors in the vicious circle of long-term poverty [4
]. Special living conditions, habits of locals, and regional characteristics in economic and social development greatly differ between cities and developed areas under the influence of national poverty development and public administration [8
]. Assessment of sustainable livelihood is a crucial prerequisite for targeting interventions [8
]. Due to differences in nature, economy, culture, and other aspects of studies in various countries, there will be some differences when various types of livelihood capital are specifically quantified [9
]. Based on the central government's policies toward ethnic groups, religions, and poverty alleviation strategies in China, making informed scientific development strategies of ethnic regions and taking targeted measures in poverty alleviation for inclusive, green, and sustainable living, may be the most likely way out of poverty [5
]. The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework revealed the essence of the concept of “livelihood” from the perspective of the system, pointing out that poverty is caused by multiple factors. Potential opportunities for poverty eradication, as well as how to use the capital and livelihood strategy to pursue the desired result, were also identified [8
]. This framework connected the right tools to household assets and livelihood activities, resulting in many other socio-economic components being revealed and becoming the quantitative analysis framework of the current situation in impoverished areas [3
]. We use this access to “resource background and capabilities” framework in understanding a county’s livelihood. Therefore, the quantification of livelihood can provide a solid evidence-base for decision-making and can assist with development strategies [15
]. Based on local poverty, special ecological environments, resource advantages, and the internal connection between development and poverty alleviation, the evaluation index system of livelihood capital was built in minority contiguous poverty-stricken areas from the perspective of evaluating sustainable livelihood. The livelihood capitals of 13 counties of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture were calculated according to the natural, human, social, physical, and financial capitals. All five capitals and 33 evaluation indices are based on references and relevant study achievements. These evaluation indices were used for comparative purposes between the poverty degree and the development potential in order to provide the basis of strategies for poverty reduction and economic development.
After more than four decades of implementation of the state’s poverty alleviation program, a series of significant achievements have been made in fields such as living conditions, natural ecological landscapes, infrastructure, and public services [20
]. The minority contiguous areas are still existing in poverty. In addition to the five capitals, what is the other cause of poverty and what are the influences of other factors? There are geographically linked factors strongly affecting people's livelihood [15
]. In many countries strong codependency exists between livelihood and the environment, which can severely impact the level of poverty [15
]. The complex topography provides opportunities for a variety of capital management techniques [3
]. Villages (settlement sites) are units of culture and social organization and are seen to have a certain moral validity which is firmly embedded in local cultural norms, social practices, and structures [14
]. The geographical detector method is used to analyze factors which influence poverty, and the determinant value to analyze the topographic factors of settlement sites (TFIS). The digital elevation model (DEM) provides another reference for effective implementation of a precision poverty alleviation strategy.
4.1. Evaluation of Livelihood Capitals
Through the above computational processes, the comprehensive index value and that of natural, human, social, physical, and financial capitals of the thirteen counties in 2014 were obtained (Table 4
(1) There are complex geomorphic types in this study area: high mountain and steep gorge areas in the southeast, an upland plain in the middle, and a plateau district in the northwest. These include complex and diverse ecosystems, such as forest, grassland, wetland, high mountainous lakes, and swamp ecosystems. Because of the region’s spatial and landscape characteristics, the values of natural capitals reflected large differences among the 13 counties. The maximum value of the natural capital was in Ruoergai County (4.26). The Ruoergai Wetland is one of the three largest wetlands of China (Sanjiang Plain Wetland, Heilongjiang Province; Lalu Wetland, Tibet), and 30% of the water of the upper reaches of the Yellow River is from the wetland. The Mao County received the lowest score (0.29), because it is located in the arid valleys of the upper reaches of the Min River, which has lower vegetation coverage and a fragileenvironment. With the advent of a tourism boom, ecotourism areas and natural reserves present enormous attractions, while natural resources become one of the most important factors promoting the development of the county’s tourism. For instance, the Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve attracted 5.81 million visitors with 7.4 billion yuan (RMB) in 2014; the Huanglong Nature Reserve in Songpan County, the Wolong Nature Reserve in Wenchuan County, and the ethnic villages in Li County followed. In terms of the social capital rating, especially considering the two factors of the growth rate of tourist income and contribution of tourism revenue to GDP, Jiuzhaigou received the highest score (3.56), and Rangtang County the lowest owing to its alpine climate and landscapes.
(2) Aba Prefecture is one of the contiguous poverty-stricken areas in China, combining old liberated, ethnic, and distant areas; This was consistent with the evaluation results of the physical, financial, and human capitals. The average evolutional score of its physical capital was only 0.56, far below the national average (1.0), especially in the three aspects of traffic line density, rate of the 2nd and 3rd industry, and per capita food production. This showed that the poor infrastructure conditions, irrational industrial structure, and insufficient food self-sufficiency restricted the capacity of natural resources transforming into effective ecological assets [33
]. Although the scores of the human and financial capitals were not high, the basic education, ecological construction, and, especially, the social service in this region, have shown great improvement under the drive of some policies. These include a western development strategy, national and provincial poverty alleviation policy, the grain for green project, and the construction of a national ecological function area.
(3) The livelihood capital evaluation indices were evidently different, as follows: Jiuzhaigou (1.88) > Heishui (1.62) > Songpan (1.59) >Ruoergai (1.51) > Li County (1.41) > Wenchuan (1.33) > Aba County (1.09) > Hongyuan (0.90) > Maerkang (0.79) > Mao County (0.76) > Xiaojin (0.70) > Rangtang (0.58) > Jinchuan (0.56). This order was consistent with the popularity of natural reserves and the variety of ecotourism resources. Even though there were large differences in natural resources—and the opportunities, strategies, and effects in developing ecotourism also differed significantly among the 13 counties studied—inclusive, green, and sustainable modes of development, were, practically by consensus, identified as the only methods for development out of poverty. Within the regions, differentiated development models should be made based on the livelihood developing complementary relationships, and achieving complementary developments of regional ecotourism.
The five counties (Songpan, Heishui, Mao County, Li County, and Wenchuan) in the upper reaches of Min River were a beneficial reference. These rely on the Jiuzhaigou Natural Reserve Tourism Link, the Huanglong Natural Reserve of Songpan, the Dagu Glacier scenic area of Heishui, the ethnic villages of Li County, and the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve as different ecotourism resources in order to fully utilize their respective advantages. Gradually, they formed a trend of coordinated development; consequently, the five counties are all at the top of the evaluation of the livelihoods capital rankings.
The result of the evaluation of livelihoods based on the 33 indicators coincided with the results of the national-level poverty-stricken county of Rangtang and Xiaojin counties. However, the state county of Heishui was inconsistent with the livelihood evaluation primarily because the standards for national-level impoverishment are determined by per capita income, per capita GDP, and per capita local fiscal revenue. In this paper, we thought that it would be difficult for limited indicators and standards to fully reflect the overall situation, and, according to the livelihood capital assessment status and realities, Jinchuan County’s situation is not optimistic.
4.2. Analyses on a County Scale
In the 13 counties of Aba Prefecture there were great differences among the five capitals.
(1) Jinchuan and Rangtang counties reflected the lowest score of the comprehensive index of livelihood capital, especially Jinchuan, yet the five capital’s evaluation values were all below the standard 1.0. Even the values of the natural and human capitals were below 0.5, therefore, the overall level of economic and social development of Jinchuan was inevitably low because of its limitations in resources and circumstances. The value of the natural capital of Rangtang was greater than 1.0, but the values of human and physical capitals were all below 0.5; the financial capitals were only 0.51, so the social and economic developments were also relatively backward.
(2) The scores of comprehensive indices of livelihood capital of Xiaojin, Mao County, Hongyuan, and Maerkang counties were all below the standard 1.0. Xiaojin was the only county with a value of financial capitals above 1.0, but in the two aspects of growth rate of per capita disposable income of urban residents and the growth rate of net income of farmers and herdsmen, it was at the top of the 13 counties. Mao County scored the lowest value of natural capital, though its reliance on its geographically advantageous location on the Jiuzhaigou Tourism Link led to its tourism revenue growth being faster, though the most significant characteristic was its natural resource constraints. For Maerkang, the administrative center of Aba Prefecture, the only value above 1.0 was human capital. In Hongyuan, although the values of natural and human capital were above 1.0, the values of physical and financial capitals were lower, and its industrial structure was irrational, so the growth rates of urban residents, farmers, and herdsmen were slower.
(3) Scores of comprehensive indices of livelihood capital of Aba County, Wenchuan, and Li counties were in the range of 1.0–1.5. The value of natural capital of Aba County was higher because of the Manzhatang Wetland being the most important part of the Ruoergai Wetland, and because of its famous tourist attraction, the largest Langyi Bonismo Temple. The growth rate of Aba Counties tourism revenue has reached about seventy percent. On account of the minimum density of traffic lines and large proportion of primary industry, its value for physical capital was the lowest of the 13 counties.
(4) The comprehensive indices of livelihood capital of Ruoergai, Songpan, Heishui and Jiuzhaigou counties were all above 1.5. Ruoergai County had obvious advantages in its two aspects of natural and financial capital because of the Ruoergai Wetland and its growth in ecotourism. Ruoergai County had the highest values of per capita disposable income, growth rate of urban residents, net income, and the growth rate of farmers and herdsmen. Relying on the Jiuzhaigou Natural Reserve Tourism Link, Songpan, Heishui, Li County, Wechuan and Jiuzhaigou counties gradually formed a trend of coordinated development.
4.3. Topographic Factors Index of Settlement Sites
The proportion of settlements in the first and second zone is within 50%, Heihui, Li County, and Xiaojin are 3.45%, 4.41%, and 6.61%, the smallest proportion in the first zone. Li County, Xiaojin, Heishui, Wenchuan, Jinchuan, and Maerkang are 81.86%, 77.81%, 77.15%, 68.24%, 65.46%, and 63.89% in the third zone and above, the topographic conditions in these areas cause regional poverty as they are unsuitable for human habitation and farming. Hongyuan, Ruoergai, and Aba County are 2.33%, 16.38%, and 28.44% in the third zone and above, yet remain in poverty because of the alpine pastoral area (Figure 3
and Figure 4
). The correlation between the livelihood capital evaluation indices and TFIS classification is calculated with the first zone (8~14) being positively correlated and the negative correlation (22–26 and 27–34) at the 0.05 level.
Topographic factors of elevation, slope, relief amplitude, surface incision, variance coefficient in elevation, surface roughness, distance to roads and distance to rivers affect settlement site differentiation. Their power determinant value to TFIS are 0.02, 0.70, 0.77, 0.76, 0.51, 0.66, 0.06, and 0.09 (Table 3
). The relief amplitude and surface incision have a leading role in the distribution and location of the current settlement, followed by slope. These factors affect the occurrence of poverty, which are also the fundamental reason why poverty is difficult to eliminate.
4.4. Development Analysis
Through analysis, the region with the higher score of livelihood capital evaluation has the highest ecotourism revenue, as it relies on the superiority of natural resources and minority cultural resources. Rural tourism is one of the most important and valuable factors which can contribute to maintaining economic growth in these areas and it is a vital element which can provide local residents with many direct benefits [10
]. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, 20% of tourism revenue in developing countries originates from ecotourism [34
], and ecotourism has become one of the fastest growing segments within the travel and tourism industry [35
]. By comparing ecotourism and sustainable livelihood (Table 5
), there is a lot of consistency identified in benefits, core stakeholders, guidance, participants, and management methods. These five aspects are consistent with the poverty alleviation mechanism based on their own conditions to achieve independent development.
Ecotourism improvements in many developing countries and regions have proven that the comprehensive benefits of the ecotourism industry will cause a multiplier effect [35
]. Therefore, ecotourism is a “power industry” which can completely improve and promote regional society, economy, culture, and ecosystem development in the modern social economy, especially in a region which a large proportion of settlements in the third zone and above. Due to environmental protection and the benefit to communities—two major features of the ecotourism industry—a series of guided measures for tourism development have been issued at national, provincial, and municipal levels [38
]. Ecotourism has become a key and inevitable choice for promoting rapid and coordinated development of the economy, society, and environment in ethnic regions. In previous studies around the world, tourism has been shown to be an additional source of income for local households as a nonagricultural activity [12
], though a large proportion of total tourist revenue can be consequently lost from the local area due to leakage [11
]. In a post-industrial era, mountainous areas with greater natural resources will be sure to escape poverty, instead becoming economic highlands.
The five counties in the upper reaches of Min River proved beneficial to our research, and the Ruoergai wetland is currently aiming to build its ecotourism into an important business sector to generate profits making the county financially sustainable. The complex and comprehensive nature of regional strategy requires an effective integration of the socioeconomic needs of farmers and herdsmen with environmental policies in order to promote sustainable social-ecological systems in the Aba Prefecture. The vision of tourism as a conservation tool is widely practiced today [11
5. Conclusions and Discussion
Development and progress are both common desires and requirements. However, historically, there have always been gaps and imbalances, and poverty is one reflection of such gaps and imbalances. Poverty in minority ethnic regions is not only closely related with geography, history, and humanity, but also often with complex religious, political, and social stability issues. As such, these regions are always China’s focus for poverty alleviation and economic development, relying on local conditions, guiding the region to select the appropriate industry to achieve independent development and to be effective in eliminating poverty. Based on local situations, special ecological environments, resource advantages, and the internal connection between development and poverty, the evaluation index system of livelihood capital was built in minority contiguous poverty-stricken areas for the purpose of sustainable livelihood evaluation, and to compare the degree of poverty and development potential. The livelihood capitals of 13 counties of Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture were analyzed, according to the natural, human, social, physical, and financial capital; all five capitals and thirty-three evaluation indices were based on references and relevant study achievements. Topographic factors index of settlement sites (TFIS) were constructed by eight topographic factors, diagnosing the dominant factors of differentiation of 2699 settlements by using the geodetector model, and putting forward the poverty alleviation policies and models for different regions. The results showed that:
(1) The livelihood capital evaluation indices were obviously different, and the order is as follows: Jiuzhaigou (1.88) > Heishui (1.62) > Songpan (1.59) > Ruoergai (1.51) > Li County (1.41) > Wenchuan (1.33) > Aba County (1.09) > Hongyuan (0.90) > Maerkang (0.79) > Mao County (0.76) > Xiaojin (0.70) > Rangtang (0.58) > Jinchuan (0.56), showing that the major difference was in economic development of the overall level, natural resource endowment, county infrastructure, social security, and the measures and effect of developing ecotourism.
(2) Natural capital values were higher and the average was 1.56, as there were excellent ecological resources with potential advantages for these counties, but there were great differences due to the special conditions of natural geography, and unique topographic features. The values of physical, financial, and human capital were lower, and this limited the rate of transformation of the ecological resource advantage into the economy. However, great improvement was seen because of infrastructure construction, ecological conservation, the income of farmers and herdsmen, and, especially, the primary education and health services with the support of Great West Development Strategy in China, anti-property policies in Sichuan Provence, policies of conversion of cropland to forest and grassland, and the construction of the National Ecology Function zone.
(3) The order of proportion of settlements in the third zone and above is: Li County (81.86) > Xiaojin (77.81) > Heishui (77.15) > Wenchuan (68.24) > Jinchuan (65.46) > Maerkang (63.89) > Jinchuan (58.33) > MaoCounty (57.50) > Rangtang (57.28) > Songpan (45.93) > AbaCounty (28.44) > Ruoergai (16.38) > Hongyuan (2.33). The correlation between the livelihood capital evaluation indices and TFIS classification is calculated with the first zone (8~14) being positively correlated, and negative correlation (22~26 and 27~34) at the 0.05 level. Topographic factors of elevation, slope, relief amplitude, surface incision, variance coefficient in elevation, surface roughness, distance to roads and distance to rivers affect settlement site differentiation, and their power determinant value to TFIS are 0.02, 0.70, 0.77, 0.76, 0.51, 0.66, 0.06, and 0.09. The relief amplitude and surface incision have a leading role in the distribution and location of the current settlement, followed by slope.
(4) The comparison of ecotourism and sustainable livelihood shows there is a lot of consistency in concerned benefit, core stakeholders, main guidance, main participant, and management methods. These are consistent with the poverty alleviation mechanism based on their own conditions to achieve independent development. Because of the TFIS the ecotourism industry has become the inevitable choice for promoting rapid and coordinated development of the economy, society, and environment in ethnic regions.
Whether natural or cultural heritage landscapes, and regardless of their location or focus of development, minority regions have been under pressure from tourism. With the tourism boom, minority regions quickly became hot areas for ecotourism development due to their unique natural and cultural resources; these regions not only have ecological importance for safely supplying natural resources, and conserving soil and water, but they also play an important role in national security and unity. Therefore, tourism development requires systematic planning and design on the regional and national scale, ensuring tourism is a way to protect, rather than destroy, social and cultural resources. Because of ecological barriers and environmental fragility, combined with the sustainable livelihood assessment and evaluation results, the ecotourism industry is an inclusive, green, sustainable development, and it is the only choice for the contiguous poor areas to speed up their development. Furthermore, combining the three characteristics of natural geography, humanity, and long-term poverty, a new system for poverty alleviation should be established. This should include a strategic poverty alleviation policy for mountainous areas to make widespread plans in whole contiguous destitute areas, and also include different concrete poverty alleviation policies, like industrial, education, social security, and social management policies. Developing ecological tourism to promote economic development is vital—after all, economic development is the foundation and fundamental way to eliminate poverty.
This paper contributes to the livelihood development discussion in remote and ethnic minority areas of China, a very important as well as very complex and multilayered issue. Accurate assessment of livelihood in some special areas (such as environmentally fragile areas, poverty-stricken areas, and disaster stricken areas) is crucial for understanding the problems of sustainability, and implementing poverty alleviation programs [8
]. In this paper we tried to tackle and analyze this complexity by applying a large number of livelihood indices and topographic factors of settlements sites (villages), the truly irreducible dimensions in the county scale. The established evaluation indices of livelihood objectively reflects the practical conditions of the research area which can be used not only in southwest China, but could also be widely applied to other rural mountainous regions in China. The hill and mountain areas in China occupy close to 69% of China’s total land area and are home to 45% of its population. The mountainous areas are an essential component of regional development, but are lagging behind the country [33
]. Economic growth leads to more income for people, which in turn reduces poverty and improves standards of living [41
]. In short, the economic situation in the region is very important. The healthy development and growth of the economy must be maintained in order to provide quality employment opportunities for low-income groups and the poor. In particular, many poorly educated and skilled families should be given extra training and assistance, increasing their employment opportunities and income channels.