Approaches to Conservation in China
There are sufficient reasons why China gets a bad reputation in regards to its environmental policy, yet there is cause to be optimistic about the future of ecological conservation in China. Professor Lu Zhi’s lecture at UC Berkeley entitled “Seeking Solutions to China’s Environmental Crisis”, presented the ways that China is meeting the growing environmental demands of outside entities as well as realizing its own interest in conserving the country’s valuable biodiversity and ecosystems.
Lu Zhi is a professor of conservation biology and Executive director of the Center for Nature and Society at Peking University, in Beijing. She is also the founder of the Shan-Shui Conservation Center, a Chinese NGO that demonstrates approaches on how Chinese society can live with nature. She spent most of her career living and researching the Giant Panda. Zhi’s role at the university is to conduct the research that then hopefully will be implemented into conservation policy.
China contains about 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and still has significant portions of pristine nature in its Western regions. China contains four ecological “hotspots”, out of the 34 spots designated worldwide. Also, due to its portions of the Himalayan Mountains and the Tibetan plateau, it also holds the watershed that serves most of Asia.
This wealth of environmental diversity and resources has suffered significant damage in the last 30 years of China’s fast-paced development. Water sources face over-exhaustion and pollution. The country also faces desert encroachment, increased erosion due to logging, agricultural soil pollution, as well as severe air pollution problems. Mostly due to its large population, China’s ecological footprint has been far exceeding the country’s bio-capacity since the 1970s.
Many Chinese still to hold the belief that they should have the luxury of unrestricted development, as developed nations had before them. The government, for the most part, thinks that the environment can only be dealt with after the country gets richer.
Beginning in 1985, Zhi conducted about 11 years worth of work studying the Giant Panda and viable conservation methods. The rumors of the Giant Panda’s problems with mating are not true in the wild; this issue only occurs in captivity. Zhi said that it turns out, “The problem is not the panda, it’s us”. It’s the logging of the forests in Southern China that was propelling the Panda close to extinction. When the free market opened up in the 90s, profit became more powerful than existing regulations, and the Panda’s habitat was being rapidly destroyed.
The logging only finally stopped when it sparked massive erosion problems, flooding of many people’s homes, and taking numerous lives. It was only with this addition of the human element into the equation that the government began to regulate logging and subsidize reforestation. This program turned out to not only help out the loggers, but the Giant Panda as well. This coupled with imposing the death penalty to Panda poachers, has saved the Giant Panda from extinction.
It is these kinds of economic incentives that have proved to have a big impact in changing China’s environmental issues. These market schemes look at the value of Earth’s ecosystems in monetary terms, which fits with the capitalistic mindset in China. Mechanisms like carbon trading could have a very big influence in protecting habitat and biodiversity in rural Chinese villages. If the local communities received additional income from planting trees, they would be improving their economic situation, as well as saving the forest. To reach a win-win solution, Zhi believes that one has to take law, policy, and market all into account together.
Zhi cited the city of Lijiang as an example of market incentives in regards to its experience with water use and agriculture. The city is marked as a cultural heritage town, attracting many tourists to its freshwater canals and waterways running throughout the city. This water was originally provided by the glacier melt above the city, but recently the glacier has almost all but melted, and the water has been coming from a nearby lake. The lake, however, is located next to agricultural lands and contains great amounts of pesticide traces, hurting the cities’ reputation as a clean water haven, as well as the people’s health. A solution was reached where the tourists pay a very small amount of money upon visiting Lijiang, and this money goes toward assisting local farmers to switch to more sustainable organic agricultural methods. This creative and collective approach benefits the tourist industry, the farmers, and the health of the local people
Lu Zhi also discussed the role of Tibetan sacred lands, containing large portions of China’s pristine wilderness areas. One third of the land in Tibet is viewed as sacred, thus these lands are being protected by the local people without market incentives, but rather by traditional belief systems. Local organizations, like the volunteer-based “Friend of the Wild Yak” organization take great pride in protecting wild species. The members of this group are local Tibetans that realized the importance of the wild yak for grazing and making fertile grasslands, thus set out to voluntarily protect the Wild Yak. This method of conservation is effective and cheap. The problem is that the Chinese still look at the Tibetans as backwards and poverty-stricken, because they live by traditional religious beliefs. Rather, it is the case that the Chinese have something to learn from the Tibetans in valuing the land intrinsically, not merely for its monetary value.
In the topics of Giant Panda conservation, market incentives, and Tibetan sacred lands, Zhi expressed great optimism for the future of conservation in China. Yet there are still loads of issues the government must deal with. The national policy framework is changing, from an emphasis on rapid development, to development that will create a more sustainable, viable country. The problem lies in that change is slow in a country with over a billion people. The environment does not know borders, however, and “China’s dilemma is the world’s dilemma”, Zhi said. It is the research and ideas in the academic world, as well as raising public awareness, that will influence smart growth and policy in China, and worldwide.