Greening China

An environmental awakening in Western China has led to several ambitious initiatives to restore the ecology in the mountain chains of three provinces. The initial results have been stunning. Victor Paul Borg reports
Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without another story of environmental woes coming out of China. Rapid and poorly controlled development has seen rivers, soil and air polluted. Less often heard are the good news stories, but increasingly, the Chinese government is coming to realise the importance of environmental responsibility. Indeed, in October last year, President Hu Jintao opened the 17th Communist Party congress with a speech that featured a broad pledge to ‘promote a conservation culture’.

One place where this ‘conservation culture’ is already being introduced is in the forests of the wild Min Mountains in China’s Sichuan province, the world’s richest temperate habitat. ‘In my travels in the mountains,’ says Yang Ming of WWF in Sichuan, ‘many people tell me of former grazing grounds that have now reverted to forest. This is partly the result of tree planting and partly due to natural regeneration – the moist climate is conducive to the restoration of forests, and once the impact of human activity ceases, the forests regenerate relatively quickly.’

Human meddling ceased after severe floods in China’s central plains in 1998 were blamed on deforestation in the mountains of the southwest, particularly in the provinces of Sichuan, Ganzu and Shaanxi. The government responded with a green impulse: logging was banned, ‘ecological construction’ began in earnest, and the loggers became conservationists. ‘The new role of the forestry farms,’ says Gu Xiadong, a conservation officer at the Sichuan Forestry Department, ‘is to nurture and maintain biodiversity, and the government is paying them to do that.’

Sichuan, a province almost as large as Spain and home to the bulk of the mountains, is spending about £1billion on reforestation alone in the first ten years of this century. By September 2006, when the last review was conducted, the reforestation drive had led to an increase in forest cover from 24 to 29 per cent of the province’s total area.

One policy is to plant trees on existent fields that fall on slopes greater than an angle of 25°, and farmers are being reimbursed for ten years to give up their fields – under this programme, 1.16 million hectares of former agricultural land were returned to forest by September 2006. ‘We are encouraging the farmers to use the money to find alternative income,’ says Gu.

At the same time, nature reserves are proliferating and being linked up by vegetation corridors to create a huge, near-contiguous protected area. In this manner, bit by bit, the forests and protected zones are expanding rapidly, and WWF has recognised this habitat-conservation effort – which is possibly the largest in the world in its scope – with a Gift to the Earth award, one of the most prestigious international accolades for conservation. ‘The government has positive policies towards nature conservation, and it’s working,’ says Yang.

Incredible diversity

There is a lot to protect in the six mountain chains that straddle the three provinces. They form the transition zone between the plains and the Tibetan and Qinghai plateaus, and it’s the resultant range in elevation, as well as the monsoonal downpours, that make the habitats densely stratified and incredibly diverse. Down in the valleys, the environment can be tropical or subtropical; higher up is a temperate belt, and further up, on the mountains’ shoulders, the landscape morphs into coniferous forests interspersed with meadows and lakes.

The level of biodiversity is impressive: 12,000 species of higher plant, of which 29 per cent are endemic; 686 species of bird, including the world’s highest diversity of pheasants; and 300 species of mammal, including clouded leopards, blue sheep and giant pandas. Many of these species are endangered; the area is one of WWF’s 25 ‘global priority eco-regions’.

The diversity reaches its zenith in the Min Mountains, or Minshan. With summits reaching 5,000 metres and a spread of 64,000 square kilometres, the majority are in Sichuan, and it’s there that conservation efforts are at their peak. The province already boasts 117 nature reserves, and the plan is to increase that number to 168 – covering more than a fifth of Sichuan’s territory. The latest two reserves to be created – Longdishui and Baozuo – are both in the Minshan.

‘From a provincial viewpoint,’ says Qiu Jian, a programme officer at the Sichuan Forestry Department, ‘the areas with rich biodiversity are already in established nature reserves, and these latest reserves – although rich in their own way – are less significant in terms of nature conservation than the older reserves. That’s also why they were only recently established.’

These new reserves are mostly designed to link existing reserves. Baozuo, for example, connects a chain of reserves in northern Sichuan and southern Gansu, and Longdishui is part of the largest corridor being created. ‘The area of this corridor,’ Gu elaborates, ‘suffered from the construction of a highway through the habitat, and also from the destruction wrought by local people. There are ten villages scattered along the road, and in the past, these people cut down the trees and turned the forest into fields.

‘Now we are slowly rebuilding the natural forest,’ he continues. ‘Longdishui Nature Reserve was established to protect the existing forest, and outside the reserve, we are reforesting agricultural land on slopes. We have also banned hunting entirely, funded the production of biogas for household stoves (so that people don’t have to cut trees for cooking and heating), and are now helping the local people find alternative income in tourism.’

Another corridor farther south, called Tudiling, is designed to restore the historical link between two clusters of pristine landscapes. It’s a project funded by WWF and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund using workers employed by the forestry farm. ‘The main problem in Tudiling is that when the forestry farms were logging companies, they cut down natural forest and planted non-native pines in its place,’ says Gu. ‘We call these forests “green deserts” because they have no value for biodiversity.’

‘From the perspective of pandas,’ says Yang, ‘this project is crucial, as there is a small community of 30 pandas living south of Tudiling, and this group is susceptible to demise due to a lack of genetic exchange and diversity.’

An 8,967-hectare strip of land is due for ‘surgery’, which will involve felling the present trees and replanting mixed natural forest. Earlier this year, a trial conversion of 20 hectares was carried out. ‘The test seems to be working,’ says Yang. ‘But it’s a high-risk project; it’s uncertain if it will work as a wildlife corridor in the way that it historically did because of various factors, such as the effects of climate change, the disturbance by local people and government policy, which can always change in the future.’

Poaching problems

It isn’t all good news, however: there are indications that the logging ban has led to an increase in poaching. There are 4.6 million inhabitants in the Minshan alone, most of them belonging to cultural minorities of Tibetan origin. The logging ban cut off their income – hence the escalation in poaching.

Poaching is a chronic problem,’ says Jiang Shiwei, vice director of Wanglang Nature Reserve. ‘The local people are poor and deprived, and they poach for takin [a relative of the musk ox] and black bear. Others enter the reserve to collect mushrooms, vegetables and medicinal herbs.’

The reserves have responded by stepping up their patrols, but halting intrusions into remote and inhospitable mountainous terrain is extremely difficult, and the hope now is that the growing tourism industry will provide the local inhabitants with an alternative income.

In this way, the development of tourism has become part of the larger conservation plan. ‘As tourism expands and the region develops,’ says Yang, ‘we are trying to steer development towards a sustainable footing. The good news is that much of the mountains is in nature reserves now, and the impact of humans in nature reserves is limited. But we still have a lot of work to do to educate people and change the pattern of development.’

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Ecotourism versus mass tourism

As tourism in Sichuan’s mountains grows, conservation officials are attempting to ensure that it doesn’t become a destructive force. ‘We want to put conservation first, and not ruin nature reserves by mass tourism,’ says Qiu Jian of the Sichuan Forestry Department. ‘Some reserves already have mass tourism and we have to accept that reality. But now, if a reserve wants to open up for tourists, we place various restrictions – we limit the number of visitors after doing a carrying-capacity assessment, we open only a part of the reserve for visitors, and within that part, visitors have to keep to designated trails.’

When people mention mass tourism in nature reserves, they are usually talking about Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve. Within Jiuzhaigou’s 650 square kilometres are alpine slopes, granite peaks, thunderous waterfalls and pristine lakes – and it features on UNESCO’s two famous lists, hosting both a World Heritage site and a World Biosphere Reserve.

Two million people visited the reserve in 2006, and in peak season, the number of daily visitors approaches 18,000 – the cap placed on numbers by the administration. An entire small town consisting of more than 90 hotels and other outfits has sprouted up outside the reserve to serve the tourists.

The reserve officials are doing an excellent job at mitigating the impact of this horde. A fleet of 300 buses powered by biofuel shuttle people around the reserve, and visitors can hop on and off at will and go walking – there are about 60 kilometres of elevated trails. Smoking is strictly prohibited inside the reserve; there are wardens and CCTV cameras everywhere. People can only eat in one central designated area and toilets are high-tech and mobile.

No tourist accommodation is allowed inside the reserve, although some of the inhabitants flout the rules by offering lodgers rooms in their houses (there are about 1,000 native Tibetan inhabitants in a scattering of villages, and the government gives them the equivalent of £700 each annually, a good salary for the region, to do nothing; some are also employed in the reserve as wardens).

‘Now we’re trying to spread the load of the visitors by encouraging more people to visit in the quiet winter months,’ says Ma Yigang, the director of marketing at Jiuzhaigou. ‘Additionally, we want to encourage visitors to stay longer and walk more.’

This thinking is the antithesis of the present pattern: most people visit for one day, riding in buses from one scenic spot to the next, where they get off the bus and jostle to take some photographs. Now, the officials are planning to open another part of the Jiuzhaigou and reserve it exclusively for ecotourism – meaning trekkers. This new area, Zharu Valley, has a small Tibetan village that remains quaint and affable, and the idea is that visitors will see the village and then go for a day-long trek along an old trail that peters out at a series of remote lakes.

‘At Jiuzhaigou, the park officials have realised that mass tourism has had a negative impact on the quality of landscape and scenery,’ says Yang. ‘This is why they want to do things differently in Zharu.’

Other reserves are also shunning mass tourism. An ecotourism project launched in Wanglang Nature Reserve in 2001 is something of a prototype. A small hotel was built inside the reserve – in an area already disturbed by the warden’s quarters – and the idea is that guests will trek from the hotel into the wilderness, first along a narrow track and then along elevated boardwalks branching out to scenic spots. ‘We have a limit of 150 tourists daily,’ says Jiang Shiwei, vice director of Wanglang. ‘We also take out all rubbish, wastewater and sewage.’

Some tour operators have now started taking groups inside the reserve in buses, and one evening I saw a corporate group make a bonfire and dance to loud music in the hotel’s courtyard. When I mentioned these observations to Yang, he replies, ‘I know, the nature reserves need to raise money for administration, and if they try to prevent these things from happening, the tourists won’t visit and they will lose out on the money. We still need to educate the Chinese on how to appreciate nature.’

‘Developing ecotourism in China is difficult,’ says Jiang, who had reluctantly allowed the party that evening for two hours in return for ‘a lot of money’. ‘Our plan, in the future, is to stop cars from driving into the reserve; we would take the visitors into the reserve in our buses,’ he says. ‘At the same time, we need to develop the reserve better for international guests, or people who visit for nature, so they stay in the hotel and go walking – we need better marketing to attract this kind of guest.’

The faltering ecotourism plan hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the central Sichuan Forestry Department has turned against the idea of lodging inside reserves. ‘Currently, we don’t encourage lodging houses inside nature reserves,’ says Qiu Jian. ‘Now we encourage the development of small inns outside the reserves, and we want these inns to be run by local people so that the benefits of tourism can be shared locally. In some cases, we help the local people build guesthouses in their traditional building style, and help them arrange business and promotion, as well as manage the waste produced in an eco-friendly manner.’

China’s environmental movement awakens

The rise in environmental awareness in China has been dramatic and has even reached the higher political leaders. The emerging consensus is that environmental protection needs to be an integral part of China’s development. There has been an increase in the number of official studies monitoring environmental deterioration and officials are beginning to speak out about abuses.

Last July, the head of the central environmental agency, Zhou Shengxian, made headlines when he claimed that the effects of environmental deterioration on local people is a major cause of the increase in the number of riots and mass demonstrations. He then launched a scathing attack on corrupt local officials who don’t enforce pollution legislation.

And this is where the problem often lies: at the local county level, environmental policies or laws tend to wither in the face of either corruption or inertia.

Another factor is the lack of integration, the result of uneven awareness and different government departments having different priorities. Hydroelectricity is still seen as environmentally positive by some officials, while others remain focused on unadulterated growth. When I asked the Sichuan tourism department whether, given the province’s natural attaractions, it was keen to develop ecotourism, I was told the department has no preference for any particular tourism model.

Co-ordinates - China

When to go

Given China’s size, it comes as no surprise that its climate is extremely diverse. Overall, the best time to visit is spring or autumn; summers can get uncomfortably hot and the north and west are often buried under snow in the winter. Monsoonal rains in late spring and early summer can also make travel difficult.

Sichuan and parts of the surrounding provinces enjoy a humid subtropical climate, and once again, spring and autumn are the best times to visit. However, temperatures high in the mountains can drop quite low at this time, so make sure to pack plenty of warm clothes. 

Getting there

British Airways ( and Air China ( fly direct from the UK to China. KLM ( flies direct from Amsterdam to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. Chengdu is well connected internally by both air and rail.

Further information

All foreign nationals require a visa to enter mainland China. These are available from the Chinese Embassy in London and the Chinese Consulates-General in Manchester and Edinburgh. A single-entry visa costs £30.

No vaccinations are required for China, but it’s still worth checking with a travel clinic.

February 2008

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