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LONGFORM

System Overhaul

For many of China’s 10,000 protected areas, conservation has come second to economic development for decades. A new national park pilot project attempts to reverse this trend and establish a system that puts nature first

By Wang Yan Updated Jul.23

The poachers had crept in to dig up cordyceps, a caterpillar shaped fungus highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Two other trespassers used the land to herd cattle and horses. All of them were locals from neighboring villages, caught by patrolling officers on a routine raid last April. The land on which they encroached was northwestern Sichuan Province’s Wanglang National Nature Reserve, a government-backed protected area. 
 
The area surrounding Wanglang, including the Min Mountains to the northeast, is all part of a region called the “mountains of southern China,” one of the planet’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, according to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Biodiversity hotspots are characterized as areas that meet extremely high standards of biological richness yet also face environmental threats. Established in 1965, Wanglang was one of China’s first giant panda reserves. It earned international recognition in the late 1990s due to its effective management and support of local communities’ sustainable development.  
 
It kept close ties with research institutions and environmental management specialists. Since the late 2000s, however, external threats have begun to impinge on the once model reserve. Parties with vested interests push for upping tourist numbers, government departments that oversee different aspects of Wanglang vie for power, and out-of-date protection laws allow individuals and companies who damage the reserve to slip through legal cracks. 
 
Wanglang exemplifies the issues faced by China’s numerous protected areas as a whole. The total area of the country’s approximately 10,000 protected regions covers about 18 percent of China, a proportion higher than the global average. However, weak management and insufficient funding are threatening most of their conservation efforts 
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The central government is trying to turn things around. In late 2013, President Xi Jinping included the development of a true national park system into the central committee’s official plans for deeper reform. Nine pilot park projects were announced in June 2015.  
 
Messy Network 

In China, the term “protected area” encompasses many different categories. Nature reserves, scenic spots, geoparks, forest parks and wetland parks all fall under this umbrella. Of the 10,000 total such sites in the country, 2,697 are designated as nature reserves, with the first one established in Guangdong Province’s Dinghu Mountain region in 1956. 
 
Officially protected areas are managed by different supervision agencies, depending on their environmental characteristics with the two major players– the State Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) – heading the list. Other supervisors include the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Oceanic Administration, the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. Each of these agencies has different priorities.  
 
Worse, while these protected areas are overseen by different government departments, they also have no up-to-date legal shield. As a result of this gap in Chinese law, local governments rewarded for economic growth and private, profit-driven companies both plunder the land through under-the-radar mining, construction projects and tourist activities. 
 
Crippled System 

The results of these issues have infiltrated the Wanglang reserve. Locals exploit the reserve’s resources by overgrazing and poaching valuable wild plants, all of which damage the panda’s natural habitat. Hydropower projects and highway construction encroach upon the area. 
 
At the same time, the Mianyang city government, which oversees the reserve, pressures Wanglang to bolster tourist numbers. In 2013, Tenio Group, a private company in charge of tourism in Wanglang, planned to invest 3 billion yuan (then US$488m) into transforming the reserve into a major attraction that could support more than 600,000 visitors a year, according to media reports. Previously, the most visitors Wanglang had ever received in a year was 50,000, said Zhao Lianjun, deputy director of the reserve’s management bureau.  
 
Yin Kaipu, a professor at the Chengdu Institute of Biology and the author of Tracing One Hundred Years of Change: Illustrating the Environmental Changes in Western China, told NewsChina that the situation in Wanglang is almost at the “point of no return.” 
 
Although Wanglang is nominally a “national” reserve, in reality it is affiliated with the local government of Pingwu County, which is situated within the city of Mianyang. The Pingwu government, similar to local governments nationwide, tries to maximize its tourism-related tax revenue in order to boost the local economy. The problem for Wanglang, however, is that this comes at the expense of the reserve’s habitat. Complicating matters are the contradicting motivations of different local government departments. “For example, the local animal husbandry bureau wants to increase herding range, the tourism bureau’s target is increasing tourism, while the transportation department aims to build highways,” Zhao Lianjun told our reporter. 
 
“However, all these departments are fulfilling their roles without considering whether their actions cause ecological damage to the giant panda’s natural habitat. Conservation requires the combined efforts of multiple stakeholders, rather than just one group.” 
 
The most serious conflict is that between Wanglang’s interests and those of the local tourism industry. “We will definitely face more pressure from the tourism industry in the future, and I can’t imagine how we are going to handle things when the number of tourists rockets up to the hundreds of thousands,” Zhao said. “The contradiction between the local government’s need for economic development and our nature conservation efforts are not an issue unique to Wanglang; it’s common in almost all of China’s protected areas.”
 
Official Pressure 

Xi Jinping pushed for change in November 2013 when he added that China needs to “establish a national park system” into a central committee report, an unprecedented statement in such a high-level document. 
 
In early 2015, the State Council instructed the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to cooperate with 12 other relevant government departments and form a plan for a national park system. By mid-2015, the government announced nine pilot national parks projects in eight provinces and one municipality. (All of the sites were already protected areas.) The ultimate aim is to establish an integrated national park system that fits the Chinese context yet reflects international standards. The deadline for this is the end of 2017, after which time the new system will roll out across the country. 
 
Amid central government calls to build China into an “ecological civilization,” officials are viewing the national park initiative as a flagship project for this greening movement, said Su Yang, a researcher at the Development Research Center, a think tank under the State Council. 
 
Yang Rui, head of Tsinghua University’s landscape architecture department and a member of a team of experts appointed by the NDRC for the national park project, explained to NewsChina that this initiative is a rare opportunity to revamp the management of all of China’s protected areas. 
 
Yang said that while the number of protected regions in China skyrocketed from the late 1970s through 2013, they have been haunted by two major structural deficiencies. Firstly, speaking of their overall condition, Yang explained that there is no complete network unifying them, leading to fragmentation. The areas also lack systemic protection, and many of their boundaries were drawn without considering the natural ecosystems they contain or bisect. 

Secondly, the areas are racked with managerial problems: because there is no system unifying all of the protected areas, infighting amongst different stakeholders is rampant, with no overarching legal entity to settle their quarrels. “If these two structural deficiencies can be conquered [during this national park initiative], China will not only be able to smoothly establish a national park system, it will also create a brighter future for the country’s protected areas in other categories,” Yang added. 
 
Most experts and researchers interviewed agreed that this is a crucial moment for Chinese conservation. If the newly instated national park system successfully unifies dissenting interest groups and changes the mindsets of local governments that are hungry for economic development, it may be the first step to realizing the central government’s aspiration of what it has termed an “ecological civilization.” 
 
Steps Forward, Back 

After years of debating the importance of tourism development in future national parks, stakeholders are reaching some common ground. Xi Jinping made a speech earlier this year that emphasized that the purpose of developing national parks was to “protect the original state and completeness of our natural ecosystems for future generations.” The two main goals of China’s national park system have already been specified: the first priority is to protect the parks’ ecosystems, and the second is to provide educational and recreational services. 
 
At present, according to an inside source, the nine pilot projects have all completed their draft proposals and presented them to the NDRC. Six of the nine were approved and they will move on to the next step, the restructuring of the existing protected area. 
 
The three pilot plans that failed the first round of evaluations were those of the Mount Wuyi area in Fujian Province, the Pudacuo park in Yunnan Province and the Badaling section of the Great Wall in Beijing,one of the Wall’s most visited sections. Different interest groups’ reluctance to change tended to hold the sites back. For example, the local government of Beijing’s Yanqing District, which includes Badaling, tried to wiggle out of the pilot program, according to the same inside source. “The Yanqing government is afraid of losing income from Badaling tourism, which accounts for almost one third of its total revenue,” explained the source. 
 
The Mount Wuyi situation is one of the most complicated among all nine sites, according to Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Chicago-based Paulson Institute, a think tank that is partnering with the NDRC on the national park system project. Four different local government departments supervise diffent parts of the Mount Wuyi area, all with their own management mandates, and the complicated land rights rules within the planned national park boundaries made the situation even more complex. 
 
To balance and appease different stakeholders, many of the other sites’ plans involved establishing a new government agency to oversee national parks and nature reserves. “In Mount Wuyi’s project proposal, no separate organization was included, and that is why the plan was not approved by the NDRC during the first round of review,” a different insider told NewsChina. 
 
The Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in western Qinghai Province appears to be a much more clear-cut case, due to its underdeveloped tourism industry. Yang pointed out that it does suffer from some serious issues, however – for example, its boundaries were not defined based on sufficient scientific study. “Scientists did not even determine the boundaries of the Sanjiangyuan reserve, as far as I know,” Yang Rui explained.  
 
“Research on an ecosystem’s integrity should be the first step before you demarcate a reserve.” Yang stressed that experts also need to study the species living within park boundaries and the relationships between them, as well as any difficulties park 
managers may encounter in the site’s protection, such as community or infrastructural issues. 
 
But according to an inside source familiar with the Sanjiangyuan plan, the local government is focusing on “poverty alleviation” in the establishment of this park. “This is a deviation from the two core values of the national park system,” added the source. 
 
Park Proliferation 

As the nine pilot projects undergo their individual planning, some provinces are proposing ambitious national park plans of their own. 
 
For example, Sichuan Province, which is home to about 76 percent of China’s wild panda population, has proposed to the central government that three of its giant panda reserves become national parks. 
 
According to an inside source, Wanglang National Nature Reserve is one of them. The plan to make it a national park started brewing back in 2006. The reserve’s management bureau director Jiang Shiwei told NewsChina that Wanglang’s managers hope the approval of the plan will solve some of the threats that it continually faces, such as overgrazing. Other provinces are preparing national park proposals with the main goals of protecting the Tibetan antelope, the Asian elephant and the Siberian tiger. 
 
“Frankly speaking, I still worry about the current [national park] situation when almost all attempts to build national parks in different provinces are still based on attracting tourists and economic profit,” Yang said. “If national parks are blindly built before national park reform is concretely defined, the results would be disastrous.” He added that the pilot program is a satisfying start, but it will require better communication between the central and local governments. “People involved in the pilot projects at the local level are not seeing timely feedback or guidance from the upper levels, which might lead to chaotic situations,” Yang continued. 

Professor and author Yin Kaipu shared Yang’s view. Yin helped to review one of the giant panda national park plans proposed by the Sichuan government and he said the plan included tourism development practices that were similar to practices of the past, something that is against the new national park system’s goals. Yin emphasized that a complete overturning of the old system is the key to establishing national parks. “The top-down design is very important – there is an urgent need for an overarching, national-level system to be mapped out,” he added. 
 
A new, independent central government agency needs to be established to oversee national parks and protected areas, Yang Rui told our reporter. The agency should have the power to demarcate areas as natural reserves or parks, draw up conservation plans for them and take legal action against those who mismanage their resources. The current, fledgling national park system still has a long way to go before China’s conservationists will be content, but even in its pilot stage, it is a step in the right direction. 
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