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Swamped by Conflict

As efforts to preserve China’s wetlands butt up against the need to secure local livelihoods, alternative ways for conservation are being sought

By NewsChina Updated May.1

The conflict between conservation and the need to provide local people with incomes and livelihoods has never been stronger in China, as environmental authorities seek to undo decades of unchecked development and preserve landscapes and waterways. The problem is that often, these areas are in remote areas populated by ethnic minorities, who rely on tourism to boost incomes. 
The Lashihai Wetland Nature Reserve, which includes the alpine freshwater Lashi Lake, is some 10 kilometers from the heavily touristed town of Lijiang, in the northwest of Yunnan Province, located on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Its blue waters and some 57 species of migratory birds which use the lake as a stopover have attracted visitors for years, and the local Yi and Naxi ethnic minorities have benefitted by providing services for them, such as boat rides and fishing.  

In 2016, environmental authorities inspected the wetlands, and found evidence of overfishing, illegal tourism activities, illegal land reclamation and construction of entertainment facilities by local communities. Local officials were ordered to take corrective measures, and by October 8, all water-related activities were supposed to have ceased, by decree of authorities in Yulong County. 

Yet on October 13, a special investigation by reporters from China Central Television (CCTV) found that tourists were still being offered boat rides openly on the lake. Yu Xiaogang, founder of Green Watershed, a local environment NGO that has been active for years in the Lashihai area, told NewsChina that this sudden cessation of tourist-related activities would have a severe impact on local livelihoods.  

“As far as I know, there are some tourist ferry companies operated by local people and many local farmers are employed as staff managing these water-related tourist projects,” he said. “In addition, there are a significant number of fishermen living in and around the wetlands who depend on fish resources, and that is also the main food for migratory birds.” 

Lashihai Wetland has been a Ramsar Site since 2004. The Ramsar Convention is an international agreement on the conservation of Wetlands of International Importance, signed in 1971 in the  
Iranian city of Ramsar, which came into force in 1975. Lashihai Reserve covers an area of more than 6,523 hectares, and provides a winter habitat for some 30,000 migratory birds.  
The local government’s recent action to ban tourist activities on the lake, whether effective or not, was not an isolated move, but was part of a wider nationwide wetland preservation initiative.  
Yet Chang Jiwen, vice director-general of the Research Institute for Resources and Environment Policies under the Development Research Center of the State Council told CCTV that local governments tend to return to a business-as-usual mode in development projects once environmental inspection teams have left. 

“Some local government officials hold a passive wait-and-see attitude, and one major reason is that there are various profits intertwined within the nature reserve redline area,” Chang said.  

Drying Up
International attention on the preservation of wetlands against the backdrop of fast economic development, which was causing increasing loss and degradation of wetland habitats for migratory water birds, started in the 1950s. The Ramsar Convention was the first modern global intergovernmental environmental agreement on wetland preservation, and by May 2018, 170 parties had signed the treaty. China signed the convention in 1992 and a number of wetland nature reserves inside the country were set up after that.  

Since China started almost 40 years later than some other nations in taking real action on wetland preservation, there was a huge deterioration or the total disappearance of wetlands, particularly in the most developed east coast regions. Statistics from the State Oceanic Administration indicate that from 1950 to 2000, up to 57 percent of coastal wetlands in China, most of which were important habitats for migrating birds, were lost due to unregulated development projects such as land reclamation, fish farming and mudflat overexploitation. 

A publication on China’s wetlands and their distribution released by the then State Forestry Administration in July 2016 pointed out: “Apart from climate change and other natural elements, human intervention and infrastructure construction such as reclamation are the major reasons causing significant reductions of wetlands inside the country.” 

Due to enhanced preservation efforts in recent decades, things have started to improve in some areas of China. Among all government initiatives, China’s Wetland Protection Management Regulation, which was revised in 2017, contained stricter rules on ecological protection redlines for wetland areas. According to statistics released by the then State Forestry Administration (now the State Forestry and Grassland Administration), during China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), the area of wetlands coming under conservation measures increased by two million hectares.  

Apart from more designated Ramsar Sites and national wetland parks, the total area of protected natural wetlands amounts to 49.03 percent of the total of 53 million hectares. The central government has put more cash into preserving wetlands, and from 2013 through 2017, over 1,500 wetland recovery projects were carried out at a cost of more than eight billion yuan (US$1.16b). The most immediate goal of wetland preservation is, according to Li Chunliang, deputy director of the former forestry administration and current director of the new organization, to secure at least 53.3 million hectares of the already existing wetlands by 2020. “This goal has been included in the main scheme of the country’s national 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) and is a vital element for the country’s construction of an ecological civilization,” Li said in a speech at a public event in early 2018. 

Local governments have started to take real action. For example, Fuzhou, a coastal city in the southeastern Fujian Province, announced in October 2018 the implementation of the strictest regulations so far aimed at securing the existing area of wetlands inside the city’s domain. In Beijing, according to the Beijing Gardening and Greening Bureau, within the 13th Five Year Plan, the city aims to increase its wetland area by 11,000 hectares to 54,000 hectares by 2020. With enhanced measures and increasing public awareness toward wetland preservation, there will be more opportunities for bird lovers to see the return of wading birds in some parts of the country. 

Carbon Sink
Four provinces and regions, including the Tibet and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions, and Qinghai and Heilongjiang provinces, boast the largest area of wetlands in the country, amounting to more than 50 percent of the national level.  

Wetlands, in particular peatland, are important as carbon sinks – storing carbon in the form of dead vegetation and other carbon-based life forms – and their preservation obviously has great implications for climate change mitigation, researchers say.  

“Historically, due to various reasons including the difficulty in calculating carbon sinks, wetlands have not yet been included in the international carbon trade framework. However, some inter-governmental organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), are actively promoting the inclusion of peatlands into international carbon trading schemes,” said Zhu Dan, Associate Researcher with the Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).  

Inside China, the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is a key area with a large area of peatland resources. The country started looking into peatland areas in the 1960s, and scientists from CAS have set up a number of scientific stations on the plateau area. Through continuous research and close cooperation with international research institutions, Chinese scientists have a leading position internationally in peatland research. In addition, some pilot projects on carbon trading that include carbon offsets from peatland have been conducted at a provincial level in areas such as Inner Mongolia and Yunnan Province.  

There are 37 Ramsar sites across all Himalayan nations, but information and studies have been lacking until recently. According to Chen Huai, a researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Biology under CAS, peatlands on the plateau area account for three percent of the global land area, but it is estimated they contain up to 30 percent of the total carbon storage of global land. The results of Chen’s research indicate that alpine peatland preservation contributes significantly to global carbon storage.  

“There isn’t a database for global peatland yet, and we also lack domestic data in this regard,” Chen told NewsChina. “We expect to expand our studies in more areas in the plateau region to help set up a data platform for global studies.” 

Nepali technician Sri Laxmi teaches local Tibetan trainees how to operate handlooms with yak wool, September 2018

Shiqu, on the eastern Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is home to yak herds, as well as wetland and alpine lakes for potential carbon sinks

Local Tibetan trainee Ci Lamu practices yak wool handweaving

Weaving the Future
Setting up wetland nature reserves is the traditional way to conserve them. However, sustainable utilization of wetlands, particularly in plateau areas, has not been sufficiently explored, and this restricts local community participation in conservation efforts.  

Conservationists and scientists have started in recent years to make attempts to find alternative ways of protecting wetlands by using community incentives.  

In December 2015, Green Watershed was awarded the UN’s prestigious Equator Prize for its conservation initiatives with local communities in the Lashihai wetlands. The main contribution of the organization was to assist in the local community’s environmental conservation efforts through poverty reduction. NGO founder Yu Xiaogang told NewsChina that involving local people in sustainable use and protection of wetland resources is key to maintaining the function of wetlands in the ecosystem. 

In western Sichuan Province, also part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, scientists, as well as conducting research, have started innovative ways of finding alternative livelihoods for local communities in regard to wetland preservation. Shiqu County in Sichuan is located at the source region of a few major rivers and boasts an alpine wetland area of over 1.1 million hectares. 
Since 2016, a joint community training program conducted by the local government in Shiqu, Sichuan Province and the Chengdu Institute of Biology was launched among local Tibetan pastoralists.  

“Yaks are the key source of income for local people within the region, however local nomads don’t much use yak wool – the quality is comparable to cashmere – as an income source,” said Zhu Dan.  

“So we helped the local government by introducing weaving techniques from Nepal to Shiqu to improve local livelihoods, while also mitigating the common problem of overgrazing on the grasslands.”  

The project started its second round of training in September 2018 in Shiqu, producing high-quality shawls made of local yak wool.  

“We want to promote our products abroad, and hopefully this new attempt can successfully provide sustainable income for local community,” Zhu said, who also coordinates the yak wool training and processing project. “As a scientist, I believe finding alternative ways to improve local livelihoods is also an effective way to conserve wetlands apart from conventional measures.”  
Tashi Nyima, 25, a nomad from Maga Township in Shiqu County who recently trained as a weaver, told the reporter that he was one of the 17 local nomads trained to make yak wool and also in loom weaving techniques.  

Previously Tibetan nomad families ranged across the plateau with their yak herds that could number as many as 200-300, but since the early 2000s, herd sizes have been reduced in the name of ecological protection. Since much of the grasslands have been fenced off, many former nomad families have moved to townships and their herds have been reduced to around 20 yaks, not enough to support a family.  

Tashi’s family also only has around 20 yaks left, so his family, like many others, now relies on collecting caterpillar fungus for use in traditional medicine for two months of the year.  
With the downsizing of livestock herds and no industry, according to Tashi, the environment in his hometown along the Jinsha River, as the upper reaches of the Yangtze are known, has improved significantly in recent decades. 
“But we don’t yet have a good way to sell our yak wool,” Tashi, whose family still lives below the national poverty line of 2,300 yuan (US$331) per person per year, told NewsChina, “So we expect this yak wool processing industry will bring much more benefits to our local community.”  
Climate change and the escalating impact of human activity continue to pose increasing threats upon local environments, challenging the sustainable development of the alpine pastureland. “The goal is to introduce Nepalese handicraft techniques as a new way of green development, thus securing the sustained preservation of local wetland resources,” Zhu Dan said.