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Xie Yan and the fight against bad conservation laws

And if there are no more forests in the night?

When ecologist Xie Yan heard about the Natural Heritage Conservation Act, she knew she had to kill it. So she wrote a letter.

The open letter, posted on February 5 to Xie’s blog, became the focus of a story the next day at one of China’s most respected news organizations, Caixin magazine. It was the opening salvo in a month-long campaign against the legislation draft up for submission to the National People’s Congress during the annual “Two Meetings.”

A member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xie feared that if the draft act passed, it would further harm China’s already fractured and ineffective conservation program. The scope of the draft was too small. Of roughly 7,000 protected areas across China, the act would provide explicit legal protection to only 600. The others would be covered only by less-binding ‘regulations’. The legislation also covered two disparate types of areas for protection under one law: national nature reserves were established explicitly for conservation, but national scenic areas essentially act as tourism hotspots.

Xie helps return a young crocodile to the wild in 2007.

Xie, who is also Secretary General of the International Zoological Society and former China Project Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the act failed to set clear guidelines on how these areas should be managed, and did not provide for an independent monitor to ensure compliance from government departments charged with protecting the land. She also feared that passing such a comprehensive-sounding piece of legislation could suck the political momentum out of any future efforts to reform how conservation works in China.

“My objection is that China doesn’t need to establish another regulation of this type,” Xie wrote. “What China needs is a law that covers the entire domain of conservation areas.”

Xie’s criticisms, along with her recommendations for legislation that could truly reform China’s troubled conservation program, provide a window on why exactly things are so broken — and how they might be fixed.

The United Nations Environment Program ranks China among the world’s 17 “mega-diverse” countries, and a 2010 China Daily headline proclaimed “China is the global leader in biodiversity.” But by many accounts — including the government’s own — China’s conservation regulations appear to be buckling under the combined weight of industrial growth and a lucrative arrival of tourists in wilderness areas. A recent Ministry of Environmental Protection investigation, detailed by Caixin magazine in April this year, exposed the myriad violations found at two nationally protected nature reserves in the provinces of Liaoning and Shandong. At Liaoning alone, authorities found 1,576 oil wells, 81 oil stations, 304 oil pipelines, 500 kilometers of illegal roads and five illegal tourist facilities that saw an average of 10,000 visitors per day, and brought in about 20 million yuan per day in ticket revenues.

The reserves also face territorial issues as chunks of their land are illegally lopped off for profit. Caixin also noted a 2010 joint report by the Ministry and Nanjing Normal University that found 40 of 303 national nature reserves had their boundaries shrank, permanently, due to illegal construction projects.

Efficiently Ineffective
These problems stem in part from the fact that China’s protected land is managed by a number of competing, independent government departments. The way these agencies are matched up with protected areas can be baffling to an outsider: famous scenic spots are under the supervision of the Ministry of Water Resources, but national wetland parks and national forest parks are under the purview of the State Forestry Administration, and geological parks fall to the Ministry of Land and Resources.

That alone might not be cause for concern, but each of these departments compete with one another to expand their respective domains, and since they are self-regulating, the winners face little pressure to manage their land responsibly. China’s conservation effort essentially runs on the honor system. As a result, violations like those in Liaoning and Shandong, along with other infractions like illegal farming and logging, are common to much of China’s nationally-protected public land.

A map of the 32 mainland areas (numbered, bright green) deemed most critical by China's 2010 biodiversity action plan

This lack of oversight and enforcement is compounded by uneven distribution of protected areas. In October 2010, China unveiled an ambitious biodiversity action plan mapping out the next 20 years of conservation development, and identifying the 32 mainland areas and three oceanic regions in most need of protection. But there are striking discrepancies between which regions are most at risk, and which are actually being protected.

Look at a map of China’s protected regions nationwide, and you will notice they are deeply unbalanced: national nature reserves are concentrated in the country’s north and west, in places like Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and parts of Sichuan. The southern and coastal regions look more like an unfinished pointillist painting.

A map showing the current distribution of China's protected areas.

In many priority areas, particularly those in the Southwest, only small and isolated patches are actually being protected. This is, in large part, due to strict regulations that forbidding all but a few researchers and officials from entering the protected areas’ core zones. If the government wanted to establish new protected areas in densely populated regions, it would have to forcibly relocate all the people already living there. Hence the lack of environmental inroads near population centers like Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Old Growth Problems
Chinese scholars and activists have long been aware of these problems. Jim Harkness, President of the U.S. organization Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, gained a first hand understanding when he served as Executive Director of the World Wildlife Fund in China from 1999 to 2006. Beyond the blurry lines of authority, and conflicts of interest, he believes that even the definition of where conservation of biodiversity should happen is unclear.

Something like the National Heritage Conservation Act, which is aimed at having one system and a clear law might make sense on the surface, Harkness said. But it does nothing to resolve basic problems of authority and responsibility, or lay out clear standards for assessing how effective protection is taking place. Moreover, the new law fails to address other issues, such as local governments selling land to help fund their budgets, or the lack of community involvement in discussions over how to manage natural resources and biodiversity.

Some central issues may extend beyond the scope of environmental legislation and regulation. Harkness views the GDP-centric system of advancement for Chinese government officials as the main roadblock for serious conservation progress. As long as economic performance remains the key to moving up the ranks, he said, “everything else is going to take a backseat, including conservation.”

For Harkness the most promising signs of progress exist in areas that are important to the environment but haven’t been cordoned off from all human contact. “The best stuff was at that intersection of protected areas and surrounding populated areas, and I think having a system that’s flexible enough to allow those kinds of experiments to continue or maybe get institutionalized and spread would be really important.”

Public Promotion, Private Support
Xie’s initial month-long campaign against the Natural Heritage Conservation Act soon morphed into something more akin to a full-time job. Her efforts have had some visible effect on how the discourse unfolds in the public sphere: a Baidu search for Natural Heritage Conservation Act (自然遗产保护法) currently yields an interview with Xie by yicai.com and a Sina Weibo Q&A session conducted by Xie and Professor Qin Tianbao at Wuhan University Law School as the top results.

In devoting a month to raising awareness, and communicating her criticisms and recommendations, Xie confirmed for herself that a broader, more fundamental conservation law was needed. She pressed to get her recommendations through to the right officials before the Two Meetings ended. After 29 days of blogging, Xie received a text from a representative at the National People’s Congress on March 7:

“The deadline for submitting the proposal already has already passed, [I] will submit it” (提案已经到了提交时限,将提交)

Xie blogged about her feelings that day. For 20 minutes, she couldn’t do anything but pace up and down her office, her eyes tearing up. Finally, during an afternoon meeting she glanced down surreptitiously at a new message she’d received from the representative:

I have already printed it. I submitted it to the National People’s Congress as a proposal suggestion. Please don’t worry. (我已打印好,以议案建议的形式提交给全国人大。请你放心。)

Her relief at the news was so intense, she wrote, that she broke out in a sweat.

Adaptive Expansion
Xie hopes the first of her two main recommendations for future conservation legislation — a more flexible system of protected areas — will help narrow the gap between nature reserves and densely populated areas. The current system classifies these areas into three types: core, buffer and experimental. But Xie argues the first two are almost identical in their restrictions on virtually any kind of human presence. Only experimental zones permit any kind of tourism.

Instead, she proposed a five-level system to replace the core and buffer zones, which would classify regions based on the degree of human disturbance they experience. The most restricted areas would be closed zones, similar to the current core zones. Next would be control zones that allow for the reintroduction of species and environmental restoration, as well as the presence of some scientists and professional bird watchers with special permits. Tourism zones would charge an entry fee and allow for small campsites, paths and roads, while resource utilization zones would allow locals with permits to collect mushrooms (a thriving industry in China) and do some fishing and other gathering. Finally, high-density use zones would contain major tourists sites with visitor centers likely to see 10,000 people a day. The more porous experimental zones that now encircle China’s protected areas would also be replaced by a new type of buffer zone that would permit agriculture so long as fertilizers and herbicide are avoided.

“This different category system will give you more choices, allowing you to build up more, bigger areas for conservation,” Xie said. It’s a strategy she hopes can make inroads into China’s still largely unprotected southern and eastern corridors.

An End to Autonomy

Xie inspects a center for wild horses in Xinjiang, 2006

Xie’s second major recommendation is to separate the powers of management and supervision at the various government departments that manage protected areas. An independent supervisory body with clear standards and the ability to enforce them would be able to ensure these departments do their jobs. Xie also sees potential in this setup for non-government actors to contribute resources the government lacks: manpower and money.

“Certainly there are many other people who could possibly engage in conservation such as NGOs, especially international NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society or WWF. If you allow them to manage protected areas they would just love to,” Xie said. “They can mobilize a lot of money to invest in conservation of certain areas.” Clear laws would also leave the door open for private companies and individuals to contribute time and money, Xie said, while still under government supervision.

“Why keep them out?” she asked.

Conservation With Teeth
Xie has begun taking steps to prepare as she gears up to push for reform full-time. Xie stepped down from her position with the Wildlife Conservation Society in March, and said that if the Natural Heritage Conservation Act is defeated she will devote the next three years to pushing for more effective conservation reform. It’s a move that Harkness views as a way to avoid ruffling feathers over state sovereignty: “For international organizations to be somehow seen as directly lobbying legislators I think could be problematic or could raise sensitivities about that sovereignty issue,” Harkness said, “whereas Chinese citizens who have expertise in areas like biodiversity conservation certainly have the right and responsibility to put forward suggestions and proposals to representatives in the NPC.”

Chen Liwei, who handles government affairs for The Nature Conservancy in China, believes that “if [Xie's] protected area law is passed by the NPC it would be a kind of an ice-breaking point for China…Many laws were developed and suggested by the ministries or [government] agencies, but this proposal is not. It’s different.”

Xie during a winter expedition.

Yet Harkness is wary of ringing victory bells just yet. Xie’s recommendations get at the root of the country’s conservation problems, and this makes them all the more likely to encounter serious opposition.

“It would be challenging in practice to get it passed and give it teeth precisely because it would step on the toes of so many different interests,” he said. “That’s the conundrum of this kind of reform in China: if it were completely practical and easy to pass, that would probably be a signal that it wasn’t actually going to be addressing a real problem.”

Links and sources
The Chinese Alligator – Species on the Brink (features Xie Yan), by Sean Gallagher of Threatened Waters, a website about wetlands in China
Threatened Waters interview with Xie Yan on China’s alligators
Chinadialogue briefing: habitat and biodiversity
National People’s Congress January announcement on progress of the Natural Heritage Conservation Act: 自然遗产保护法草案已经报送全国人大常委会
Xie Yan’s open letter: 正在发生影响我国的自然保护的一件大事
Caixin Magazine story on Xie Yan’s opposition: 学者“阻击”《自然遗产保护法》制定
Caixin Magazine: MEP Finds Rampant Violations on Nature Reserves
The Guardian: China unveils ambitious plan to protect wildlife at UN talks
Yicai.com interview with Xie: 《自然遗产保护法》争议仍难休
Sina Weibo open Q&A session on Natural Heritage Conservation Act with Xie Yan and Professor Qin Tianbao at Wuhan University Law School: 为什么反对《自然遗产保护法》 | 微访谈
A Guide to the Mammals of China, Andrew T. Smith, Yan Xie, Robert S. Hoffmann, Darrin Lunde, John MacKinnon, Don E. Wilson, W. Chris Wozencraft, Federico Gemma – On Amazon
Danwei: The uncertain return of Beijing wildlife

Organizations:
Wildlife Conservation Society China
World Wildlife Fund China
The Nature Conservancy China