Environmentalists fighting off tourism push, development plans to protect wetlands

Chinese environmentalists want to learn from India's experience in protecting mangrove forests even as they face an uphill struggle to save their country's wetlands from increasing developmental pressures.

In the tropical southern Chinese island province of Hainan, which boasts one of China's most pristine mangrove forest wetland reserves, environmentalists are fighting off a tourism push and new development plans to protect the island's rich and unique ecosystem.

At Dongzhaigang Bay, China's first mangrove nature reserve which lies on the outskirts of the bustling provincial capital of Haikou on Hainan island's northern coast, acres of pristine mangrove forests sit beside quiet fishing villages. The 3,300 hectare wetlands here are home to 25 mangrove species besides 194 species of birds, including rare and nationally protected Chinese egrets and black-faced spoonbills.

The Hainan government's plans to develop the island province into a world-class tourism destination — “China's Hawaii”, as one official said — have left unclear the future of the wetlands. The mangroves are crucial to both sustaining the rich and sensitive ecosystems of coastal communities as well as protecting the coastline.

At Yalong Bay, on the far southern shores of Hainan, new developments to build a resort and harbour near the popular holiday destination of Sanya have stirred opposition among environmentalists for reportedly encroaching on mangrove wetland areas. Dongzhaigang's mangroves are, so far, untouched, but face an uncertain future with insufficient funding.

“Hainan is still very underdeveloped, and has weak economic foundations,” Guo Jian, Deputy Director of the Haikou Forestry Bureau and the Director of the Hainan Dongzhaigang National Nature Reserve, told The Hindu in an interview. “Though the central and local governments have increased investment in protecting mangrove forests, it's far from enough.”

The central government allocated 6 million yuan (Rs. 4.8 crore) last year, while the local Haikou government pledged 3 million yuan (Rs. 2.4 crore). “But to fully protect and recover the mangrove forests,” Mr. Guo said, “we need 200 million yuan (Rs. 160 crore).”

Mr. Guo said he is particularly keen to learn from the experience of foreign countries — he singled out India and the U.S. — to grapple with how to secure Dongzhaigang's future amid new development pressures. “India has a large area of mangrove forests, especially in the Bay of Bengal, and has successful experiences and lessons for us to learn,” he said. “We want to cooperate with India and share our experiences.”

Dongzhaigang was China's first mangrove nature reserve, established in January 1980. But by then, many of China's wetlands had faced significant destruction.

“A huge decrease in mangrove areas happened in the 1950s, just after the founding of the People's Republic of China, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when people had low awareness,” said Mr. Guo.

Since then, Dongzhaigang had “done a very good job” in educating the public. Mr. Guo sends his staff to go to nearby villages door-to-door. “Now the local residents have a deep-seated notion that they can't cut mangroves, which are closely linked to their daily life, and instead they should protect them,” he said.

The reserve, which sits on Hainan's northern edge, was put on the list of Ramsar convention sites — over a thousand wetlands designated by an international convention on wetlands — in 1992, and is now one of 37 protected wetlands in China.

Across the island towards the southern coast, mangrove wetlands at the Qingmei Harbour reserve are already being threatened by a tourism project, which includes a five-star hotel, a yacht harbour and villas. A law passed last July that bans tourism resorts from encroaching on mangrove forests has had little impact on real estate developers who enjoy close ties with local officials.

Li Haiqin, a member with a forest protection group, told a local newspaper that “rapid development has taken place recently which is threatening the local ecological system.” Wang Wenqing, associate professor with the College of the Environment and Ecology at Xiamen University, was quoted as saying that an initial investigation found that construction work at an estuary had led to the degradation of mangroves.

According to the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), China's biggest reserve, the 31,000-acre Zhanjiang national nature reserve in Guangdong, was also facing a threat from “the recent rapid expansion of shrimp aquaculture” driven by a boom in the lucrative shrimp production industry.

“Migratory bird populations are in decline, mangrove forests are quickly diminishing, and community residents face an uncertain future with vastly reduced resources to rely on,” the MAP said in a report.