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Diary of the 2016 NZCFS Environmental Delegation to China – Part 1

The delegates with staff of the Yunnan Centre for Biological and Indigenous Knowledge

This is a daily record of the visit to China of a group of 6 people, including some NZCFS members, to a number of interesting environment-oriented institutions as well as sites of ecological and environmental significance throughout China. Kirk McDowall has written a full and fascinating account of the efforts of the Chinese people to address many of these problems and, in many cases, implementing their solutions. Kirk gives details of each day’s visits and discussions. As his account is fairly long, we present it in two parts. 

Friday 7 October, 2016

We left New Zealand for China. The purpose of the delegation was to build new relationships between environmental professionals in NZ and China and to share and exchange environmental knowledge and experience. Supported by Beijing Youxie, the New Zealand China Council, and the NZCFS Simon Deng Li Fund, members were also supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, Te Runanga o Toa Rangatira, Te Pune Kokiri and Otago University.

Kunming – Green Lake and Dian Lake

Our first stop was Kunming, capital of the Yunnan Province, to the city’s Green Lake. Here were groups of dancers in a beautiful garden in the open spaces. The 17th century lake was established on the west side of the Wuhua Mountain and was originally a water reservoir for the city.

Next, we travelled to the Dian Lake, a freshwater fault lake, approximately 1,800 metres above sea level. It is the eighth largest lake in China, and was the model for the Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace in Beijing. However, pollution is a major problem for the lake. Ninety per cent of Kunming’s wastewater was pumped untreated into the lake until the first wastewater plant was built in 1990. Some experts predict that over 55% of the lake’s fish population has been killed off by this disease-ridden type of pollution. The water in the lake is rated Grade V (the worst grade), making the water unfit for drinking, agricultural or industrial uses. The authorities have still to find an adequate solution to this pollution,

Yunnan Centre for Biological and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK)

In the afternoon, we visited the Yunnan Centre for Biological and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK), an NGO in Kunming. The CBIK have a number of research and cultural projects in Yunnan with a focus on the protection and restoration of indigenous sacred sites. Yunnan Province has 26 ethnic groups and Bai is the largest minority group in the province (there are 56 ethnic groups around China). During our time with the CBIK, we heard of processes to protect and monitor the sites, including developing baseline environmental indicators and understanding the cultural context from the local community. The organisation works with and helps train local communities to monitor any damage to these sites. The importance of sacred cultural sites is apparent in national policy relating to ecological civilisation, however, despite the CBIK sites being recognised by international organisations, these sites are not all recognised by the National Government.

Project sites in the Yangmou Province

The next day we travelled to some project sites in the Yangmou Province, just outside of Kunming. We first visited the Tian Xi Agricultural Plant Corporation, a ‘green agriculture’ initiative that has links with Plant and Food in New Zealand. The production plant has over 60 hectares of land, growing cucumbers, onions, beans and tomatoes, the export value being 1.26 billion yuan (NZ$260 million), to other provinces in China. The plant was built on converted landfill, and employs close to 200 agricultural workers. The use of pesticides is controlled, and there are twenty other plants of similar sizes in Yuanmou.

Next to the production plant was a large area of solar panels and wind farms, built by companies from outside of Yuanmou. Relatively easy for companies to build large solar and wind farms in rural areas before 2014, a policy change now ensures companies take into account the economic, environmental and local impacts of these projects.

The second project we visited was a Yuanmou Local Government project to relocate villages at risk of landslides and water shortages. The project will develop an area close by, building homes, roads, schools and a hospital, for the villagers to live in. Each villager will be given ~600 m2 of land to live on and grow crops and they are currently participating in a farming training programme. Officials advised that the villagers support the project because of the dangers they are facing, and because many adults have already left for opportunities in the cities, leaving only children and elderly people in the village. The new area is approximately 450 hectares and the migration will involve over 3000 people, who are mainly the Lixu ethnic group.

This is a typical of government projects in China. They usually take three years to complete, and within one year the construction and migration will be completed (this project is due for completion by October 2017)!

Dali City – ‘Yuanmou Man’, Earth Forest, Erhai Lake 

Following our time in Kunming, we travelled to Dali, a beautiful city next to the Erhai Lake, and Dongchuan in rural Yunnan, before travelling to Beijing to explore parts of eastern China.

Following our site visits in Yuanmou, we visited the Yuanmou Man Museum. Two incisor teeth of ‘Yuanmou Man’ a member of the Homogenus discovered near Danawu Village, Yuanmou, were found in 1965. It was estimated that the fossils are about 1.7 million years old and thus represent the earliest fossils of human ancestors found in China and East Asia. Later, stone artefacts, pieces of animal bone showing signs of human work and ash from campfires were also dug up from the site.

View of the Earth Forest, Yunnan

Next we travelled to nearby Earth Forest (Tulin), a scenic spot comprising five areas, covering an area of 50 sq km. It was formed by geological movement and soil erosion approximately 1.5 million years ago. It is named for its rock shapes like an immense forest, the highest peak being around 40 metres tall. We then took an overnight train to Dali, located in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in north-eastern Yunnan.

Dali is a beautiful city next to the Erhai Lake, named after its ear-like shape. It is the second largest highland lake of China after the Dian Lake. It holds a high diversity of carps and a number of endemic species. We spent the morning biking around the lake and visiting traditional Bai villages. Approximately 80 per cent of the two million Bai people in China live around the Dali area. We visited a Bai village in Xizhou, close to the Dali old city, which is known for its preserved and restored traditional Bai architecture and heritage sites.

Traditional Bai weaving, Dali, Yunnan province

Later, at Dali University we presented on New Zealand’s biodiversity, Maori culture and freshwater lakes. The audience included professors and postgraduate students and over one hundred undergraduate students.

Presentation of NZ environmental aspects, at Dali University, Yunnan province

Xicaihai Wetland Project in Heqing County, with Nature Conservancy

The following afternoon, we travelled outside the city to visit the Xicaihai Wetland Project in Heqing County. Over 1,500 natural reserves around China are managed by the Government. But this wetland reserve is run by local and international organisations with local government help. We walked around the reserve with the staff of The Nature Conservancy, discussing the establishment and challenges they face. A village surrounds the wetlands, and the aim is to give responsibility to the local community to manage them. So training and awareness programs are in place, employing a number of local patrols to monitor the local environment and to ensure it is not exploited. The local community live in close proximity to the wetlands, with agricultural land bordering the reserve, and waterways flowing through the village to the wetlands. The staff are currently trying to build a larger buffer between the agricultural lands and wetlands with the community to avoid pollution by litter and agricultural runoff. We also visited the natural spring, source of water for the village, which the staff also manages.

Xicai Wetland Project, Heqing County, Yunnan province, with permitted fishing by locals

The next day, we travelled to a rural district in Yunnan Province, Dongchuan, and the surrounding area. With a population of approximately 400,000, the area is mineral rich and has one of the six biggest copper-mining bases in China. Dongchuan and the surrounding areas have beautiful rice paddy fields and becoming a popular tourist attraction. As a result, a number of hotels have been being built in the area by various companies and also by local farmers, who are investing in the growing tourist sector.

After Dongchuan, we travelled back to Kunming and some of the delegation gave another presentation on New Zealand’s biodiversity, lakes and freshwater at Yunnan Normal University, to a group of over 100 including professors, postgraduate and undergraduate students. Following our time in Yunnan Province, we spent a few days in Beijing, Baoding and Tianjin before visiting the east coast of China.

Beijing: China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF)

On Saturday 16 October 2016, the NZCFS Delegation travelled to Beijing from Kunming. The first day we looked around the city and met with Dr Zhou Jinfeng, the General Secretary of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF). The CBCGDF is an NGO dedicated to the protection and conservation of the environment and biodiversity in China, implementing a number of projects for the protection of endangered species and plants, as well as the protection of grasslands and their biodiversity. The CBCGDF also pioneered in environmental litigation in China. Since 2014, when environmental litigation first opened to NGOs, the CBCGDF has filed more than 40 Environmental Public Interest Litigation lawsuits against polluters, including Volkswagen for its recent emission scandal and ConocoPhillips for the oil spill in China’s Bohai Bay. Over dinner, we spoke to Jinfeng on a number of environmental issues in China, including pollution, renewable energy and the role of NGOs in China.

I acknowledge the help of the other delegates in producing this diary:

  • Deborah Robertson, Master of Marine Conservation (MMC), Master of Environmental Planning (MEP). Natural Resources Specialist.
  • Emma Hill, MMC. Climate Change Analyst.
  • Marc Schallenberg, PHD in limnology (freshwater science). Research Fellow, University of Otago.
  • Leana Barriball, MMC. Manager, Resource Management & Communications Te Runanga o Toa Rangatira.
  • Shreejan Pandey, Master Electrical Engineering. Manager of Electric Power Engineering Centre, University of Canterbury.

Thanks go to the sponsors of the delegation:

– Kirk McDowall, NZCFS Wellington Branch Member, 
Master of Developmental Studies. Strategy and Risk Adviser.

Click here for Deborah Robertson’s official report as Delegation Leader (which includes more illustrations of the Delegation’s work). Click here for Part 2 of Kirk McDowall’s Diary.