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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Autumn 2003
Volume 56, Number 3
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
The Real Terrorist Missile Threat and What Can Be Done About It
A Science-Based Workshop for Leaders of Environmental NGOs and GONGOs in China
Meeting Natural Gas Demand: Infrastructure is Important, Technology is Key
Curbing the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America
Hiroshima Survivors Visit the Federation
The Learning Federation: Progress Report

A South China Science-Based Field workshop for leaders of China's Environmental NGOs and GONGOs

by Walter E. Parham, Ph.D.

Over the past few years, the highest levels of China's government have talked candidly about the serious environmental/natural resource problems plaguing China today. They've been clear that many of the problems were caused by human activities and are not merely "natural disasters." China's current Five-Year Plan states that they now have a target of "halting the deteriorating trend of environmental degradation" and a series of concrete actions are underway to address the challenges that environmental problems have created for China's economy and its people. FAS has been working for several years to forge better links between scientists in China working on this problem and to strengthen relationships with scholars in the US. A workshop in Guangzhou represents a significant new step in this work.

Land degradation is central to many of these problems. Widespread soil erosion, destruction of agricultural land, loss of the natural vegetative cover, destruction of biological diversity, damage of wildlife habitats and extinction of wildlife species, contamination of water resources and food crops, careless development, are widespread (see for South China examples). Reversing the effects of land degradation and reversing the effects of existing damage will help create new jobs, prevent flooding, protect key habitats, and sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide as soils are rebuilt.

FAS and the South China Agricultural University (SCAU) in Guangzhou will conduct a one-week field workshop (November 8-16, 2003) in Guangdong Province for leaders of 25 to 30 environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and environmental Government Organized Non-Governmental Organizations (GONGOs). Support for the field workshop is provided by The International Foundation (US), and the Guangdong Natural Science Foundation.

These Chinese environmental organizations can provide a key educational link to the general population by explaining the nature of the problems, their causes and adverse effects, and solutions to the problems.

Chinese NGOs function much as NGOs in the west. GONGOs, on the other hand, are initiated by the government to function more as research centers for government agencies. Some are evolving to look more like NGOs and some of the GONGOs and NGOs cooperate in environmental activities. About two-thirds of the organizations attending will be environmental NGOs and the remaining one-third will be environmental GONGOs.

These Chinese environmental organizations can provide a key educational link to the general population by explaining the nature of the problems, their causes and adverse effects, and solutions to the problems. In addition, they can provide the needed "grass roots" source of valuable information to help assure that well-intended, remedial actions taken by the government or others to address the environmental/natural resource problems do not themselves lead to additional problems. Lastly, NGOs, through their fund-raising activities, can provide a small but critical resource to complement the Chinese government efforts.

The field-workshop approach will introduce environmental leaders from all over China to some of South China's important environmental/natural resource problems, help them identify causes, and illustrate some workable solutions. It is intended to provide new environmental leaders, who may be in the formative stages of developing their environmental agendas, with a unique educational opportunity to interact directly with natural resource/environmental scientists in field settings where development is progressing rapidly.

Guangdong Province provides an excellent field setting where environmental leaders can learn first hand about environmental/natural resource problems that are common to South China and other parts of China as well. Many common environmental/natural resource problems have their roots in social and economic issues as well as in the biological, chemical, and physical world. Discussions will focus on how interdisciplinary solutions were developed in this province, and how other interdisciplinary solutions could be developed to deal with China's emerging environmental/natural resource problems here and elsewhere in China. On the workshop's completion, the environmental leaders should be able to transfer and adapt this learning approach to other parts of China by cooperating with concerned scientists in their home regions.

Below are representative examples of field sites the workshop participants will visit. Ample time will be available at each site for questions and discussion. In the evening, a leader from each of the environmental organizations will present background on his or her environmental organization and describe how the organization deals with degraded land issues at home.

Qi'ao Mangroves

Qi'ao Island, in the Pearl River near Zhuhai, once was an island surrounded by mangrove forests but became severely damaged by fire-wood cutters. Originally, a large population of white egrets inhabited the mangroves. However, firewood cutting damaged their habitat and the egret population declined. In addition, local people received payments from Chinese from Taiwan and Hong Kong by encouraging them to come to Qi'ao to shoot the egrets for sport.

More recently, restoration of the mangrove forests from 20 hectares to 180 hectares slowed shore-line erosion, improved habitats for fish breeding, and increased the number of the local egret population. Today, hunting is prohibited here but many tourists come to the island to watch the beautiful, large flights of egrets come and go in the evening and morning. Ecotourism has increased the local income.

Now, however, authorities are planning to connect Zhuhai to Hong Kong by bridges that will cross the Pearl River. Bridge and highway construction will destroy Qi'ao's mangroves and wetland environment. Only a small patch of endangered mangrove in Zhuhai just west of Macau may survive. Local fishing in the Pearl River will be adversely affected once again.

Dinghushan Biosphere Reserve

The last remnant of South China's tropical, broad-leaf monsoon forest occupies a few square kilometers in the hills about 50 km west of Guangzhou. The site is one recognized by the United Nations Man and the Biosphere program for its uniqueness. Scientists conduct research here to learn how the forest functions ecologically and also to learn how this kind of forest might someday be reestablished widely in South China.

The rapid growth of tourism threatens the remaining Dinghushan forest. Each year, more people flock to the cool forest and mountain streams and ponds of Dinghushan bringing the harmful effects of automobile pollution. Without meaning to, crowds of people also damage the native plant life. Visitors will see evidence of and hear about the growing adverse effects of uncontrolled tourism on such important sites.

Using City Wastes for Orchard Fertilizer

Some lychee/longan growers use city wastes as fertilizer when planting fruit trees. The waste generally consists of a mixture of organic matter, coal ash, plastic, glass, and metal. Low-cost city waste, hauled to tree-planting sites, is deposited in the holes for tree planting in amounts of 5 to 10 kg and then covered with soil. Many orchard farmers keep the soil surface clear of vegetation beneath the fruit trees to avoid the competition of underlying vegetation's use of nutrients and water that farmers want reserved for their fruit trees. Because most orchards are on hillsides, water erosion removes the soil, thus uncovering the city waste. Some of the city waste is carried down slope by running water and some is scattered across the land by the wind.

In some cases, the city waste is in fact medical waste. Nevertheless, it is used as fertilizer. Handling medical wastes could be hazardous to orchard workers during planting and the scattering of the medical wastes by wind and water can widen the potential for serious health problems. These once-damaged hill slopes need fertilizer to grow fruit trees but the current practice of using "low cost" medical-waste fertilizer may lead to unintended, serious health problems in the countryside.

Zhuhai Reservoir Erosion

Severe erosion existed all around Zhuhai's water reservoir in 1989. A graduate geography student experimented with four different systems of vegetation restoration on four hectares of land adjacent to the reservoir. The researcher planted many exotic, fast-growing tree species and various nitrogen-fixing grasses.

Within one year after planting, springs flowed again and erosion nearly stopped. Rainfall run-off slowed, thus replenishing the groundwater. After ten years, a mature vegetative cover blankets the test sites, a well developed litter cover exists on the floor of the woods, and groundwater is 1.5 to 2 meters higher during the dry season than at the start of the work. However, few wildlife species have returned to live in the wooded site. Native birds do not like the berries and seeds produced by the exotic plants and go elsewhere. Small animals, other than occasional rats, mice and cobras, avoid the site. The experiment demonstrates that rapid land repair is possible but also shows the need for using native plant species to encourage wildlife to live there. Birds are responsible for about 80 percent of seed dispersal in tropical Guangdong Province. Native wildlife can help expand the forest cover at little cost to local citizens if a variety of native plants exist in the restoration site.

Guanming Farm

This is a large, modern dairy farm reclaimed from severely degraded land. The farm now produces about 75 percent of the milk sold in Hong Kong. The liquid cattle waste goes back to the fields to provide fertilizer to help grow cattle feed. The solid animal waste produces biogas that, in turn, is used to generate all of the farm's electrical power. The solid residual waste after gas production becomes a valuable organic fertilizer. Soil erosion essentially stopped on the farm; now the hills support a blanket of lychee trees and fast-growing, exotic, nitrogen-fixing, typhoon-resistant trees. No commercial pesticides are used on the farm; pest control is achieved through biological control agents. The farm illustrates that degraded lands can be improved using environmentally friendly methods and that the economic benefits can be large.

Golf, hunting, and game farm on degraded lands

Tourism activities are expanding in South China. One of these, the private Pine Valley Sports and Country Club, situated on 290 hectares of degraded lands in Zhuhai, has country-club, golf-course, gun-club, boating and fishing, and game-farm facilities for its members. The land once was covered by a moist tropical forest but became degraded by past damaging agricultural practices so that the land only supported scrub vegetation and scattered trees. The natural wildlife had been severely depleted as well.

The owners' aim was to design the facilities carefully and thoughtfully to protect the environment. They believe that the environmental operations will benefit the Club and the environment over the long run. They have constructed a lake, and introduced water treatment, waste treatment, and the repopulation of native game birds to the greater area of the local township where such knowledge and understanding was lacking. The workers at the Club's facilities, hired from the local population, receive class-room training on environmental management. Native game-bird species such as wild pheasants and partridge are continually raised on site for release to the countryside. The bird population is intended to move freely from the Club into the surrounding countryside.

Author's note: Dr. Parham has conducted research on degraded lands in Hong Kong since 1967 and in South China since 1986. In addition to his affiliation with the Federation of American Scientists, Dr. Parham is an Honorary Professor of the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, an Honorary Research Fellow of the Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre of the University of Hong Kong, a Research Fellow of Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation, and a Research Associate with the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He received his Ph.D. in geology/clay mineralogy from the University of Illinois, was an Associate Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Minnesota, a Physical Science Officer who worked on developing country environmental issues with the Agency for International Development/US Department of State, and directed studies for the US Congress on agriculture and renewable resources at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.