Creating incentives for ecological protection

Wan Lixin
If the local people are advised not to make use of things that can be monetized, are they deserving of some sort of encouragement, or even compensation?
Wan Lixin

AMID frenzied online shopping and euphoria over astronomical sales over the weekend, there was a piece of thought-provoking news that took me somewhere far from the madding crowd — to Xinjiang.

It concerned disciplinarian and criminal action against some officials in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for successive (six times) encroachments on Karamori Nature Reserve.

The news was intriguing to me because I was born and brought up in Altai, where the reserve mainly lies.

Traditionally used by Kazakhs as winter pasture, the reserve, which was founded in 1982, is home to many protected animals, such as the Asiatic wild ass and goitered gazelles. Since 2005, the local government had pushed through six rounds of adjustments to the reserve, resulting in a reduction of nearly 30 percent in protected area.

Particularly damning was the ambitious sixth “adjustment” two years ago, in which the local government marked out another 179.3 sq km of the reserve area for coal mining and quarrying.

Following criticism that this would jeopardize the wildlife habitat and environment, and with the intervention of the highest authorities, the project was canceled and all enterprises inside the nature reserve were ordered to move out.

According to a report in Xinhua’s Outlook Weekly, from August to September, a total of 16 local officials had received punishments ranging from dismissal to serious warnings from the Party. To make amends, Altai has returned about 1,593 sq km of area it had encroached upon the reserve, and has abolished the industrial park it had set up at the heart of the reserve, thus enabling freer passage for wild animals within the reserve.

Such sweeping action shows the Party’s commitment to environmental protection, though officials could probably learn more about the Party’s nonsensical attitude from the penalty handed down to former Altai prefectural Party chief and deputy Party chief of Xinjiang Forestry Department. Both have been discharged from their responsibilities and have been handed over to justice for serious malfeasance.

But for these disciplinarian actions to sink in so that these mistakes are not repeated, we have to rethink the prevailing measure of official merits, and our measure of good life.

Recently, I met a long-time acquaintance who had been brought up in the same border area as I. Unlike me, she still regularly visits the place.

I asked if that quiet border town was still dominated by one-story earthen house with a flat roof. She found my suggestion outrageous, almost insulting, explaining later that such dwelling places had long been replaced by rows and rows of storied apartment buildings and extensive roads.

That’s an arid expanse of steppe, hot and cold by turns and windy all year around, but easily turns into an oasis in the case of irrigation.

Its ecological fragility and vulnerability mean any infrastructural development must proceed with an eye to the adaptive power of the native environment.

Wealth and affluence

But the locals are similarly aspiring to the kind of wealth and affluence, as they have seen or heard, that are being enjoyed by people in the coastal east. In that backwater area, the easiest way to prosper is to monetize the mountains or forests as mining or tourist resources.

If you search “Karamori” on Baidu, the first result to be displayed is about Karamori Gold, complete with a glowing introduction to a “comprehensive modern marble processing complex owning 3 square kilometers of Karamori Gold mine,” and ending with “In consistence with our untiring pursuit of perfection, we are making buildings more beautiful!”

Beautiful, yes, if you choose not to see the coal mines and quarries lining up the highway that traverses right through the heart of the reserve.

Since the highway sliced open the reserve, it has become a “road to happiness” for locals, for its ability to transport grains, fruits, petroleum and coal resources. The highway was allowed to go right through the heart of the protected area as it shortens the distance by over 100km.

But by cutting the reserve into two, it obstructs the passage of, say, Przewalski’s horse, a species that had been reintroduced to the area. In 2008, five such horses had been killed by passing vehicles.

Extracting mineral resources also involves the use of such toxic substances as cyanides, which pollute and kill. If the local people are advised not to make use of things that can be monetized, are they deserving of some sort of encouragement, or even compensation?

It reminds me of what Lorenzo Bernasconi proposed in a recent article in this paper (“Rainforests serve a purpose: storing carbon,” November 13), in which he says if there were ways to “make tropical forests worth more alive than dead.”

He mentioned that “with the right incentives, people, governments, and industries will preserve and restore tropical forests, rather than plow them under. In return, the world gets more carbon sinks to soak up greenhouse gasses.”

This is an attempt at solving the issue conveniently within the economics. It saves us the unease of having to scrutinize in a moral light the essence of prosperity and wealth, though the real challenge is how to work out the details.

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