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Freeway Sparks Development Dilemma

Nowadays improving traffic conditions is recognized in many parts of the country as a key to stimulating development of the local economy.

But recently in Guilin, South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, proposed construction of a freeway has aroused heated debate among geology experts and the local government.

For years the local government has been planning to build a Guilin-Wuzhou freeway to link the two major cities in the autonomous region. Such a link would also incorporate the region's landlocked northwestern area well into the prosperous Pearl River Delta in the south and furthur facilitate development of local tourism.

Four research fellows from Guilin-based Karst Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Geographic Sciences are the main opponents of the new freeway proposal.

They point out the 67-kilometre Guilin-Yangshuo section of the freeway would pass through the core region of a conspicuous karst landform, which is called fenglin in Chinese and is characterized by isolated limestone hills.

The dispute between the government officials and experts seems to focus on how to define the range of the fenglin landform core area.

Experts believe the section of freeway cuts through the vast areas of fenglin karst landform, which extends 800 square kilometres between Guilin and Yangshuo and stands to the west of Yulong River. The impacted area includes the Yulong River region, which has the most typical karst landscape, unanimously recognized by geology experts for its supreme aesthetic and geological value.

"The distributed area, the beauty of the crest shape, the crest's relative height, and the peak density in the region are all world No 1," said Wu Yingke, a geology expert with the karst research institute.

In the Encyclopedia of Caves and Karst Science recently published in London, the fenglin karst between Guilin and Yangshuo is listed first among the four major tropical karst types in the world.

After repeated spot investigations, the senior experts confirmed their original conclusion that the proposed freeway will destroy the primitiveness and integrity of the fenglin karst landform.

Viewed from the sky, the fenglin area is an organic whole with perfect integrity. However, the 28-metre-wide closed freeway, like a dragon, will divide it into halves. "Undoubtedly, it will ruin its original natural state," said Zhu Xuewen, also a geology expert from the karst research institute.

As the experts noted, the fenglin plain is in fact composed of the plain and numerous stone crests. It is an inseparable combination of the two and upon damage to either feature it could no longer be properly called fenglin.

"Even if the freeway completely passes through the plain while avoiding every single crest, it would unavoidably ruin the integrity of the unique landform," said Wu. "The freeway will become greatly inharmonious with the surrounding primitive natural landscape."

However, the suggestion of changing the freeway route jointly put forward by the four geology experts was not adopted by the Guilin government, which contends the planned route will not ruin the fenglin land form if proper measures of environmental protection and tree planting are fully carried out.

The experts subsequently submitted a written statement to the central government in March and quickly received a reply.

On April 1, the construction department, road communications department and other related departments of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region held a forum to address the issue.

"There was fierce debate during the meeting. However, each side stood firmly on their own opinions, so the meeting did not change anything," said Yuan Daoxian, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and also the karst institute, who participated in the forum.

The Ministry of Communications, which presided over the meeting, has submitted an investigation report, which actually affirmed construction of the freeway and also answered the relevant questions that the experts put forward.

First, there is still no precise proof to indicate the Guilin-Yangshuo section of the freeway passes through the core scenic spot of fenglin landform.

Second, the section of the freeway passing through the landform of fenglin and fengcong (conspicuous in China, that is identified by its clustered limestone hills) only accounts for 0.27 per cent of the total length.

Third, the existing freeway route has already avoided the Yulong River scenic spot.

Among the first batch of 40 national-level key scenic spots approved by the State Council in the country, Guilin is the only one which, so far, has not worked out a general plan for protection of its scenic spots.

As a result, the freeway route selection has to be based on the general plan of the city construction. On a map of Guilin City General Plan, the fenglin core area those experts mentioned is not reflected at all.

In fact, there were originally three choices under discussion when planning the freeway route.

The west line, near Jiaqiaolin Mountain, was highly recommended by geology experts. Because 80 per cent of the route passes through the non-karst region, the experts believe that upon further amendment, it would completely avoid the core region of fenglin landform.

Yet the local government sees it differently. "The present route we have selected is the result of comprehensive consideration. It is a much more economic scheme, for it passes through the open field between the mountains," said Jiang Jihong, deputy director of the Communications Bureau of Guilin government.

She added the experts may have failed to put the elements beyond the geological knowledge into consideration. The government, however, has to take a comprehensive approach to the project, which includes the cost, feasibility and benefit to the local economy.

According to Jiang, the freeway construction has involved significant non-State investment. So far, land requisition and compensation work have been finished in some sections of the planned freeway.

"If now we change the freeway route, it will cause very great economic losses. Also, the investors might well withdraw their investment," said Jiang.

To date the investors have put in 400 million yuan (US$48 million) for land requisition. Any alteration of the route will unavoidably increase the cost. "Who is going to cover these losses?" she questioned.

However, the experts contend some economic losses are fair trade for preserving a place of world natural heritage value. They argue that if they had been invited to participate in the route consultation at an earlier stage, the present dilemma could have been avoided.

"In fact, from start to finish, we geology experts have never been consulted," said Wu.

The officials from the city construction planning committee believe they also should have a role to play when deciding the highway route.

"In any construction project related to the scenic spots, we should get involved in the decision making," said Huang Chuchang, an official from the committee. But this time, they were not. Instead of inviting local experts to participate in the feasibility study, the Communications Bureau came all the way to Beijing to acquire the report.

"The karst landform is a symbol of our city. How a permanent construction like the freeway will affect its appearance requires opinions from the geology experts who know best," he added.

The geology experts, meanwhile, are more worried about the possible adverse effect of the freeway on the natural heritage application.

"Once the freeway is built up along the present route, we will lose the basic qualification to apply for world heritage status," said Yuan Daoxian.

The primary condition for applying for world heritage protection features the preservation of its original appearance. The freeway, a permanent manmade construction, will destroy its primitive nature irretrievably.

Owing to the resistance of local residents who were unwilling to give up their land during the requisition as well as the strong objection of the geology experts, the construction has been delayed. However, the local government has issued a circular order that the all-around freeway construction must begin before June 20.

(China Daily June 10, 2004)

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