Wetlands protection prioritized for environmental concerns

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A failed program to convert swathes of north China's swampland into farms in the 1970s has proved a boon for one of the country's faltering bird species.

Vast expanses of wetlands in the Xinqing District of Yichun City in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, once marked for development into agriculture, remain one of the most important habitats for hooded cranes in the country.

With less than 10,000 of the rare cranes left, they are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's red list.

The marshlands of Heilongjiang have provided a crucial winter haven for the bird's gradual recovery, says Liu Baocai, director of the Xinqing Hooded Crane National Nature Reserve Management Bureau.

"We feel very lucky. If the wetlands were converted into agriculture, it would no longer be home to the birds," he said.

It's one of many anecdotes in Liu's repertoire that stress the significance of wetland protection against continuing ecological threats.

In the past decade, 8.82 percent of wetlands have disappeared, converted to farmland or infrastructure.

During an ongoing tour to several wetlands in northeast China's Heilongjiang province, Xinhua reporters found wetland protection has become the mainstream view among locals. The push by residents has spurred the local government' s efforts for ecological protection through the ban of logging, fishing, and closure of surrounding factories.

The efforts have demonstrated the people' s changing attitude toward wetlands, Liu said.

Sometimes referred to as the "Kidneys of the Earth," wetlands play a crucial role in helping preserve and filter natural water resources while offering a sanctuary for migrating birds and many other species.

The shift in attitude is a far cry from the local outlook 40 years ago.

In the 1960s, locals thought the wetlands were useless, draining them to grow crops. Farm yields were low and the practice was eventually abandoned, but not before inflicting huge damage to the wetland ecology.

Also home to the world's largest virgin forest of red pines, forestry was once a pillar for the local economy, acting as a main source of revenue and employment.

In order to maximize lumber output, locals again turned to the wetlands in the 1990s, this time to grow pine trees in the wetlands.

Once more they ended in failure. The trees could not root properly and were easily toppled by strong winds.

The consequences of both failed attempts to industrialize the wetlands are still seen today through regional desertification, frequent flooding, droughts, and forest fires.

"It was foolish from today's perspective. However, people had no choice then but to exploit the wetlands for subsistence," said Zhuo Lei, vice director of Meixi Forestry Bureau of Yichun.

Wang Jiapeng, a forestry official in Meixi district of Yichun, says people rarely attach as much significance to wetlands as they do to forests. But when it comes to the role they play in balancing the local environment, wetlands play an equally important role.

Data from the State Forestry Administration reveals China has a total of 53.6 million hectares of wetlands, accounting for more than 5 percent of the country's total terrain.

The Chinese leadership are emphasizing ecological protection, demanding increases in the size of forests, lakes, and wetlands. China boasts 577 nature reserves and 468 wetland parks. The push for preservation has gone as far as becoming part of the criterion for performance assessment of local government officials in some regions.

Protection efforts are facing renewed challenges, however, as locals, seeing rising incomes in the rest of the country, seek to cultivate the wetlands once more.

Local officials say there has been a recent increase in complaints lodged toward the protection campaigns from local residents, who claim they are being forced to change old lifestyles.

Locals say reasonable remunerations for those affected by the protection campaigns are necessary. However, such a scheme has not yet been established.

Without a compensation system in place there have been ongoing attempts to convert the wetlands to agricultural lands as incomes remain low in the underdeveloped region.

Meanwhile, experts say central and local government support of scientific development and tourism as well as husbandry could speed up the economic restructuring for these regions.

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