Ploughshares into fishing nets
In 1975, Mr. Tang Daiqin and 30,000 fellow labourers in Hanshou County of Hunan Province spent a total of around one million working days shovelling earth and rubble to build Qingshan 'polder' - a system of dykes that allowed 11 square kilometres of land to be reclaimed for agriculture from Dongting Lake.
Dongting forms a natural overflow and reservoir for the Yangtze, drawing water from the river though four outlets at times of peak flow, and replenishing it when the river level drops. The lake also supplies a name for Hunan ('South of the Lake') Province, and for neighbouring Hubei ('North of the Lake').
As a fisherman, Mr. Tang had his doubts about the reclamation scheme, which would replace a previously adequate livelihood (for the lake, he says, was quite well stocked with fish) with a precarious living from agriculture. But as the Party Secretary of a local Production Brigade, who had seen many political storms, he was not inclined to voice those doubts or question the 'grain is the backbone' policy that prompted so many land reclamation projects.
The drive to increase agricultural production resulted in some conversion of Chinese wetlands as early as the 'Southern Song' dynasty (AD 420-479), and reclamation featured in the water control projects of many later dynasties. But in the Communist era reclamation reached unprecedented levels. From 1950 - 1980, 12,000 square kilometres of lakes and tidelands were reclaimed along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, reducing the water surface area by about one third and using dams and sluices to separate many lakes from the river system of which they previously formed an integral part. Around 80% of natural flood areas were converted to permanent agriculture and the volume of 22 lakes was reduced by some 57 billion m3.1 The surface area of Dongting Lake was reduced from 4,300 to 2,700 square kilometres over much the same period.
Much the same pattern was repeated in other parts of the country. In Heilongjiang's Sanjiang Plain, for example, three million hectares of wetlands (including both lakes and marshes) have been converted to agriculture since 1950, allowing hundred of thousands of people to settle in this sparsely populated area.2 But the scale of reclamation was greatest in the central Yangtze, which each year carries 960 billion cubic metres of water through some of China's most populous areas.
Tang Daiqin's misgivings were well founded, because the returns from reclamation of Dongting have been, at best, marginal. The soil on the lake-bed, composed of silt carried downstream from Sichuan and beyond, is highly fertile, and in theory capable of producing high yields. But the costs of agriculture are also high, because the reclaimed 'polders' need regular pumping to prevent water-logging, and maintenance of dykes also requires much back-breaking labour, especially in flood years. The WWF China Programme estimated the cost of maintenance to the Qingshan Polder at CNY 1.5 million per year, which is equivalent to about CNY 90 (USD 11) per mu (1/15 hectare).
Furthermore, a July 1999 survey of the Central Yangtze polder economy, organised jointly by WWF and the China Youth Development Foundation and undertaken by students from six Chinese universities, found that net returns on agriculture were very low. Even without taking labour costs into consideration, each mu of rice paddy netted only CNY 71 and each mu of cotton only CNY 374 in the area around Hong Lake in Hubei. If labour costs were included in the calculation, the net return on agriculture was strongly negative. In short, farming on reclaimed land requires a great deal of work for a very small return. (Elsewhere, the agricultural record is even worse. In the Sanjiang Plain, reclaimed land is so poorly drained that it has only been possible to grow crops in alternate years.3
Biodiversity in reclaimed areas has fared even worse than farming. According to WWF China Programme Manager, Jim Harkness, 'The steady loss of wetland habitat in the Central Yangtze has drastically affected wildlife, especially fish and birds, by reducing the space they have to live in and by making it more difficult for them to avoid predators - especially humans. The Central Yangtze is the most important wetland area in Asia, especially for migratory water-fowl. More than 90% of the world population of Siberian Cranes winter as a single flock on Lake Poyang, and more than 70% of the global population of Lesser White-fronted Geese winter at Dongting. Central Yangtze was the main habitat of the Pere David's deer, which is now extinct in the wild, and also of the Chinese Alligator, of which only about 60 individuals remain in the wild.'
But for government the most pressing drawback of the reclamation drive has been the greatly increased susceptibility to flooding during periods of peak flow, with those living in reclaimed areas being the most vulnerable. A series of catastrophic floods in the 1990s made the point eloquently, and in 1998 Nature decisively won the argument: government policy was reversed (see 'Thirty Two Character Policy' overleaf ) and a process began of 'returning paddy to lake' (tui tian huan hu).
Although exact figures are hard to obtain, it is believed that already around one million people have been re-located to land above local flood safety lines, and dykes have been opened up to permanently re-submerge their old homes and paddy fields.
Unlike the upstream programme to 'return farmland to forest' (tui geng huan lin; see chinabrief Vol. III No 2, p. 19), the wetland reversion programme is not voluntary. Provinces and counties are assigned quotas of land to submerge in accordance with the central Water Resources Ministry's calculations of additional water storage capacity needed. Affected farmers are simply told that they must move.
Those who need to move their homes to higher ground receive a government grant of CNY 15,000 towards the cost of building a new house. Farmers we spoke to in the Dongting area said that it costs at least twice that much to build a house, and they generally had to borrow money from friends or relatives to make up the shortfall.
Not all of those affected by the policy have to relocate their houses; some already live on higher ground, and simply lose their contracted paddy land. But - again, unlike the up-stream reforestation programmes - farmers do not automatically receive compensation, either in cash or kind, for the paddy fields that are 'returned to lake'. Moreover, several of those we spoke to said that this year they had still been charged agricultural taxes for returned land from which they gained no income at all.
Although they evidently resented the continued burden of taxation, the farmers we met appeared stoically to accept the lack of compensation for land they had given up. It had been of little benefit to them in the first place and the floods of the 1990s were a recurring nightmare; so they generally accepted the wisdom of the policy as a whole, and generally believed, too, that government simply does not have the resources to be generous. At the same time, the Central Yangtze is more economically developed than the upstream areas where reforestation schemes are gathering pace, and so affords more potential sources for off-farm income. In addition to local employment opportunities, the WWF-CYDF survey already quoted found that 30% of households in the area had one or more family members working outside their home town, and 25% listed this as their main source of income. Even so, there is clear need here to help farmers who have returned land to diversify their income base. Enter WWF China Programme which, as part of a 'Partnership for a Living Yangtze' programme, has been working with local communities and governments around Dongting to establish new forms of livelihood. And re-enter Tang Daiqin, who is one of the first beneficiaries of the project.
Last year the dykes were opened to submerge the 11 km2 Qingshan polder, which Mr. Tang helped to construct 25 years ago. He and 5,700 other people were relocated. At first, the local government's had planned simply to move the farmers out, but encourage them to keep farming inside the damaged polder This approach, 'moving people but not returning land' (banren bu tuitian), has so far been the mostly widely adopted within the '32 character policy' framework (see below). Jim Harkness regards such half measures as inadequate to protect either people or nature: 'Livelihoods remain in danger, in fact greater than before. From a biodiversity perspective, if a fully functioning wetland is not been restored, at best you get soggy farmland. As long as people are farming inside destroyed polders, they'll want to plug up the dyke to safeguard their crops, and eventually people will start moving back as well.'
In Qingshan, the local authorities finally decided that farmland should be permanently relinquished. Some of the affected farmers were allocated land on an adjoining, larger polder, which is not slated for returning to lake. Others, including Mr. Tang, were resettled in the nearby small town of Jiangjiazui, and had to find new livelihoods. Two or three decided to attempt fish farming on the newly submerged area. WWF picked up on this initiative and subsidised 165 households to purchase and install floating fish cages on the lake.
Each 25 cubic metre cage costs around CNY 450 to build and install. WWF provided CNY 300 each for 400 cages, distributed between the participating households, which themselves pay to stock the cages and to buy feed (at a cost of CNY 1-2,000 per cage). Total start up costs, including a CNY 200 fishing licence, are therefore several thousand yuan per family, and WWF's role is more that of facilitator than financier. If managed properly, the net return from each cage is expected to be around CNY 2-3000 in the first year.
Local government has already begun to replicate the project, installing a further 1,000 cages, although most of these have not yet been allocated or stocked.
Mr. Tang is sanguine about the income generation prospects, but raises a number of immediate concerns. Foremost among these is that, beyond the annual fishing licence that they have bought, the households involved do not yet have any formal contract rights to use the new lake waters. They are only allowed to stock certain kinds of fish, which limits their ability, he says, both to make sound market decisions and to strike an appropriate ecological balance with regenerating wild populations in the lake. Other important, and related, issues are management of the lake's resources as a whole -- how will fish farming be kept within sustainable limits? -- and illegal poaching of wild fish. Mr. Tang reports that some local gangs have already begun to engage in night time 'fishing' through the use of explosives.
Resolving these issues may depend significantly on the associational space allowed to the new fishing community. Mr. Tang is the informal group leader of the WWF project households in Jiangjiazui, and they have begun to address some of their problems collectively. More experienced members of the group provide technical advice and support to others, and 24 hour watches have been arranged on each of the rafts of floating cages, to prevent theft of farmed stocks and to monitor poaching of wild fish. One as yet neglected aspect of collective security is an insurance scheme, to provide a safety net in case of heavy losses (e.g., through disease epidemics). On the other hand, according to Mr. Tang the group is negotiating with the relevant authorities, with the aid of WWF, both to clarify their fishing rights and to establish rules for the sustainable use of the lake waters. There could be a real opportunity here to avoid future resource conflicts by involving local users from the outset in a settlement to balance the rights and interests of different groups with the sustainable use of the wetland resources.
Since it was returned to lake, the Qingshan polder has been incorporated into the Muping Hu Nature Reserve, under the administration of the local Forestry Bureau. Jurisdiction in such areas is seldom clear in China, as the protecting agency rarely enjoys full control over the protected area. In this case, for example, several industrial enterprises located around Jiangjiazui (a nitrogen fertiliser factory, paper mills and a linen factory) release effluents into the lake, but these belong to the County, as opposed to the local Township government, and regulating their operations would involve a variety of stakeholders from 'higher levels'.
Nevertheless, the 'protected' designation is more than just a tag: nature conservation does at least get a formal advocate in the inevitably complex process of negotiating future resource use. That advocacy will be significantly enhanced when, as is expected shortly, Muping Hu is designated as a site eligible for protection under the international Ramsar Convention, to which China is a signatory. WWF is working closely with the Reserve administration to strengthen its advocacy and management capacity, and is helping to finance the building of a management office and visitor centre overlooking the newly flooded area. The Reserve administration hopes that the site may have 'eco-tourism' potential, but this should not be over-estimated. Migratory bird populations have already increased, so the site may be of interest to ornithologists, and it may attract more general day trippers from Changsha, two hours away by road. But without substantial investment in tourist amenities it will be hard to compete with more celebrated scenic attractions, including other parts of Dongting Lake and the forests of Zhangjiajie in north west Hunan.
Some 40 kilometres north east of Qingshan polder, WWF is supporting income diversification at a second site where polder land, originally reclaimed in 1972, has now been re-submerged. Here, on the island of Cishan many families earn some cash income from Mandarin orange groves established on higher ground over the last two decades, but for rice paddy they have relied mainly on reclaimed land. This is no longer possible for people from three villages on Xibanshan polder where earlier this year dykes were re-opened to permanently flood 106 hectares of fields. WWF has given 157 households in the area grants of up to CNY 6,000 (USD 730) each to invest in livestock. Pig raising has proved the most popular activity, but some households have opted for chickens or ducks, and a few fish cages have also been installed in the flooded area. As well as helping with start up funds, WWF has organised training through the local Animal Husbandry Bureau.
One beneficiary of the project is Ms. Liu Wenxian of Wujiazui village, whose family of 5 had lost 4 mu of land and been left with only one mu of paddy. She reports net profits of around CNY 130 each on 17 pigs that she raised in the first cycle, and now has 21 more animals fattening in a sty adjoining the house. Income from the pigs, she said, was higher than her husband's earnings as a motorbike taxi driver. Other families reported similar returns although those who had been obliged to relocate their homes were also now heavily indebted to friends or family. None of the villagers we met appeared to have any access to credit through the Agricultural Bank or Rural Credit Cooperative system.
In many cases, the shift to animal husbandry seems to have increased women's share in productive labour. We were told that 'women don't like to go out to the fields', so had not generally taken exclusive responsibility for rice crops; but the pig-house appears to be seen more as part of the home and therefore the natural domain of women. One man, whose household had also lost four mu of paddy land, frankly acknowledged that his wife tended the pigs while he now lived a life of virtual retirement (having no off-farm employment). It was not clear whether his wife now also enjoyed more say in the disposal of family finances.
For these families, WWF assistance is providing a critical defence against hardship and the means to establish new forms of income. For some, it is a lifeline without which they would almost certainly slip into immiseration. We were told of four families living in particularly straightened circumstances in Wujiazui. In one we visited, an 80 year old woman was tending 7 pigs, which are now the main means of support for a family of three whose landholding had been reduced to a mere 0.2 mu -- an area approximately the size of a badminton court. This woman told us her son had been disabled some years ago, whereupon his wife went away, leaving a child to be cared for. The disabled son is not always able to work, but the family is trying to put the teenage grandson through vocational school, where he is studying hairdressing. One of the hogs from the family's first batch had died of an undiagnosed disease. When we visited, a young pig from the second batch had been taken out of the pen because it, too, was ill.
To resolve issues of long term income security is beyond the remit of WWF, but the organisation is nonetheless attempting to demonstrate that these need to be addressed in tandem with efforts to restore and protect wetland environments. As 'demonstration projects', the activities at Qinshan and Xibanshan appear likely to show that in most cases the tuitian huanhu policy can work if affected families are given bridging support to help them diversify out of grain production; but replication of this approach would require the commitment of significant government resources. Will government be willing to put up the money? This will, at least in part, depend on the perceived social, economic and environmental costs of failing to do so. If submerging land without compensating households leads to increased poverty, crime, local resource conflict and/or illegal reclamation, the arguments for compensation, over and above the claims of natural justice, will be overwhelming. For this reason it will be important to follow the fortunes of those who have been left to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, as well as continuing its income generation initiatives in tuitian affected areas, WWF is planning in the next phase of the project to identify one of the many, smaller lakes which has been artificially separated from the Yangtze, and to work with local authorities to reconnect it with the river in a 'living system'. This will involve raising seasonal surface water levels of the lake, and so surrendering farmlands on its margins. Alternative livelihoods will, again, in all likelihood prove critical to the viability of this project.
WWF, World Wide Fund for Nature,
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1 Urgent and Heavy Task to Protect Wetlands in Newsletter for Wetlands, Issue 6, November 1998 Wetlands International, Beijing.
2 Ma Xuehui, Liu Zigang, Strictly Control Reclamation of Wetlands and Conserve Soil Environment of Wetlands in Newsletter for Wetlands, Issue 5, April 1998.