Chinese billionaires chip in to protect environment

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    Pingwu County, tucked away in a remote corner of Sichuan province, has the highest concentration of Giant Pandas in the wild. Wanglang Nature Reserve, pictured, is one of the few parts of the county that is protected from development.

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    For decades, Pingwu County's economy was built on logging.

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    This is one of the last remaining old-growth forests left in Pingwu County. It was intensely logged until China banned the practice in this area in 1998.

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    After logging was banned, Pingwu County began to build dams to sell hydroelectric power. The Water Buffalo Reservoir is just a few years old.

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    The new reservoir has caused enormous landslides like this one, near Wanglang Nature Reserve.

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    The sheer number of dams in this part of China means more reservoirs. More reservoirs mean more erosion from the steep mountainsides, devoid of large trees due to intensive logging. And that means the roads here are downright treacherous.

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    A section of this road was wiped out by one of the region's frequent landslides. Excavators work on clearing a passage for traffic.

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    This is part of a piece of land that's been purchased by a group of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs led by Jack Ma. It will be set aside and managed with help from The Nature Conservancy. It is China's first private nature reserve.

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    The Nature Conservancy's Zhao Peng checks an infrared camera that's programmed to take photos whenever an animal walks in front of it. Scientists have set up 20 cameras throughout this future reserve to track Pandas and other animals that live here.

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    One animal the camera catches is a sand badger.

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    Another animal caught on camera is a rather mean-looking porcupine.

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    This photo is the last one in a series of photos that depicts someone seemingly trying to steal the camera. The perpetrator puts a bag over the camera to disguise his/her identity, but the bag's contents reveal the person to be a local mushroom gatherer.

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    Chen Xiaohong raises a thousand chickens near the border of the new nature reserve. The park will be off limits to tourists, but he hopes to cash in on potential tourism to the area.

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    Chen plans to sell organic chicken meat and to start his own restaurant. The local government has plans to promote ecotourism here.

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    Horses at Wanglang Nature Reserve in Pingwu County. Government officials here hope the model set forth by The Nature Conservancy will be a model to protect other sensitive habitat in China.

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Jeremy Hobson: So our economic growth was 1.3 percent last quarter. China's GDP? Almost 10 percent.

But that rapid growth has often come at the expense of China's environment. And now, a group of Chinese billionaires want to help. They're pooling their money to create China's first private nature reserve. It's an unusual move in a country where the government runs all the national parks. But as Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz reports, the Chinese government could use some help.

Rob Schmitz: The history of Pingwu County's economy is written on its mountainsides. Old growth forests stood here once. Decades of logging wiped them out.

Chen Youping is a government official here.

Chen Youping: We got to a point where we nearly had no more trees to chop down. But then the government banned logging. That was in 1998. Since then, our economy has really suffered.

To make up for the lost revenue, Pingwu County turned to hydroelectric power. The government dammed the mountain streams here. The valleys filled with water. All of a sudden, there were lakes surrounded by steep bare hillsides. And now, the hillsides are disappearing into the lakes. Huge mechanical excavators clear a mountain road -- a part of it was wiped out by the latest landslide. All this degradation is par for the course in the poor mountainous regions of China.

But the devastation in Pingwu County, tucked away in a remote corner of Sichuan province, is drawing attention. That's because it's home to nearly a fifth of the world's Giant Pandas. And that's why a group of China's richest entrepreneurs are pooling their money to buy part of this county -- to set it aside so that nobody touches it. The Nature Conservancy is helping them create China's first private nature reserve. Zhao Peng works for the conservancy.

Zhao Peng: The pattern in China has been to develop land, not to protect it.

The 23 entrepreneurs are led by Jack Ma. He's one of China's richest men; he founded the wildly popular Internet company Alibaba. According to Chinese media reports, each entrepreneur will contribute $1.4 million over the next three years to establish the park. It's a 100 square mile tract of mountains and forests.

Today, The Nature Conservancy's Zhao Peng hikes through the forest. He's looking for a camera set up by scientists that's programmed to take photos when an animal walks by. He finds it, pulls the camera out of a box and uploads photos taken over the past month onto his laptop.

Zhao: We got something.

No pandas this time. Instead, a couple shots of porcupines, badgers. There's even a bunch of photos of local villagers trying to steal the camera. Their poverty raises a question: Now that it's clear this land won't be developed, what are they going to get out of this?

Chen Xiaohong raises a thousand chickens on his farm near the park. Though the park will be off-limits to tourists, his village won't be. The local government has plans to promote ecotourism here. Chen says that's better than logging.

Chen Xiaohong: The stream that runs through my farm used to have five kinds of fish. Now, because of the logging and mining upstream, it doesn't have any fish. The environment here needs to be protected.

Chen dreams of opening a restaurant and starting his own organic chicken business. Local government official Chen Youping says this park might prove to be a model to protect other fragile ecosystems in China. Chen runs a nearby government-managed nature reserve. He says such publicly run parks in China suffer from a lack of funding. That forces parks to chase profits by building hotels, karaoke halls and parking lots. And that can defeat the whole purpose of conservation.

Chen Youping: I hope this private model works better. It's a new way to manage and fund parks in China, and I think it'll protect more of our natural areas.

The trick, of course, is to get more of China's increasing number of billionaires to part with some of their new wealth.

In Pingwu County, Sichuan, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent, based in Shanghai.


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