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2020-05-28 13:50:22

SHANGHAI — In early May, a fleet of yellow bulldozers began flattening a stretch of marshland near the Hangzhou Bay coastline. The team is preparing the ground for a mass tree-planting campaign, which local officials hope will transform the boggy area into a lush cypress forest able to shield the city from typhoon damage.

Zhang Dongsheng is determined to stop them. 

The Shanghai-based academic is firmly opposed to the afforestation project, which he describes as “a destruction of the natural ecosystem.” He’s spent weeks trying to convince the local government to abandon its plans, writing articles online and calling the mayor’s hotline. 

It’ll be a dead forest.

“The reed marshes will be totally destroyed by the tree planting,” the 45-year-old tells Sixth Tone. “It’ll be a dead forest.” 

Zhang isn’t the only dissenting voice. The cypress plantation has — perhaps unexpectedly — become a subject of heated debate in Shanghai, with several environmentalists, scientists, and nature lovers speaking out against the plan.

Critics say the wetland currently being bulldozed — Nanhui Dongtan — is a hub of biodiversity with far greater ecological value than the monoculture that will replace it. For many, the project is an example of how green initiatives be counterproductive, as swathes of land are covered with trees without considering the impact on the wider environment.

Nanhui Dongtan is particularly beloved by birders, who consider it irreplaceable. Lying on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway — a major pathway for migratory birds — the wetland is a stopover for over 400 avian species, including endangered shorebirds such as the black-faced spoonbill, Oriental stork, and Japanese night heron.

“Every spring, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds fly northward. The first land (in Shanghai) they see is Nanhui,” says Wang Fang, an ecology researcher at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “It’s one of the most important habitats for them.”

Experts worry draining Nanhui’s wetland will also have other environmental side effects. The reed marshes act as a natural filter removing sediment and toxins from runoff, and as a shield keeping seawater from salinizing freshwater and soil. They also house many native species of fish, frogs, and birds — many of which won’t survive the mass tree planting, according to Wang.

“Fish, toads, and frogs will be gone,” he says. “Birds will be gone.”

But officials in Lingang Special Area, the subdistrict administering the project, are pushing back. From their perspective, Nanhui can’t have outstanding natural value, as — technically speaking — it’s not “natural” in the first place.

“There is no wetland here,” says Sun Donglin, deputy head of ecology and cityscape at the Lingang Special Area Administration. “(It’s) artificial land reclaimed from the ocean and is marked for construction use according to the Shanghai government’s plan.” 

Nanhui Dongtan was formed as part of a massive 40 billion yuan ($5 billion) land reclamation project completed in 2006. The move created 133 square kilometers of new land a one-hour drive from downtown Shanghai, which the city converted into an economic zone now known as the Lingang Special Area.

An aerial view of the Lingang Special Area and Dishui Lake, in Nanhui District, Shanghai, Aug. 24, 2019. Su Xiaozhou/People Visual

An aerial view of the Lingang Special Area and Dishui Lake, in Nanhui District, Shanghai, Aug. 24, 2019. Su Xiaozhou/People Visual

A newly built university cluster, high-end manufacturing base, and artificial lake filled most of the space. But around 10 square kilometers of low-lying terrain was allowed to lie fallow, and the area gradually developed into a wetland ecosystem. 

To officials in Lingang, however, the land now being filled with wildlife shouldn’t make it untouchable. Speaking to Sixth Tone in a conference room at the Lingang government offices, it’s clear they have other priorities.

“When we came here in 2006, the place where we’re sitting was surrounded by reeds,” says Sun.

“You say because there are birds living here, we shouldn’t use this whole plot for development and construction. That’s unscientific and unreasonable,” another official adds.

Under the government’s plan, 6,500 mu (4.33 square kilometers) of Nanhui Dongtan will be used to create the cypress forest, with most of the rest earmarked for unspecified future development. Officials have set aside 1.7 square kilometers — roughly one-sixth of the marshes — as a protected wetland park, an amount Sun feels is more than generous.

“It’s already huge to build an ecological park of 1.7 square kilometers in Shanghai, where an inch of land is worth an inch of gold,” says Sun. He adds the government had made the decision as a way to “take into account the interests of a small number of people.”

Zhang Dongsheng points to the wetland of Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai, May 15, 2020. Li You/Sixth Tone

Zhang Dongsheng points to the wetland of Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai, May 15, 2020. Li You/Sixth Tone

The concession hasn’t allayed the concerns of Zhang Dongsheng, a keen birder and associate professor of bioinformatics at Shanghai Ocean University. He points out the reclamation project already altered the original ecosystem and removed a significant chunk of the birds’ natural habitat. Removing most of one of the animals’ last remaining havens will make it difficult for them to survive, he adds.

Lingang’s officials, however, insist the benefits of planting the cypress forest far outweigh the costs. The project follows a national plan to build an ecological barrier against typhoons and storm surges on Shanghai’s southeastern shoreline; it replaces degenerated reed marshes — invaded by goldenrod vegetation — with neat lines of trees; and it helps the local government hit its forest coverage quotas.

Every spring, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds fly northward. The first land (in Shanghai) they see is Nanhui.

Local officials across China have been set targets to increase the amount of foliage in their regions, with the country aiming to hit a 26% forest coverage rate by 2035. Nanhui New Town, where the wetland is located, however, is lagging behind the rest of Shanghai and is under pressure to raise its rate from 11.5% to 15.5% by the end of the year.

“To develop the economy and improve the environment, increasing the amount of green space and forest coverage are the two most important measures,” says Sun. “Would you say there are other measures?”

Environmentalists warn that efforts to create artificial forests, while well intentioned, can cause a host of problems. Researchers have found that natural regeneration has been grossly neglected during previous projects in China, while others haven’t been tailored to local conditions.

“Everyone is doing ecological restoration, but there’s a deviation in understanding and sometimes the method used is wrong,” says Wang, the Fudan University researcher. “The ecosystem is a very complicated and precise system. If we change it roughly, it may take a long time and a lot of resources to make up for the loss.”

Nanhui Dongtan is an inhospitable environment for most trees, which will make afforestation efforts challenging, according to Yang Yongxing, a wetland conservation expert at Tongji University. 

“The original habitat is coastal salt marshes that are suitable for reeds and other salt-tolerant herbs,” says Yang. “Cultivating trees is theoretically unsuitable.”

A view of the artificial forest and wetland at Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai, May 15, 2020. Li You/Sixth Tone

A view of the artificial forest and wetland at Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai, May 15, 2020. Li You/Sixth Tone

The government is trying to overcome the problem by selecting a salt-resistant tree species and clearing out the reed marshes. It will then fill in the land with soil to elevate the ground.

Early results have been mixed. During a visit to Nanhui in May, Wang found that some of the trees planted there over recent years had already died.

Experts are urging the government to classify wetland as green space, so that Nanhui Dongtan can count toward the area’s forest coverage target. Officials in Lingang, however, say they don’t have the power to reclassify land.

“As national servants, we must … consider the overall situation,” Sun says.

Besides, the officials argue, the efforts will be worth it. They’re confident the public will prefer the forest to what it’s replacing.

Bulldozers flatten a stretch of marshland for a massive tree-planting project in Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai, May 13, 2020. Courtesy of Shengtai Nanhui

Bulldozers flatten a stretch of marshland for a massive tree-planting project in Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai, May 13, 2020. Courtesy of Shengtai Nanhui

“To achieve its economic targets, the city has to provide a better environment to attract enterprises and talent,” says Sun. “If you look outside, it’s a wasteland, a field of reeds — can it offer a beautiful environment to the majority of people? Would you like to sit in a forest or a swamp-like space?”

Yet the project’s opponents refuse to concede defeat. Yang Xiaohong, head of research at the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, has called on the local government to release detailed outlines of the tree-planting project for public scrutiny. Others hope Nanhui Dongtan can be given a similar protected status as Chongming Dongtan, a national bird reserve in eastern Shanghai. 

Would you like to sit in a forest or a swamp-like space?

China’s coastal wetlands are among the country’s most threatened ecosystems, yet only one-fifth of them are protected. The lack of concern for wetlands is partly a result of the country’s agricultural legacy, according to Wang.

“Our long and splendid history of agricultural civilization has made us believe that wetlands are wasteland,” says Wang. “This idea was important in history, but today there’ll be a process of gradual adjustment in our understanding … especially when there are water shortages and water becomes a factor restricting economic development.”

There are signs the tide is starting to turn in favor of wetlands. In 2018, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, tightened regulation on land reclamation in a bid to protect coastal wetlands. This year, the Jiusan Society, one of China’s minority political parties, has proposed the government make a special plan for such ecosystems.

But the changes might come too late to save Nanhui Dongtan. As Sixth Tone drives to the wetland, Mao Xianfei, a ride-share driver and Nanhui native, recalls walking for miles through reed fields and green marshes in his youth. Now, he says, the tidal flats where he used to pick shells have all gone, and he’s driving along a road that didn’t exist back then. 

When asked his opinion on the new tree-planting project, however, the 40-year-old shrugs. “I personally don’t mind whether there are reeds or forests,” he says. “It all depends on the government’s decision.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A reed parrotbill inhabits the wetland in Nanhui District, Shanghai, 2020. Courtesy of Shengtai Nanhui)