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2016-12-22 11:32:45  + video 

Every time Yu Tao visits the Nanling National Nature Reserve, he finds himself immersed in stunning subtropical forest and surrounded by rare flora and fauna such as the Hainan white pine and the stump-tailed macaque.

Even though the south is one of the most heavily populated and developed areas of China, Nanling — located in Guangdong province — is home to a large natural forest, at nearly 60,000 hectares.

But a road-construction project has disturbed the forest’s peace. Thanks to a 12-kilometer-long, 7-meter-wide stretch of pavement carving the reserve’s Shikengkong Mountain in two, tourists can now access the 1,902-meter-tall peak via a short, 20-minute car trip.

The construction was completed despite efforts by Yu, co-founder of local environmental organization Society of Canton Nature Conservation, and other activists to stop the project from going forward. Their latest attempt in January involved suing the nature reserve’s authorities and the construction companies, but as they waited to have their day in court, road construction continued unhindered.

China’s central government has repeatedly voiced its intention to protect biodiversity and regulations ban any economic development from taking place in nature reserves’ so-called core areas. But local governments frequently either willfully ignore these orders or fail to enforce them.

A road-construction project, which damaged Nanling National Nature Reserve's ecosystem, has been completed despite legal action by environmentalist groups.

Earlier this year, the central government and the party’s Central Committee for the first time sent independent environmental inspectors to supervise local governments in eight provinces. Their report revealed that none of the lower-level authorities had fully respected the laws and regulations in the reserves that were under their supervision.

“It was shocking,” Yu said of the first time he saw the Nanling road construction in December 2011. “I was hiking on another mountain. The road was like an ugly scar on a lush green forest when looked at from afar. Construction waste had been dumped down the mountain directly from where it had been excavated, destroying the trees next to the road.”

Yu reported what he saw, and soon the Guangdong Forestry Administration — which oversees the reserve — and other government bodies announced that they had called a halt to the construction and would restore the forest in early 2012.

An aerial photo shows the road built on Shikengkong Mountain in the Nanling National Nature Reserve, Guangdong province, Dec. 6, 2016. Yang.W/Greenpeace for Sixth Tone

An aerial photo shows the road built on Shikengkong Mountain in the Nanling National Nature Reserve, Guangdong province, Dec. 6, 2016. Yang.W/Greenpeace for Sixth Tone

But the story did not end there. Four years later, Yu returned to the reserve and was shocked to see that road construction had not only been restarted but was almost complete. “There were only a few kilometers left,” he said.

The Nanling Mountains, which run from Hunan province in central China to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guangdong province in the south, are vitally important to the climate of the entire region. Zhang Junli, ecology professor emerita at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong’s capital Guangzhou, told Sixth Tone that the plants, mountains, and regional climate all influence the larger environment.

Zhang has visited the Nanling reserve many times. She called the plans made by the provincial government and the reserve’s administration to restore the damaged forests “a fraud.” In June, she said, “they were planting some trees and flowers by the side of the road.” She recalled the mountain’s small, crooked creeks that she used to enjoy seeing and hearing but said they have all disappeared.

Who knows, maybe in a few hundred years, nature will restore itself.

Because the Nanling Mountains run through three provinces, the nature reserve is supervised by multiple provincial governments. The northern part of the range, where Guangdong borders Hunan, is called the Mang Mountain National Forest Park.

Though long criticized, divided oversight is common for China’s nature reserves. “Too many cooks ruin the soup,” said Lei Guangchun, dean of the College of Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University. He told Sixth Tone that he favors a single system to oversee all protected areas regardless of provincial borders or administrations involved.

China has recently approved giant panda and Siberian tiger reserves that span multiple provinces. “The new system is expected to change the current chaos, in which an ecosystem is torn apart just because it’s located across various administrative divisions,” said Lei.

Previously, tourists in Nanling who wanted to reach the famous Shikengkong peak would have to pay two entrance fees at 80 yuan ($11.50) each because they would cross the provincial border on their way to the top. But the newly built road has cut short the journey, and visitors will no longer have to cross into Hunan.

An official permit issued back in 2003 by the local government to build the road shows that tourism was the real reason behind the illegal road construction. “Detours and increased tourist fees seriously restrict the development of tourism,” says the document.

In an interview with Sixth Tone, Chen Zhenming, the director of the Ruyang Forest Bureau, the administration that oversees the reserve, explained that the plan to build the road could be traced back to 1993, when the nature reserve hadn’t yet been established.

The forest bureau signed contracts with two companies, Shenzhen East Sunshine Industrial Development Co. Ltd. and Guangdong Nanling Forest Scenic Area Management Co. Ltd., to develop the road and other tourism facilities in the reserve.

The latter company’s manager, Li Hongwei, told Sixth Tone that a small firefighting road already existed there before construction on the new road started in 2011. “We just expanded it,” he said. But residents living in the nature reserve told Sixth Tone that the firefighting road was just a muddy trail that could only be found by locals. 

Li also claimed that after the government halted construction, heavy rain often washed away sediment and caused safety problems for tourists and residents. Thus, their work was to “build waterways to avoid any accidents during the rainy season.” He also admitted there had been no environmental impact assessment conducted for the road-construction project, as is required by Chinese law. “We didn’t know it was a nature reserve,” he said. “We only knew after we were reported by the conservationists.”

An aerial photo shows people traversing the road built on Shikengkong Mountain in the Nanling National Nature Reserve, Guangdong province, Dec. 6, 2016. Yang.W/Greenpeace for Sixth Tone

An aerial photo shows people traversing the road built on Shikengkong Mountain in the Nanling National Nature Reserve, Guangdong province, Dec. 6, 2016. Yang.W/Greenpeace for Sixth Tone

Ruyang Forest Bureau Director Chen told Sixth Tone that the bureau could stand to earn millions of yuan from tourism every year, and that a lack of funding form the central government means these sources of income are a necessary evil.

The bureau was set up in 1958 — when the government had not yet realized the consequences of massive deforestation and still encouraged cutting down trees — for the purpose of managing and selling the trees on the Nanling mountain range.

When the bureau’s focus started to change from deforestation to environmental protection in the 1980s, it had more than a thousand employees and retirees on its payroll. “Establishing the nature reserve was actually aimed at getting subsidies from the central government,” said Chen, adding that the challenge of paying all of its workers still incentivizes the bureau to seek extra sources of income today.

Sixth Tone also found that more than 20 small hydropower stations have been built in the mountains, which also violates the regulations for nature reserves. By selling the electricity these stations generate, the bureau’s income has reached more than 50 million yuan so far this year, making electricity the largest source of income for the bureau.

Disappointed by the authorities’ plans to restore the forest, four environmentalist groups including Yu’s sued the construction companies and the Ruyang Forest Bureau in January. The groups asked the defendants to pay a total of 10 million yuan in compensation and funds to restore the damaged forests. They also requested that the defendants apologize publicly and pay all court fees.

While waiting for the court hearings to begin, the environmentalist groups visited the reserve in June and, to their disappointment, saw that the road had been completed.

“I don’t think they will be able to fully restore the forests,” said Yu, “but if they don’t remove the concrete pavement, nothing can grow there. Who knows, maybe in a few hundred years, nature will restore itself.”

(Header image: An aerial photo shows the road built on Shikengkong Mountain in the Nanling National Nature Reserve, Guangdong province, Dec. 6, 2016. Yang.W/Greenpeace for Sixth Tone)