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    Governments Fined $555,000 for Killing 500-Year-Old Trees

    Environmental group convinced Henan court to accept case after initially being rebuffed.

    An intermediate court in central China has fined local governments millions of yuan after hundreds of ancient jujube trees — some up to 500 years old — died during an illegal transplant operation.

    In a verdict announced Thursday, the intermediate people’s court in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, said that a township government and a village government in the city of Xinzheng should be fined 3,616,818 yuan (over half a million dollars) for killing the protected plants. During a 2014 land reclamation project conducted by the two governments, 1,870 trees were removed from the earth overnight with no prior approval; over a third of them were found dead when the court investigated.

    According to the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a Beijing-based environmental NGO and the plaintiff in the case, the jujube trees were removed in January 2014 without express permission from the municipal forestry bureau, and then “transplanted” to a nearby village.

    “This was not a case of transplanting,” Wang Wenyong, a legal advisor at the environmental foundation, told Sixth Tone. “Getting the timber and the land was their primary goal.” Wang added that based on the court’s investigation, all of the trees should have died.

    Hua Wusong, a Xinzheng resident who witnessed the trees being uprooted around midnight, told state news agency Xinhua that the workers removed them without leaving enough soil attached to their roots. “That’s not transplanting,” said Hua, an experienced jujube grower himself. “They could hardly be expected to stay alive.”

    Xinzheng is one of the country’s major growing areas for jujubes, also known as red dates. According to China’s philosophy of health, the fruits are believed to be beneficial to the liver. Since 2010, nearly 18,000 jujube trees in Xuedian Town, Xinzheng, have received protected status from the municipal government: Because the hardy plants can live to be centuries old, they qualify as a cultural heritage. “The trees involved in this case are old, and they convey the local residents’ memories and nostalgia,” read the verdict.

    In addition to the steep fine, which will be put toward restoring the environment, the court ordered the governments to plant 9,500 jujube trees as compensation, and to put the dead ones on display as a warning to others.

    Although Wang, the legal advisor, believes the fine was not high enough, compared with the economic losses estimated by his organization, he said it was progress at least, because the court had finally accepted the case as an environmental public interest lawsuit.

    Gao Jianhong, the attorney for CBCGDF, told Sixth Tone that he and his clients had trouble gathering evidence because the local governments had intervened. It also took time, and several negotiations, before the court agreed to take the case. “The local governments — the defendants — insisted that they transplanted rather than uprooted the trees for economic purposes,” Gao said.

    At the end of its verdict announcement, the court said it would continue to improve its handling of environmental cases, in accordance with the “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” policy laid out by President Xi Jinping during the Party’s 19th National Congress in October.

    “Although the central government has paid close attention to environmental protection since the 18th National Congress, challenges remain when it comes to environmental public interest lawsuits,” said Wang, adding that the case is the country’s first environmental public interest lawsuit relating to ancient and culturally significant plants. In 2016, CBCGDF filed the country’s first lawsuit over a poisonous running track at a kindergarten.

    Wang said that even more so than the polluters themselves, the biggest enemies for an organization like CBCGDF are the uncooperative mindsets of local government. “They can’t understand why a big organization would care about things happening in Henan,” Wang said. “If everything were dealt with strictly, in accordance with the law, things would be much better.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Some of the centuries-old jujube trees that died during an illegal transplant operation in Xinzhen, Henan province, July 4, 2017. Zi Jun/VCG)