2019-11-27 11:21:21

Local residents of an autonomous prefecture in southwestern China’s Yunnan province have been intentionally damaging the area’s nature reserve, claiming it has obstructed their tea plantations, state broadcaster China Central Television reported Tuesday.

Tea planters in Xishuangbanna’s Yiwu Nature Reserve told CCTV they had destroyed trees to make space for tea plantations, since the vegetation “took away nutrition and blocked the sunlight.” To avoid punishment, some villagers secretly peeled off bark or poisoned the trees instead of cutting them down, in order to give the appearance of a natural death, according to the report.

The rising price of Pu’er tea — a coveted variety native to Yunnan — has driven many locals to seek profits at the cost of nature in tropical Xishuangbanna, known for its vast natural forests and tea production. Locals told CCTV that nearly every household around the nature reserve is involved in tea cultivation, and some have even set up shabby shelters in the wild to plant and take care of the forest’s tea plantations.

Tea picked from nature reserves or state-owned forests is said to be rare and of higher quality, owing to the natural environment. Pu’er tea grown in the protected reserves can fetch between 3,000 and 6,000 yuan ($430 to $850) per kilogram, according to the report. Meanwhile, the per capita disposable income for Xishuangbanna’s rural residents was just 13,079 yuan last year.

A Xishuangbanna forest police officer told CCTV that local law enforcement catches hundreds of people illegally occupying the forest lands but lamented that the court’s punishments are “not substantial.”

“Every day, we catch them and release them,” the officer, whose identity wasn’t revealed, told CCTV. “Even if you logged 100 mu (roughly 16.5 acres) or 500 mu, you’re still given a suspended sentence. It cannot stop crime. The cost of breaking the law is too low.”

China’s guideline on nature reserves prohibits logging and farming in protected areas, and violators may face a penalty of between 300 and 10,000 yuan.

Illegally damaging forests for tea cultivation in nature reserves is commonplace, despite frequent crackdowns. In September of last year, a Yunnan local was given a 10-month suspended sentence along with a 10,000 yuan fine for damaging forests and killing 100 trees at a nature reserve to clear space for a tea plantation.

Gu Bojian, a former researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Sixth Tone that farming in nature reserves, state-owned forests, and collective forests for profit-oriented business is common in Yunnan. He added that locals clear other vegetation and use pesticides on planted tea trees, as well as rubber trees and amomum fruits, and that this impacts the reserve’s biodiversity.

“From the outside, it still looks like a forest,” Gu said. “But inside, there’s not much left.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: An aerial view of forests in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, 2005. IC)