2020-12-11 09:58:37

An ecological restoration project at a nature reserve in the southern Guangdong province passed an official expert assessment late last month, four years after a court-mediated settlement to take action, local media reported Wednesday.

In March 2016, four nongovernmental organizations filed the first-of-its-kind public-interest lawsuit in Guangdong against Nanling National Nature Reserve officials and construction companies for damaging the protected forests. Nine months later, the NGOs and the defendants agreed on a settlement to halt all road construction, as well as restore the nature reserve’s environment.

Following the review from a panel of court-appointed and independent experts who supervised the restoration project, environmentalists told Sixth Tone that the 2016 public-interest lawsuit may serve as an example of how local courts can participate in supervising environmental restoration projects.

That year, the Qingyuan Intermediate People’s Court, where the case was filed, had appointed a local forestry bureau — also one of the defendants — to supervise the project’s implementation, as well as set up a special bank account to ensure the 5 million yuan (then $725,000) paid by the companies would only be used for restoration purposes, according to the media report.

“For most public-interest lawsuits, the case is closed after a court ruling or a mediation statement is issued,” said Ge Feng, director of legal and policy affairs at Friends of Nature. “If defendants only compensate (without carrying out restoration), there’s no direct effect (on the environment).”

In 2011, local environmentalists reported that companies were damaging forests in the core area of Nanling National Nature Reserve to construct roads, leaving “ugly scars” on verdant mountains. The project was suspended after an exposé attracted public attention, but it was later resumed without authorization in 2016.

That’s when the environmental nonprofits stepped in and filed their lawsuit.

Li Zhenji, a professor of restoration ecology at Xiamen University and the restoration project’s independent expert supervisor, told Sixth Tone that the result of the project has “exceeded expectations,” as parts of the vegetation damaged by previous construction have been restored over the past three years.

Though it is relatively easier to promote ecological restoration through public-interest lawsuits in places where environmental awareness is high, that’s not the case in other areas where the influence of certain interest groups dominates, he added.

“It takes nature hundreds or thousands of years to generate such a good forest,” said Li, referring to the natural forest in Nanling. “After 10 years of restoration, the vegetation coverage rate will rise, but it will take longer for it to return to its original, good state.”

Meanwhile, Ge said the Nanling case could serve as a reference for future environmental public-interest lawsuits and cooperation between the parties involved. Most recently, in June, a similar settlement was reached in the southwestern Yunnan province, where environmental authorities and nonprofits required companies to restore a rural site polluted by chromium ore tailings.

“Restoration requires supervision,” Ge said. “Not only the government, but also the court, the plaintiff, and social representatives can participate in supervising restoration.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

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