2021-06-11 04:06:13

Over 200 mines and hydropower plants in a major mountainous region in northwest China have been shut down to protect one of the world’s richest ecosystems.

Liu Guozhong, a top government official in Shaanxi province, said Wednesday that local authorities have closed 169 mines and overhauled 63 small hydropower projects in key protected areas of the Qinling Mountains. Many of the shuttered plants were located in the northwestern province.

The Qinling Mountains, which split China’s northern and southern regions, are home to several endemic organisms not found in any other countries, including giant pandas and golden snub-nosed monkeys.

“Qinling is the most biodiverse mountain range in this latitude in the world,” Wang Fang, a biologist at Fudan University in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. “The rich vegetation also provides a foundation for a variety of animals to thrive.”

Wednesday’s announcement from the Shaanxi government came more than a year after a regulation aiming to protect the Qinling Mountains went into effect. In December 2019, the provincial government banned all exploration and mining activities in key protected areas of Qinling, requiring already-established enterprises to gradually depart.

Before the law was passed, a series of illegal constructions that had seriously damaged the area’s ecosystem made national headlines. More than 1,000 private villas were found to have been built illegally despite a construction ban in 2014, according to domestic media reports.

“We have learned an important lesson from the scandal and have decided to make protecting our local ecology a top priority,” Liu said during the Wednesday press conference.

Yang Fuqiang, a researcher at Peking University’s Institute of Energy, told Sixth Tone that the Qinling Mountains reserve has dozens of small-scale coal and mineral mines, including those for extracting aluminum. He added that such mines had always been operating illegally in the protected area, and it was high time they were stopped.

“Restoring the mine-damaged environment and hydropower plants would be challenging,” he said.

Biologist Wang said that the mine and hydropower projects would affect the habitats of both aquatic and land animals, as well as alter the region’s climate patterns in the long run. He added that though such constructions help the local economy, it shouldn’t come at an environmental cost.

However, he was optimistic that the damage already done could be gradually reversed. Referring to how forest areas severely degraded from unregulated logging in the ’90s bounced back, Wang said stricter environmental protection laws could prove beneficial this time, too.

“The local ecosystem at Qinling is quite resilient, so maybe we’ll see a recovery in 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: An aerial view of the Qinling mountain area in Shaanxi province, Oct. 29, 2019. People Visual)