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    Wetlands ‘Restoration’ Project Suspended After Environmental NGO Lawsuit

    A local court has ruled against a wetland restoration project for failing to fully consider its impact on local habitats crucial for migratory birds.

    A court in the eastern Jiangsu province has ordered a stop to a wetland restoration project, three years after a public interest suit was filed by a leading Chinese environmental NGO. 

    According to the first-instance judgment handed down in late December, the Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court found that the “Blue Bay” project in the coastal city of Lianyungang, in northern Jiangsu province and on the southern coast of China’s Yellow Sea, was in violation of national regulations and risked damaging the habitats of migratory shorebirds. 

    While the court acknowledged risk of ecological damage, it dismissed the plaintiff’s requests for ecological restoration and compensation for losses due to a lack of evidence that the migratory shorebird population has declined due to the project.

    The suit was brought by Friends of Nature, the oldest environmental NGO in China. In its analysis of the court decision released Friday, the group welcomed the ruling while cautioning against celebration as the court only ordered suspension of the project until legal authorization is secured. 

    “Although just a suspension is not the ideal outcome, the judicial validation for stopping the restoration work is still a positive step,” He Yini, a legal advisor for Friends of Nature, told Sixth Tone. 

    He said they will appeal the decision with the aim of securing a complete shutdown of the “Blue Bay” project and to have the company held financially responsible for any future restoration of the damaged coastline. 

    In China, civil society groups may bring environmental public interest litigation against civil and governmental bodies that damage the environment. Friends of Nature has filed several such suits against violators in recent years, including the first one of its kind in 2015.

    In its ruling, the court also held a third-party impact assessment provider liable for failing to fully consider the potential impact of the project on migratory shorebirds — a “significant” step that will serve as a warning for such providers moving forward, said He. 

    Part of China’s national coastal wetland restoration project, the “Blue Bay” project was launched in 2017 with the aim of clearing up invasive plants and transforming miles of mudflats into sand beaches.  

    However, environmentalists warned that the project would cause irreversible damage to the habitat and a decline in the number of migratory birds that rest in the area every spring and fall while traveling between the Arctic and the Southern Hemisphere. 

    The project, led by a private construction company, was due to take 18 months to complete with a total investment of over 1.5 billion yuan ($209 million), including a 300 million yuan subsidy from the central government. Work was halted in 2021 after the public interest suit was filed. 

    According to a central government inspection report released in February 2023, the project illegally damaged the surrounding terrain and advanced the coastline 60 to 100 meters into the sea, “destroying” the original ecological environment as a result. 

    Satellite images provided by Friends of Nature indicate that the project has caused over 236 hectares of mudflat loss, which are crucial food sources for the migratory birds. 

    The central government inspection report called for the Lianyungang local government to rectify the “Blue Bay” project, including a reevaluation of the use of the sea, in accordance with the law by December 2024. 

    Marine restoration projects have been the subject of controversy in China in recent years, as experts have warned of their unintended impact on local habitats. 

    In March 2023, the Ministry of Natural Resources tightened restrictions on sea reclamation and land sedimentation in the name of ecological protection and restoration. 

    Editor: Vincent Chow. 

    (Header image: Asian dowitchers in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province. From @鸟窝里的猫妖 on Weibo)