2017-01-16 12:12:02

The nongovernmental organizations, nature reserve authorities, and construction companies embroiled in a lawsuit over alleged illegal construction in a protected area have agreed to a settlement.

The suit concerned a road built through the Nanling National Nature Reserve in Guangdong province, southern China. NGOs said the construction project violates a central government ban on economic activities in protected natural areas. They filed a lawsuit in January 2016.

Chen Zhenming, the director of the Ruyang Forestry Bureau — one of the suit’s defendants and the government body that oversees the park — told Sixth Tone in a previous interview that the road would bring in more tourists, generating income the park badly needs.

But the People’s Court Daily, an official judicial newspaper, on Saturday announced a settlement. Construction on the road and other tourism facilities will be halted immediately, and the road will not be used for tourism — only firefighting. Guangdong Nanling Forest Scenic Area Management Co. (GNFSAM), the construction company that led the project, will pay 5 million yuan ($725,000) to restore the surrounding environment by April 2019. Ruyang Forestry Bureau will monitor the restoration.

Both sides compromised to reach the settlement. Yu Tao, co-founder of the Society of Canton Nature Conservation, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, told Sixth Tone they had originally sued for 10 million yuan in damages.

Li Hongwei, a manager at GNFSAM, told Sixth Tone that the company isn’t just losing money over the lawsuit: It has also become involved in labor disputes because halting the construction of tourism facilities meant they had to fire employees. “Our company feels wronged,” Li said.

The public can respond to the announcement within 30 days of its publication. If no disputes arise during that time, the settlement will be formalized.

Nanling is one of the biggest subtropical forests in southern China and home to many endemic and endangered species. China’s environmental laws and regulations ban all construction and economic activities in the core areas of nature reserves — tourism facilities are only allowed in surrounding buffer areas.

According to the announcement, the restrictions on road use will remain in place until the reserve adjusts its designations of core and buffer areas. Chen told Sixth Tone in an earlier interview that the forestry bureau had sought to change the park’s zoning so they could develop tourism legally.

But Yu said that the reserve is not likely to succeed in changing its buffer area zoning. “We will continue to monitor and report any illegal activities,” he said.

China’s environmental laws and regulations governing nature reserves are flouted by lower-level governments across the country. In 2015, remote sensing research by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection found that nearly 3 percent of the total area of China’s nature reserves is used for illegal activities, such as mining, farming, and tourism.

At a meeting of the National People’s Congress in July 2016, Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jiling pointed out that nature reserves are under pressure nationwide. “For economic benefit, some places have unreasonably adjusted [the size of the reserves] several times,” Chen said. “Some even revoke the natural protection areas.”

Along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, China’s longest waterway, reserves for endangered fish were shrunk in 2005 and 2011, for example, to allow for the construction of hydropower dams.

To Yu, the Nanling lawsuit is yet another example of the fact that many places in China still prioritize financial gain over environmental protection. “When nature reserves face off against economic development, they are always the underdogs,” he said.

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