Helping China Rethink Its Approach to Conservation

U.S. ecologist Gretchen Daily is working with the Chinese government to rethink its network of national parks and protected areas. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she describes the conservation challenges facing a country where virtually no lands remain undisturbed.

For Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily, nature isn’t only to be preserved for its own sake, but also for the value of the ecological services it provides, such as water filtration, carbon sequestration, and soil retention. Daily helped pioneer the concept of “ecosystem services,” and these days she applies those principles as she works with countries to develop land management strategies and determine which natural areas to prioritize for protection.

Gretchen Daily.

Gretchen Daily. Courtesy of Stanford University

Most recently, Daily has worked with the Chinese government and Chinese scientists to evaluate and reimagine that country’s system of national parks and nature reserves. Their joint research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded in part by China’s Ministry of Finance, has shown that China’s current network of protected areas has failed to protect biodiversity and to provide vital ecosystem services.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Daily explains how she and her Chinese colleagues have used advanced mapping software to plan a major expansion of protected areas, talks about restoring ecosystems to provide key services such as sandstorm prevention and flood control, and discusses how, as the country works to establish its first national parks system, Chinese officials are using scientists’ findings to develop a conservation strategy with communities in mind.  “There’s heavy competition for land anywhere you go in China,” says Daily. “It’s kind of a zero-sum game. There is no land that’s just vacant, doing nothing when it comes to human well-being or just securing biodiversity for its own sake.”

Yale Environment 360: Your study, which you did along with Chinese colleagues, assessed China’s protected areas, looking at both biodiversity and ecosystem services. You concluded that overall these areas are weak in both instances.

Gretchen Daily: Many of the protected areas were set up with two major visions in the early days. One was to support iconic species like the giant panda. The other was to establish protected areas in places where few people live and where there’d be little contest for the land.  In pursuing those two ambitions, inadvertently there was a lot of neglect of what we know today to be of high value, both for biodiversity — plants, amphibians, and reptiles were particularly poorly secured in the reserves that are existing today­ — and also in terms of vital ecosystem services.

e360: Using the InVEST mapping software developed by the Natural Capital Project [which Daily co-directs], you evaluated these reserves for their ecosystem services. What were the services that you were particularly concerned with, and I’m assuming those are the services that were priorities for the Chinese government?

‘The highest level of government [is] pushing for a level of investment in nature that’s completely unprecedented.’

Daily: In 1998, there were devastating biblical floods, mainly in the Yangtze River basin, affecting millions of people and causing at least $35 billion in damages. That prompted the government around the year 2000 to launch what is now really intensifying as an effort to secure people and nature together. The government has declared China’s dream of becoming the ecological civilization of the 21st century. It’s just such a historic moment in China, with the highest level of government pushing for a level of investment in nature that’s completely unprecedented.

The work that we’re conducting is one component of trying to realize that dream. They’ve prioritized four major services, plus biodiversity. The four services are water retention or flood control in light of the devastation that happened in 1998; soil retention; sandstorm prevention; and carbon sequestration. It turns out that for priority services, the areas that are most important actually are not captured in the nature reserves that exist today.

e360: In terms of biodiversity as a national priority for the Chinese leadership, what is your understanding regarding how they weigh biodiversity as a priority versus how they weigh these important ecosystem services?

Daily: They’re weighted equally. We did a paper that came out in Science last summer. It reports on China’s first ecosystem assessment using the InVEST software to look at change and trends in systems from 2000 to 2010. What they found was really striking. All of the priority services improved over that time period. It’s a key question for them because after that 1998 flooding, they embarked on by far the biggest payment–for-ecosystem-services scheme in the world.

Alarmingly, though not surprisingly, biodiversity declined during that 10-year period. You can easily imagine why. One of the big investments is to pay people not to farm with annual crops like rice or wheat on steeply sloping land and instead reforest. But it would take quite awhile for those trees to get established and for biodiversity of the region to come back. They’re worried that they might not ever see a payoff, and that is what motivated this investment now in a much stronger representation of biodiversity in a new formalized national parks system.

e360: In that regard, you and your co-authors have made some recommendations. There are two categories of protected areas that you have proposed. Let’s talk about the nature reserve recommendations that you and colleagues have put forth.

Daily: We’re recommending a great expansion of nature reserves to encompass all of the major groups of biodiversity that we studied, which includes plants and the four vertebra groups — mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. That involves many new reserves being established, especially in the southeast of China where there’s presently poor representation of protected areas or nature reserves.

e360: You’ve also recommended what you describe as a new category of protected area, which would focus on those important ecosystem services. In these areas, human activity would be allowed so long as it doesn’t impede the services. What do you see as the advantages of this category?

‘Aligning the activities of over a billion people around conservation might prove to be a challenge, even with the best of leadership we can hope for.’

Daily: There’s heavy competition for land anywhere you go in China. I’ve worked for about 25 years in Latin America — places that are pretty densely populated. I’ve brought some Chinese students to these places, where mostly I’m working out in farmland and there are just bits of native tropical forest left. The Chinese students are always saying, “Wow, there’s just so much unused land here.” And to me and the Costa Ricans with whom we work, it looks like every square centimeter is being used. In China, anywhere you go you’re going to be affecting people and their livelihoods, so there needs to be a lot of sensitivity and defining where you could actually put a nature reserve.

We envision very different impacts on, and opportunities for, livelihoods under the two categories. When it comes to the biodiversity category, we’re envisioning places where you could have some high-quality ecotourism consistent with securing rare and threatened parts of China’s amazing biota. Those people [living nearby], their livelihoods will likely be shifted more into either restoring the landscape, or helping to bring tourism in. There are some example parks that have worked out really nicely that way. One of them is Jiuzhaigou National Park.

With the second category, the idea is that generally there are going to be more people on the land that supply a lot of ecosystem services and that might be key to securing those services. Like in a sandstorm control area, those people are going to be grazing animals. Now they’ll be asked to graze fewer animals or to graze them in restricted areas and let other parts of the landscape recover. We identified the areas that would give the highest return-for-ecosystem-service provision, and we weigh those services by the number of people who benefit. It’s being planned out with a lot of attention to poverty alleviation and securing livelihoods. Those are dual goals that go together with securing the environment. They’re never separated in China and you can never think about protecting nature without thinking about how you would harmonize nature with people.

e360: When you think about 5, 10, 20 years into the future in terms of China’s protected areas, what worries you the most?

Daily: I worry that aligning the activities of over a billion people in our globalized world around conservation might prove to be a challenge, even with the best of leadership we can hope for. No set of people has ever managed what China is trying to do, and what a growing number of people around the world are trying to do.

No one’s figured out how to do it. So how do you align the interests and the expression of those interests and protect our life-support systems? It’s the greatest challenge that we’ve ever faced.

e360: It sounds like there are trade-offs that will be made. Could you speak about the reality of these trade-offs as you see them in China?

Daily: Basically, it’s everywhere in the world, but you see this very acutely in China — it’s kind of become a zero-sum game. There is no land that’s just vacant, doing nothing when it comes to human well-being or just securing biodiversity for its own sake.

All across China there are more than 1,000 counties. Each county will engage in the process because when it comes time to implement these national priorities, and to invest the central government funding into all these regions across China, there has to be good agreement with local people or it’s likely that you’re not going to achieve your goals.

‘Where biodiversity is most in trouble, it’s in trouble because of direct conflict with human activity.’

e360: A few years back in an interview, you said, regarding this tug between evaluating an area for its biodiversity versus ecosystem services, “I think it’s going to be a long haul for biodiversity for its own sake. For me, ecosystem services is a strategy to buy time as well as getting buy-in.” Is that the way you still think of the ecosystem services approach?

Daily: I would stand by that quote today. Thinking about the places around the world where biodiversity is most in trouble, it’s in trouble because of direct conflict with human activity. We could think about it in two ways. One is that the local people, often quite impoverished, are trying to make it to the next day. The other is in the context of the increasingly global and economic system in which everybody is caught up. The distance between places of production and places of consumption… it’s ever-growing in our ever-globalizing world. That makes it very hard for consumers or even the responsible corporations trying to “green” their supply chains to remove deforestation and threatened and endangered species from their supply chains. There are a lot of inspiring efforts underway to achieve those objectives, but I think it will be a long haul for biodiversity.

What makes me optimistic in the case of China is that, number one, there’s high-level leadership driving this utterly essential, vital dream of harmonizing people and nature. We need that leadership globally. Number two, in China there’s tremendous financial capacity to start investing in “greening” the whole economy, even though the country still has a huge population of deeply impoverished people. What they’re aiming for now is a green financial system, pursuing green growth where on the one hand you have improvements in livelihoods, in health, in food security, in water and other aspects of environmental security and certainly in economic security. Improving all that at the same time as securing the natural capital — the lands, waters, and their biodiversity that underpin so much of that human well-being.

Third, they’ve got capacity from the point of view of a science. The leadership in China involves many, many people with science and engineering backgrounds, so there isn’t so much questioning about what’s important. They will go to experts and accept what the consensus is of that expert academic community, unlike in our country. And they appreciate working with a diversity of nationalities. So it’s really rewarding being in these international teams. We’re not censored in any way. What is put forth is generally just accepted, and in fact this paper and the others we’ve put out together, they’re summarized for the leadership, including at the level of the president and premier.

Overall, I’m really optimistic seeing China take the lead, but we can see in our own country what a battle it’s going to be for any aspect of the environment, let alone biodiversity.

e360: You mentioned China’s aim of greening its economy despite a significant population of impoverished people. So what pitfalls do you see ahead in terms of how the needs of China’s poor might impede that green economy effort?

Daily: A good example is in the case of air pollution. Everyone knows what’s needed to address the serious air quality issues, but the transformation involves the lives of millions of people working in factories that are emitting dangerous pollutants at very high levels. And it’s just not going to happen overnight. That’s one area where the need to make the energy transition to a low-carbon economy needs to be done in concert with securing livelihood. There’s no way you could really address one without the other. So you can call that an impediment. It certainly is a complication.