Villagers near the Yancheng Rare Bird National Nature Reserve in the People’s Republic of China reduce pesticide use for the benefit of ecosystems and livelihoods.

Yancheng is proud of its red-crowned cranes. This endangered bird species is the star attraction of a wetland reserve that occupies much of the seacoast of this municipality in Jiangsu Province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Along this coast lies the Yancheng Rare Birds National Nature Reserve, which is the winter home of 60% of the world’s remaining 2,500 red-crowned cranes. Established in 1983, the reserve received national nature reserve status in 1992 and was accredited in 2002 as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

A threat to farmers’ livelihood

Unfortunately, in cultivated fields in and near the bird reserve, red-crowned cranes damage crops, including cotton. Farmers complain that the cranes damage the fibers when they rip open the bolls to reach the cotton seeds that the fibers surround. Farmers also plant wheat, some using pesticide-coated seed for the winter crop in late October and early November, just as the endangered birds arrive to spend the winter.

“Village leaders often ask us not to use pesticides,” says Wang Songqing, a smallholder in the village of Xingnong. “We should be friendly neighbors to the nature reserve. We protect birds, but we need enough compensation.”   Wang shares that he can get high production - about 2000 kilograms of wheat - if he uses pesticide, but only 1400 kilograms without using pesticide.

Xingnong is one of two villages that participated in a 2012-2013 pilot study supported by the ADB’s Poverty and Environment Fund. The Developing an Eco-compensation Framework for the Jiangsu-Yancheng Coastal Wetlands study explored different options for protecting this internationally significant coastal wetlands.

Collaborative partnerships

With pesticide reduction the recommended entry point, the study explores options for building collaborative partnerships with farmers, including through eco-compensation. Eco-compensation is a package of different mechanisms, including monetary subsidies, project support, and favorable policies, that governments can use to compensate farmers and other groups that suffer economic losses as part of efforts to conserve ecosystems.

“ADB is working closely with the government on eco-compensation in various efforts to develop the concept into an effective tool for sustainable ecosystem management,” comments ADB’s Yue-Lang Feng, the director of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Division of ADB’s East Asia Department. “In this regard, the assistance from the Poverty and Environment Fund has no doubt played a catalytic role.”

The recommendations from the study will be pilot-tested under the much larger Jiangsu–Yancheng Wetlands Protection Project, approved in 2012, through which ADB, the PRC government, and the Global Environment Facility aim to establish integrated wetlands management in the province. The $76 million price tag on the project reflects the size and significance of Jiangsu’s 4 million hectares of wetlands.

Through this loan project, ADB is now helping the nature reserves and provincial and municipal governments to develop approaches for better engagement and collaboration with local communities. To help accomplish this, the Poverty and Environment Fund-supported study recommends piloting interventions in the two surveyed villages, Xingnong and Xiaba. The study stresses that these pilots should adopt specific adaptive co-management strategies and recommends that eco-compensation payments to farmers should be accompanied by training in proper pesticide use. In addition to protecting birds, reducing pesticides will enable farmers to curtail their pesticide expenditure and reduce health risks, both of which are concerns farmers expressed in surveys.

Ecologically sustainable agriculture

The pilots will also explore other ways to facilitate a shift to low-chemical-input and fully organic agriculture. This will enable eco-labeling and the marketing of regional agricultural products at premium prices, thus helping to ensure the financial sustainability of more ecologically friendly agriculture and its adoption beyond the pilot areas.

Wu Qijiang, the manager of the bird reserve since 2009, reports that the reserve is already experimenting with ecologically sustainable agriculture, under which farmers grow rice on 40 hectares without agricultural chemicals and leave the margins of fields unharvested.

“After harvesting the rice, we let red-crowned cranes feed on the crop remaining in the field. And then we apply green manure after the birds have gone,” Wu explains. “So our rice paddies are more bird friendly.”

Greater engagement and collaboration with local communities to improve conservation outcomes will be especially important as the region continues to develop, since agriculture and aquaculture will remain important sectors for the regional economy. Therefore, approaches to mitigate their impacts on the coastal wetlands ecosystem will be critical for long-term success.

For Wang Songqing, the wheat and cotton farmer in the village of Xingnong, it is a long path of give and take, but one that could lead to long-term success. “We cannot hurt the red-crowned crane. It is a national protected animal. For us, they are like family.”