In the Sanjiang Plain, People’s Republic of China, ADB has helped to restore thousands of hectares of wetlands while protecting and improving the livelihoods of farmers.
Li Yuanwen was anxious and unhappy when local government authorities told him to quit farming a piece of land in the Zhenbaodao reserve in Heilongjiang Province in the northeast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
For 12 years, he had been earning $3,300 to $6,500 a year growing corn, soybean, and rice on a 20-hectare plot he had developed on vacant land, even though it was in one of 24 officially designated nature reserves on the vast alluvial Sanjiang floodplain.
The Sanjiang Plain wetland ecosystem was itself in danger of dying. Deforestation and the draining and dike and channel building by farmers had destroyed 4.32 million hectares of natural marshes and water meadows.
He had done nothing more than other encroaching farmers, fishermen, herders, and gatherers had done over the preceding 50 years to sustain themselves. The Sanjiang Plain was not only home to one of the world’s most valuable and diverse ecosystems, it was also an important food basket for the PRC.
Yet many rare plants and animal species had disappeared, and the ecosystem had reached a tipping point. Yuanwen feared that a concerted new drive to save and restore the Zhenbaodao reserve would cost him and his family their livelihood.
Preserving the Sanjiang Plain Wetlands
His fears proved to be unfounded. Yuanwen now works as a salaried custodian of a new ecotourism area in the Zhenbaodao reserve where visitors come to fish, boat, hike, camp, and watch birds. His income, further increased by ecofriendly beekeeping and the sale of honey and mushrooms to tourists, is far greater than in his best years of farming.
Before the ADB-supported Sanjiang Plain Wetlands Protection Project was approved in 2005, 80% of the wetlands and surrounding wetland forests here had disappeared. Flocks of once plentiful ducks and geese had thinned. The Sanjiang Plain wetland ecosystem was itself in danger of dying. Deforestation and the draining and dike and channel building by farmers had destroyed 4.32 million hectares of natural marshes and water meadows.
Financed by $15 million in ADB loans, $12.14 million in grants from the Global Environment Facility, and funding from provincial and local governments, the project has reversed the damage. It restored thousands of hectares in six nature reserves to their natural state, and ensured that the standard of living of those directly affected by farmland reclamation would be sustained and often improved - frequently in new eco-smart ways.
Environmentally friendly practices
The project focused on pilot initiatives in the six nature reserves to work out best practices and pass this knowledge on to others, concentrating on alternative ecoagriculture that greatly reduced the farming areas in the nature reserves without reducing farmers’ income. For example, greenhouses were built in the Qixinghe reserve and leased to farmers who can now earn up to 40 times more than they would from traditional farming.
Zhiang Liang had been growing corn on 10 hectares of altered nature reserve for 6 years when his plot was incorporated into the project restoration. He now produces tomatoes in three greenhouses that occupy no more than 1,050 square meters of space - less than 1% of what he cultivated before - but his income has risen from $4,410 to $6,860 a year.
ADB was involved throughout the implementation period, providing equipment, vehicles, computers, and cameras to protect the wetlands from illegal farming, hunting, fishing, and fire. “These definitely helped us develop our skills in wetland management, conduct scientific research, and monitor birds,” says Zhang Fulin, director of the protection division of the Zhenbaodao reserve.
Broad support for the project
In addition to providing a model and best practices for replication, the project undertook impressive restoration work. It reconverted 3,441 hectares of farmland into wetlands; established 10,090 hectares of new forestry plantations in the six nature reserves; and set in motion the proper treatment, care, and maintenance of another 39,769 hectares of existing young trees. At the same time, awareness campaigns helped generate community support, and wetland protection became a part of the curriculum in many schools.
“I’m convinced that what we’re finding out in wetland management and the work we’re doing on the habitats of rare migratory birds is important not just for the Sanjiang Plain and the PRC but for the whole world.”
Official monitoring of birds in the six nature reserves has shown an increase in their numbers from 510,559 in 2008 to 683,612 in 2011. In the Qixinghe reserve, scientist Cui Shoubin, who has been tracking the egret population, has seen it rise from 600 in 2011 to more than 1,000 in 2014.
Shoubin is delighted that the nature reserves are being visited by more tourists and scientists. “I’m convinced that what we’re finding out in wetland management and the work we’re doing on the habitats of rare migratory birds is important not just for the Sanjiang Plain and the PRC but for the whole world.”
This article was originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.