- Efforts to advance biodiversity conservation in China is generally not well understood in the West. But with China set to host the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) this October, China’s conservation initiatives are likely to receive more attention.
- One of the most established NGOs in China’s conservation sector is the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), which was founded in 1985 and now operates several programs ranging from public interest litigation to community conservation areas to environmental education.
- As secretary general of CBCGDF, Jinfeng Zhou has played a central role in CBCGDF’s work around the CBD and beyond. Zhou says that China has been doing “an impressive amount of work” on conservation domestically in recent years.
- In an interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Zhou talks about shifting mindsets in China, the impact of the pandemic on efforts to combat the wildlife trade, and Western misconceptions about China’s relationship with nature and the environment.
Efforts to advance biodiversity conservation in China is generally not well understood in the West. But with China set to host the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) this October, China’s conservation initiatives — including those run by Chinese NGOs — are likely to receive more attention.
One of the most established NGOs in China’s conservation sector is the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), which was founded in 1985 and now operates several programs ranging from public interest litigation to community conservation areas to environmental education. In the run-up to the CBD meeting — which has been extended by nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — CBCGDF has been working to elevate the profile of biodiversity conservation across Chinese society as well as participating in the CBD process.
As secretary general of CBCGDF, Jinfeng Zhou has played a central role in CBCGDF’s work around the CBD and beyond. Zhou says that China has been doing “an impressive amount of work” on conservation domestically in recent years and that biodiversity once earned mention in the five-year plan released last month.
“The new plan continues to put emphasis on the importance of biodiversity, which covers many aspects of biodiversity conservation,” Zhou told Mongabay, alluding to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s history of remarks on the importance of environmental protection, including the “Two Mountains Theory”, which effectively holds that the environment cannot be sacrificed for the sake of economic growth.
But Zhou also concedes there is “still a lot of room for improvement” when it comes to the Chinese government’s relationship with the nature and the environment.
“It still uses the mindset of industrial civilization like entity output, economic development, and market share to define ‘development,'” Zhou told Mongabay.
Zhou says that one area where the Chinese government has become more proactive is on wildlife consumption. The pandemic may be playing a role in this.
“The main impact of the pandemic is to let everyone understand the risks and consequences of eating wild animals,” he said. “The prohibition on the consumption of wild animals and removing pangolins from the pharmacopeia are all initiatives that we had difficulty advancing before but became relatively smooth after the epidemic.”
Zhou discussed these issues and more in a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JINFENG ZHOU
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in biodiversity?
Jinfeng Zhou: “The Limits of Growth,” published in 1972 by Professor Jørgen Randers, influenced my generation’s views on the future development of the world. I am not the exception.
Another great role model is Dr Jane Goodall, she’s my idol and her spirit encouraged me tremendously.
Mongabay: How did your career path unfold?
Jinfeng Zhou: After becoming the Secretary-General of CBCGDF in 2014, I did a lot of research. Shocked at the current crisis facing the world, I understood the current lack of public awareness and realized the mission of the Foundation wasn’t aligned with what needed to be done. The foundation was established more than three decades ago, yet it didn’t reach the general public, which made me questioned the way it used to work. In 2015, a government-issued report showed that the only indicator China was failing to meet was the MDG’s Target 7B to reduce biodiversity loss.
All this told us that we needed to mainstream biodiversity conservation in public management, policies, laws, and so on.
Mongabay: What is the emphasis of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation’s work on biodiversity conservation? What are your key programs?
Jinfeng Zhou: Our focus is to call for public participation. Typical projects include Green Meeting Index, Wildlife-Free E-commerce Initiative, Community Conservation Areas (CCAfa), environmental public interest litigation, policy advisory, tradition- and faith-based conservation, and so on.
Mongabay: What is CBCGDF’s involvement with the CBD process?
Jinfeng Zhou: Our representatives witnessed the signing of the CBD (as a scientific advisor) in 1992, participated in the COP13/14 Conference of the Parties many times over the past few years, and are now actively participating in CBD COP15. For the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, we submitted opinions for the draft. For the first time, I proposed to make ecological civilization the main body of the conference and I am thrilled to see the opinions adopted.
Similarly, we also sent people to participate in the consultation process (SBSTTA – the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice) and so on. Our media platform, the CBCGDF-Media, is always the first CBD-related information available for Chinese readers. For example, on March 19, the CBCGDF-Media became the first Chinese press outlet to release CBD’s announcement of the new dates of the upcoming COP15 news, which caught media’s attention and was picked up by a dozen Chinese newspapers and news agencies shortly after.
Mongabay: What do you hope comes out of CBD?
Jinfeng Zhou: “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” means the internationalization of Ecological Civilization. I believe a comprehensive and ambitious “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” will be formed on the Biodiversity Conference in Kunming.
The top priority is to establish a global cooperation mechanism to reverse the declining trend for global biodiversity. CBCGDF will try its best to organize relevant side events and communicate and promote accordingly as a non-governmental organization.
In Kunming, we will apply to host side events; and we’re currently working with Pu Er’s local government on the possibility of a parallel event. In addition, we have supported local ethnic tribes to establish a CCAfa, the Community Black Crested Gibbon in Wuliang Mountain. Given the opportunity, we’d like to show the world the important contributions local communities can make toward biodiversity conservation.
Mongabay: In the West, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have increased public awareness of the links between healthy ecosystems and healthy people. For example, the concept of “One Health” is now much more widely recognized than before the pandemic. Has the pandemic affected awareness of biodiversity and environmental issues among the Chinese public and government?
Jinfeng Zhou: The main impact of the pandemic is to let everyone understand the risks and consequences of eating wild animals. The prohibition on the consumption of wild animals and removing pangolins from the pharmacopeia are all initiatives that we had difficulty advancing before but became relatively smooth after the epidemic.
However, there are still very few people who understand the underlying mechanism, the relationship between biodiversity loss and the spread of zoonotic diseases, the impact of the destruction of nature on animal habitats and humans, and how we can avoid similar outbreaks. CBCGDF has held several seminars on animal welfare and zoonotic diseases and popular science lectures, trying its best to wake up more people and prevent the next wave of epidemics.
Mongabay: What do you think are the most effective ways in China to address unsustainable practices within the wildlife trade?
Jinfeng Zhou: We believe that the most fundamental thing is to start at both the production side and the consumer side. Help the public understand the direct impact of biodiversity loss on them so that they are willing to choose products that are more environmentally-friendly. This could lead to them not involved wildlife trade. The government has established a good mechanism: The label must clearly show the products that contain wild animal parts and materials.
We are also calling on the government to include biodiversity protection in the policy leadership position to solve the wildlife trade problems fundamentally. As for enterprises, corporate social responsibilities need to be clarified and enforced somehow.
Mongabay: China’s overseas investment programs and Chinese companies are having significant impacts in some of the world’s most biodiverse countries. Is this of much concern to officials? And are you aware of efforts to address the issue? And does the Chinese government watch what other governments are doing, like European governments proposing accountability rules for commodity sourcing (e.g. zero deforestation), on this front?
Our government has done an impressive amount of work concerning biodiversity conservation, yet there is still a lot of room for improvement. It still uses the mindset of industrial civilization like entity output, economic development, and market share to define “development.”
The CBCGDF has worked with Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) on an initiative called “Ecological Belts and Roads (EBRs) in October 2016, which was earlier than the current Green Belt and Road concept. We have also been promoting similar assessment projects. When we went to Nairobi to participate in the conference, we also discussed similar issues with many local social organizations and companies. The same goes for Ukraine, Malaysia, and other places. This shows that such problems always exist no matter when and where, and we need to expose and discuss the problem, then solve it.
Mongabay: A large Chinese fishing fleet off the Galapagos Islands last year attracted a lot of attention due to concerns of potential illegal fishing in a biodiversity hotspot. In October 2020, satellite data showed that some of the ships were turning off their AIS beacons and entering Ecuadorian territorial waters, presumably to fish. Are issues like this of concern to the Chinese government or is it a case that because they are private vessels, it’s not something to worry about? And in either case, do you see a solution to issues like this where private companies are plundering public resources outside the traditional jurisdiction of governments?
Jinfeng Zhou: We must pay more attention to these issues. We are working on proposing amendments to China environment law and filing environment public interest litigation（EPIL）to tackle this kind of wrong doing. We also try to participate international platforms to solve the problems.
Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest misunderstanding or misperception in the West about China with regard to conservation or environmental issues?
Jinfeng Zhou: The West always believes that China will develop its economy at the cost of the environment without thought. After the promotion and implementation of ecological civilization, China has long realized the importance of Two Mountains’ Theory. [Editor’s note: The “Two Mountains Theory” was put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017. He said “Economic growth is a political achievement, and environmental protection is also a political achievement”, signaling that as a world power, China is also prioritizing environmental protection.]
It is also believed that the Chinese have a “tradition” of eating wildlife. Not at all. With the reform and opening up, a large number of animal products flooded the market. Merchants’ pursuit of profit and unregulated market management has led to such a phenomenon. Here in China, there are many people are dedicated to conservation of biodiversity.
Mongabay: China just released its 14th five-year plan. Are there any direct implications for biodiversity conservation in the plan?
Jinfeng Zhou: The “Implementation Plan for Major Projects of Biodiversity Conservation (2015-2020)” has reached its end. The new plan continues to put emphasis on the importance of biodiversity, which covers many aspects of biodiversity conservation.
（37.提升生态系统质量和稳定性。坚持山水林田湖草系统治理，构建以国家公园为主体的自然保护地体系。实施生物多样性保护重大工程。 加强外来物种管控。强化河湖长制，加强大江大河和重要湖泊湿地生态保护治理，实施好长江十年禁渔。科学推行荒漠化、石漠化、水土流失 综合治理，开展大规模国土绿化行动，推行林长制。推行草原森林河流湖泊休养生息，加强黑土地保护，健全耕地休耕轮作制度。加强全球气候变暖对我国承受力脆弱地区影响的观测，完善自然保护地、生态保护监管制度，开展生态系统保护成效监测评估。
The translation goes like this:
- Improve the quality and stability of the ecosystem. Persist in the management of landscapes, forests, fields, lakes and grasses, and build a system of nature reserves with national parks as the main body. Implement major projects for biodiversity conservation. Strengthen the control of alien species. Strengthen the long system of rivers and lakes, strengthen the ecological protection and management of major rivers and important lakes and wetlands, and implement a ten-year ban on fishing in the Yangtze River. Scientifically promote the comprehensive management of desertification, rocky desertification, and soil erosion, carry out large-scale land greening operations, and implement the forest head system. Promote the recuperation of grasslands, forests, rivers, and lakes, strengthen the protection of black soil, and improve the cropland fallow rotation system. Strengthen the observation of the impact of global climate warming on my country’s vulnerable regions, improve the regulatory system for nature reserves and ecological protection, and carry out monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of ecosystem protection.）
I have proposed in a seminar that the standard should stress the legislation of the biodiversity law, eco-education and Eco-city planning, but the plan didn’t mention the points above. So there are still improvements to be made, and CBCGDF will try our best to get the points across.
Mongabay: What would you say to a young person worried about the future of the planet?
Jinfeng Zhou: Start from the everyday details. One more book recycled, one less paper wasted and one less pair of chopsticks used, may mean one more person motivated by you. Start from oneself and others will follow.