A paradise (but no jobs)

The birds and the fish are happy; the locals of Poyang less so

A paradise (but no jobs)

A habitat for a half million birds

The consequences of failing to protect the environment are widely apparent in China. The results are usually worrying.

But the county of Poyang is something of a paradox.

In Poyang’s case, environmental protection is working. But it has had negatives consequences too – if you are a local, that is.

Poyang’s experience is a good example of the trade-offs that the country faces in its struggle to balance ecological protection with economic development.

In Poyang, ecology has prevailed, and the loser – in economic terms – is the local community.

Locals have seen their standard of living stagnate. In fact things are so bad that the population rate is declining rapidly; of the 1.5 million who are ‘supposed’ to be residents, almost 500,000 live and work elsewhere. At least 30,000 Poyangers work in Hangzhou’s construction industry for salaries of less than Rmb3,000 ($438) per month.

As China Business points out: “Poyang is a labour-exporting county, and the majority of those being exported are former fishermen.”

Poyang County borders Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China. The lake is a habitat for half a million migratory birds. It is also home to 500 finless porpoises, a species that ecologists fear will soon become extinct.

But it is the fish, or the lack of them, that is the main problem.

“Over the years the fishery resources of Poyang Lake have become more and more scarce,” says a local official. “The fishermen sometimes come home without a catch.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, the fishermen are also restricted in when they can fish – to protect stocks. This has proven fatal to local incomes.

An official from the Jiangxi Fisheries Bureau told China Business that fishermen are banned from casting their nets between March and June each year. They can fish between July and September, but this is the wet season and as he readily admits, it is “not the best fishing season”.

The annual household income of local fishermen has fallen to Rmb5,400. Indeed, their lot is hard: they get only Rmb200 per month (in subsidy) for the periods when their boats are banned from the waters. Local statisticians calculate – when fishermen’s dependents are factored in – that the area’s annual net income per person is only Rmb1,080 ($158).

That is just a third of what farming families make in Jiangxi (the local province). It’s a telling number when you consider that farmers are normally thought to be among the nation’s poorest folk.

Little wonder then that fewer locals want to become fishermen, and are leaving town to work elsewhere.

But the area is not just blighted by the fishing ban. Its status as an Eco-Economic Zone has discouraged industry from sprouting in the area. The area’s investment promotion unit has blocked proposed investments in over 50 enterprises, turning down tens of billions of yuan of investment in the community.

“The reason was that those industries’ high energy consumption and high pollution could not be accepted,” a local official reports.

Existing businesses also face tougher regulations than most. For example, the local garment factory isn’t allowed to bleach or dye, due to the resulting pollutants. Further hampering local growth is non-existent infrastructure. There isn’t even a railway line.

A local official explains the trade-off in logical terms: “Poyang’s ecology benefits because its industry lags behind.”

The lake is no stranger to conflicts, mind you. It was the site of (reputedly) the biggest naval battle in history, in which two armadas carrying an estimated 850,000 men clashed in 1363.

The battle today is between people and ecology. And if you are a local resident it may look like the environment is the clear winner.

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