It was a fateful day for the research of China's karst topography.
About one hour south of Guiyang, capital of southwest China's Guizhou Province, a northbound vehicle flipped over, flew over the divider and crashed into an incoming car.
Four of the five passengers in the southbound car were killed. Among them were Song Linhua, a distinguished geographer from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Yang Mingde, the province's top expert on karst topography.
It was around 10 am, August 13, 2004.
"I tried to talk him out of going," recalled Fu Yuliang, a friend of Song's. "I didn't have any premonitions. But I thought the weather was too hot for travel. But he could hardly wait when he was told of the discovery of a wetland on a karst plateau. He had to see it for himself."
Song and Yang had been surveying the karst terrain in Libo, a southern Guizhou county, for several years. The abundance of species of flora and fauna found there constantly amazed them.
A karst is a landform that is quite common in China, accounting for 13 per cent of the country's land surface. What makes Libo unique is the ecosystem. While most karsts are deforested, Libo has a nature reserve with 20,000 hectares of lush vegetation, making it "the emerald around the Earth's belt," in the words of scientists who studied the landscape.
As a matter of fact, experts such as Song and Yang were preparing a proposal to have the place added to the list of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.
Needless to say, the fatal traffic accident dealt a heavy blow to the application process.
But it bounced back. Later that year, the Ministry of Construction started surveying multiple karst sites for qualification as a nominee. And in a September symposium in Yunnan Province, several scientists, including some top international ones, suggested that karst sites across the provinces apply "as a bundle."
Named South China Karsts, the components of the nominee were whittled down to only three places: Libo in Guizhou, known for its trowel-shaped karst peaks, Shilin (Stone Forest) in Yunnan, for its sword-shaped karsts, and Wulong in Chongqing, for its combination of surface and underground karst landforms.
"We measure a nominated site against several yardsticks," explained Xiong Kangning, a professor at Guizhou Normal University. "The topography in all three places demonstrates the evolution of the Earth as sulphuric water dissolves the landscape across hundreds of millions of years."
Besides the landscape itself, the ecosystem, the sites as habitat for endangered species and the aesthetic appeal all contribute to the value of the nominated locations.
This autumn, South China Karsts will be appraised by a team of experts from the World Heritage Committee and, if approved, will be submitted next year for a vote to be added to the prestigious list.
UNESCO's World Heritage List was created in 1972 and includes 830 "properties" around the world. (Only 162 of them are purely "natural" ones; the rest are either cultural or mixed.) Each country may submit two nominations a year, one of which has to be a natural site. China's panda sanctuary, an area of 951,000 hectares in Sichuan, and the Yin Ruins in Henan, an ancient capital city of the late Shang Dynasty (1300 to 1046 BC) are the latest additions.
Conservation is top priority
As coveted as the UN title is, it is not a road paved with flowers for Libo, a county of only 168,000 people, 87 per cent of whom are ethnic minorities.
"World Heritage is not an endorsement to develop tourism," said Fu Yuliang, who failed to persuade his friend Song Linhua not to travel two years ago. "If anything, it is a mandate to protect the site from human intervention."
Fu, who heads the office of World Heritage Application and Management in Guizhou Province, knows the place like "the back of my hand." At the age of 16, he was sent to Libo. He stayed for a dozen years, working on the farm, and also as a bricklayer, carpenter and railroad worker.
The work was backbreaking, but he recalled fondly that whenever he had time to relax, he would play his flute on a hillside slope and relish the scenery around him.
"I've literally climbed every mountain in this county," he said. "I feel a bond with it and its people. I could not tear myself from it when opportunities surfaced in the late 1970s."
That gave him an acute understanding of the sacrifices local people make to be on the UN list.
In 1992, Huangguoshu, another place in Guizhou, known for the biggest waterfall in China, applied. But UN investigators suggested removing half a street of shops and residences that marred the integrity of the scenery.
"That would have cost 2-3 million yuan (US$240,000-360,000). But we were too poor. So, we had to give up the application. Now, the same project would cost 800 million (US$100 million)," Fu said.
By comparison, Libo has already invested 70 million yuan (US$8.8 million) to clean up and restore it to its natural state. And it will take twice that amount if the application goes through.
Early this year, four hydroelectric power stations were demolished as well as three hotels, one school and several residential buildings. Hundreds of people were displaced. "But we guaranteed every one of them another job," said Wang Zhenjin, county Party secretary.
Also, about 200 people have been relocated from inside the "core" protected area.
"It is extremely hard for a financially strained county like ours," Wang said. "But we have decided that preservation of our natural environment is the most important thing. And we have the support of all our people."
Currently, 70 per cent of the county's revenue comes from coal mining, "which damages the environment and depletes natural resources. When we get on the UN list, we will have more incentive to shift away from mining and towards protection," Wang said.
The balance between protection and tourism is precarious. Money from tourism will relieve much of the poverty of the county, but if not managed properly, tourism may also cause long-term damage to the ecosystem.
Wang Zhenjin and other county officials say they are aware of the problem. "The purpose of having controlled tourism is to better preserve," a village chief said. "If our people realize that outsiders want to appreciate what we have, we have more incentive to protect the trees and not use them for fuel."
Libo's policy is to bar anyone, except authorized scientists on field trips, from entering the "core" area of 29,518 hectares and open only a few small pockets of the buffer zone of 43,498 hectares, including the breathtakingly beautiful Seven-Arch Bridge attractions, for eco-tourism.
Benefit the locals
The aspiration for the UN title has also improved relations between the local people and government officials.
"Locals used to resent officials who imposed penalties on them for things such as cutting down trees, but nowadays they have realized that it is in their best interests to preserve the environment," said Ran Jingchen, a scientist.
Ran was sent to an ethnic Bouyei village in the mountains when he graduated from college in 1989. The longer he stayed, the more he loved the land and its people.
Now, as director of the Maolan Nature Reserve, which encompasses the village where he used to live, he understands that preservation depends not only on policy-making, but also on the participation of the locals. And for that to happen, the benefits have to reach local people.
"Out of more than 200 square kilometers of protected area, only 19 will be used for tourism," Ran said. "It is not for profit maximization, but for educational purposes. We have to let local people share the benefits."
Some felt Ran was going beyond his job as a conservationist when he got into poverty relief, but to him the two are interrelated. "The locals have a big impact on the environment," he said. "We have to change their behavior to reduce their reliance on it."
Ran and his team taught villagers how to raise poultry to keep them from hunting for wild animals, some of which are endangered species. They also helped locals utilize methane so that wood harvesting could be halted.
"We set the parameters, leaving the detailed decisions to villagers. They determine what crops to grow and what animals to raise," Ran said. What is more amazing, the team helped install a democratic process to give every villager a say in the decision.
When his bureau received a 100,000-yuan (US$12,500) award from the Ford Foundation for achievement in environmental protection, they gave every cent to the villagers.
"Our motto is: You take care of the forest, and we'll help you," Ran said.
"Local people are very simple and kind-hearted. If you treat them with sincerity, they'll repay with kindness."
However, both the UN title and tourism are double-edged swords. Getting on the World Heritage List will dramatically increase exposure, but the UN committee imposes restrictions on development and may threaten revocation if the place is swamped with tourists, as has been the case with Zhangjiajie in China and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Tourism will bring in money, which can be spent on protection, but it also poses a threat to the fragile ecosystem.
"This place, out of all the karst territories along this subtropical latitude, has been so well preserved exactly because it has been so 'backward,'" said one expert.
"It's ironic, but it's true. Now we have the daunting task of bringing a higher quality of life to the local people while maintaining what we have in the ecosystem, or in some cases, restoring it to its former splendor."
"This is a historic opportunity for us," said Wang Zhenjin, the Libo official.
"The application process itself is to learn how better to protect. As a World Heritage site, we will come under the monitoring of UNESCO and will have more resources for protection. Our goal is to pass on to future generations what Mother Nature has so miraculously created for us and to maintain the harmony between man and nature and, above all, to become a showcase for the whole province in the area of the preservation of our ecosystem."
(China Daily August 2, 2006)