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4 June 2019 Nature finds poetic justice in Zhejiang courts

Clearing forests for tea plantations is illegal in Zhejiang, China and those caught must now restore the ecosystem.

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Anji white tea is not a cheap beverage. One of the rarer and more sought-after Chinese teas, one kilo of the stuff will sell for hundreds of dollars. Its scarcity derives from both geography and time. The small leaves are only grown in one tiny corner of China and can only be harvested one month each year. Hilly and blanketed in bamboo forest, the tea’s home of Anji county in Zhejiang province provides few places for tea farmers to cultivate the lucrative crop.

With both land and the sale price of the tea at a premium, farmers looking to make a quick yuan have resorted to carving illegal plantations out of the forest. But in a Chinese province where the natural environment is arguably the most pristine in the country and the pride of its residents, the judicial system is taking a stand against those found violating natural spaces.

Last year, the Zhejiang Provincial Court issued 22 “reseed orders”, sentences that force those responsible for illegally logging the land for tea plantations and other purposes to restore the destroyed forest. In one case in May, that meant replanting 565 trees by hand.

In other instances, replanting is not the only restoration needed. If someone pollutes the soil by dumping wastewater, for example, they perpetrator must help remediate the soil and monitor its restoration for a time after.

Those sentenced must also pay for the technical guidance they will require to properly restore the natural environment they destroyed.

The poetic punishment may be working. Only 37 environmental cases came before the court last year, while previously there had been hundreds annually.

Court officials note that illegally destroying natural resources like this is a matter of the greater good. “Public interest litigation is a way to protect public environmental assets, and Anji Court is taking the lead,” said Fangjun Shen, President of Anji County Primary People’s Court.

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The Zhejiang countryside’s verdant hillsides and clean, fresh air are renowned across China. But it wasn’t always so. Decades of mining the mountainsides had left certain parts, in Anji especially, barren and severely polluted. The severe environmental consequences forced a complete shutdown of the mining and factory operations. President Xi Jinping famously came to Anji county in 2005—then as party chief of Zhejiang province—to address the issue.

Xi’s famous guidance then that “green is gold” inspired the government and residents to protect the environment first and develop in harmony with nature. This approach has led to a rebound in Anji’s fortunes. Annual per capita income in Yucun village in the county rose from less than 9,000 yuan in 2005 to almost 45,000 yuan in 2018 due to a booming ecotourism industry built on the unspoiled countryside. The mountain air in Yucun is fresh and clean, and visitors come from far and wide for its claimed restorative properties.

Zhjejiang’s courts are meanwhile experimenting with novel ways of bringing forward environmental cases. Residents can file a case, participate in mediation and settle disputes all on their mobile phone. The physical court itself has dedicated staff to field environmental complaints. And an advisory committee composed of 12 legal professors and environmental engineers help address technical issues that may be beyond the knowledge of the average litigant.

As Zhejiang’s initiatives find success, other provinces in China are looking to follow suit. Zhejiang’s courts are among 11 from the Yangtze Delta region that have recently banded together to share what works. One of their goals is to inform more Chinese of the legal avenues available to them when they see environmental laws being violated.

The Vice President of Zhejiang Provincial High People’s Court, Xinli Zhu, is hopeful that these successes can be replicated outside of China as well. “As a global village, I hope we can enjoy bluer sky, cleaner water and greener mountains,” he says.

UN Environment helps facilitate knowledge exchange programmes between judiciaries around the world to accomplish just this. Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment underlined the importance of sharing successes. “You can have excellent policies, excellent advocacy and citizen awareness, but if the compliance part is missing then the policy just becomes paper. Where we see successes like in Zhejiang’s courts, that’s something that deserves to be shared.”

 

 

Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?

 

The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.

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