|Daniela working with our partners
“It used to be all beach; this was all beach. None of these buildings were here. This road, it was only a one lane dirt track. Now, it’s this paved highway,” explains my cab driver as he whisks me to my hotel on a warm night in Haikou, the capital city of China’s Hainan Province (China’s only island province located in the South China Sea). He’s answering my usual string of questions when talking with cabbies: “Are you local?” and “What was it like here when you were growing up?”
In all my travels through China, this is my first trip to Hainan and it feels closer to Southeast Asia than the mainland. I arrived after midnight, and despite the late hour, the night markets were buzzing with vendors selling fresh fruits, bowls of steaming noodles and fried fish. The next morning, in the day light, however, I notice that the city is actually much like the rest of China, with the dust from half-finished construction projects lingering in the humid air.
I’m here as a delegate to the East Asia Seas Congress, a week-long event packed with keynote speakers, workshops, a ministerial forum and expo all pertaining to the protection of the seas of East Asia. All told, there are over 800 participants, hailing from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Singapore, the US, Europe and beyond; experts from ecosystems management, government, civil society, industry, public policy, think-tanks and multilateral organizations.
While much of Pacific Environment’s work in China focuses on capacity building of Chinese NGOs and water pollution, we are also working to promote marine conservation, particularly trade in endangered marine species such as corals, sea turtles and sharks. My goal for attending this congress is to introduce Pacific Environment’s work in China monitoring coral imports and to generate regional attention on the issue. Specifically, I wanted to increase partnerships with stakeholders in the region who are committed to halting trade in endangered corals. I also wanted to meet with Hainan Green Sunshine, an alliance of student groups in Haikou with whom Pacific Environment is planning to partner with in order to monitor coral trade locally.
In December 2005, my colleague Wen Bo, spent two weeks in the field collecting data, visiting markets, and researching websites specializing in selling corals. Wen Bo interviewed local traders and examined bags, newspaper wrappings and boxes in an attempt to identify the source of these corals. Through his investigation, we determined that consumer demand for coral products in China is putting undue stress on coral reefs in the region and endangering the ecosystem, including all other species that rely on the reefs.
The Chinese government has acknowledged the need to protect coral ecosystems and outlawed the sale of endangered coral species. In most coral habitats, coral mining and exploitation are banned. Yet most government regulations are localized and the central government has not prioritized the issue, leading to poor enforcement. Moreover, local monitoring proves to be very challenging, as many people can’t clearly identify which species are endangered. Finally, this is a transboundary issue, with many of the corals coming from the seas off of the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
While the buzz at the congress was how to better manage the East Asian seas as an ecosystem and lifeblood for over 1/3 of humanity, there was very little discussion specifically on the issue of endangered species trade. After three days of attending workshops, scouring the conference materials and making the rounds at the expo, I only found a few people working on endangered species issues at all, let alone wildlife trade. They included a group from Thailand doing monitoring, the International Coral Reef Institute and the World Wildlife Fund’s China Program. Clearly trade in endangered species needs more attention.
While on Hainan, I also had the opportunity to meet with Hainan Green Sunshine, an alliance of student environmental groups in Haikou. My time with the student group was critical for assessing their capacity to take on collecting data and monitoring coral trade locally.
I talked with them in detail about providing support to do monitoring of coral trade locally. While the group itself was excited to work on the issue, they have little previous experience on coral trade or monitoring. To date, they’ve done small-scale projects on sea turtle and mangrove conservation education, recycling programs and ‘green films.’ They are also a student group, where academics are their number one priority, so they will have to develop their plans and collect data in their free time. Like many of our other groups with such limited capacity, their most pressing need is basic infrastructure support, such as a computer and an office space to conduct research and store materials.
As with every experience, I’ve learned another lesson here in Hainan: it’s critical to spend time in the field to understand exactly how to help local organizations protect the environment. I believe there is a need for quality monitoring data as a platform for NGOs to organize an effective campaign against coral trade in China. But to get that data, we need to begin with building the capacity of our local partners like Hainan Green Sunshine.