Preserving Biodiversity and Restoring Ecosystems

Wildlife Species
Peat lands provide key habitats for endangered wildlife species, such as black-necked cranes, frogs, fish and various plant species. Photo © Yan Lu

At over 3,400 metres above sea level, visitors to the Ruoergai peat lands on the edge of the Tibetan plateau may find that their most striking feature is not their natural beauty, but the thousands of man-made drainage holes that scar the landscape. Used mainly to reduce water levels and make the land more suitable for raising livestock and mining, these holes have damaged more than the scenery, they have put entire ecosystems at risk.

Peat lands play a critically important role in global and local ecosystems and in combating climate change. They sequester five times more carbon dioxide than rainforests, are home to endangered wildlife and act as water reservoirs and natural flood defence systems. In Ruoergai, this means soaking up ice melt from the Himalayas and releasing it steadily into streams that feed into some of Asia’s major rivers – including the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

Highlights

  • "Training programmes on sustainable peat land and grassland management practices have allowed local herding families to reduce the damage that their daily activities cause to the land."

Peat lands in Ruoergai are also an important source of livelihood for the 50,000 people that live on them, and especially for the poor. Serving a largely Tibetan population who practice century-old traditional pastoral lifestyles, they supply a remarkable array of products, including food and medicinal plants, peat – commonly used as a domestic fuel source and for garden soil – and grasses and reeds that are used for making paper and baskets.

With an area of nearly 500,000 hectares, the Ruoergai peat lands is one of China’s largest wetland areas. However, over the past 50 years it has suffered extensive degradation due to overgrazing and the conversion of wetlands to cropland through local government drainage schemes established during the 1960s and 1970s. This has led to the lowering of groundwater tables, reduced water availability in the dry season and the deterioration of pasture quality on adjacent dry lands. In addition, the scarcity of high altitude peat lands around the world has meant that restoring this area is of global significance.

As part of the UNDP’s Sustainable Management of Threatened Mountain Peat Lands project, significant advances were made between 2007 and 2010 in restoring this ecologically precious resource by providing local organizations and people with access to world-class expertise. In partnership with the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the EU–China Biodiversity Programme, this project has provided a platform for communities to come together to agree upon a joint strategy for addressing environmental degradation and improving impoverished livelihoods in an integrated manner.

This project has helped to forge partnerships between local communities and government representatives from four counties in Sichuan and Gansu provinces. As a result, the Ruoergai Conservation Committee has been able to agree on a wetland conservation and sustainable use strategy for the first time. This agreement has been used as the basis for issuing local regulations and offers a continuous institutional framework for the protection of peat lands in China. Guidelines on the restoration of the Ruoergai peat lands and a format for reporting on wetland water levels and peat land conservation have also been developed.

Through various demonstration sites, new conservation strategies have been put into practice. At Gahai Lake in Gansu Province, for example, the construction of a five kilometre stretch of canal has increased the lake’s surface area from 400 to 2000 hectares. The water absorbing function of the peat lands has also been restored through the construction of 87 dams and the rehabilitation of two springs, all of which has contributed to the regeneration of more than 350 hectares of peat land. Thanks to these efforts there has been a marked increase in the number of bird species and other wildlife spotted at the lake.

A series of training programmes on sustainable peat land and grassland management practices also allowed local herding families, dependent on the peat lands for their livelihoods, to reduce the damage that their daily activities cause to the land, by rotating grazing areas, planting grass seeds and utilising animal shelters. Fences were supplied for rotating grazing land, livestock shelters were built to protect yaks and sheep during winter, cofferdams – watertight dams designed to facilitate construction projects in areas which are normally submerged – were constructed and grass planting projects implemented.

Crucially, with young livestock more able to withstand the harsh high-altitude winters and improved grazing providing better food during the summer, these vital resources have contributed to an increase in the number, size and price paid for animals at market. According to estimates, this alone increased annual household income by up to 16%-18% in 2009.

Through this project, a Ruoergai Plateau Wetlands Conservation Committee was established in 2008, bringing together local counties and provinces to resolve issues together. A Memorandum of Understand was also signed, linking four county governments, four nature reserves, two provinces and Wetlands International under the Ruoergai Strategy. This strategy aims to go beyond preserving and maintaining wetland biodiversity and addressed issues relating to public services and social welfare to deal with the entire spectrum of socio-environmental biodiversity conservation.

Project efforts also helped to develop the Ruorgai Marsh Conservation and Sustainable Use Programme and Wetlands Resotration Guidelines, and a commitment was made by local governments to continue to limit grazing in degraded grasslands and work towards the restoration of some 25,000 hectares of peat lands under an estimated 15 million yuan initiative (equivalent to US$2.5 million).

Importantly, this programme has demonstrated that with the direct involvement of local communities, degraded peat lands can be restored and further degradation prevented through simple cost effective measures. The need for governments and communities living on shared ecosystems to have common plans has also been demonstrated by the Ruoergai Conservation Committee, which has proven to be an effective model for strengthening trans-boundary and trans-sector cooperation and is still in operation following completion of this project in 2010.