Rapid growth in China's Hainan province worries residents, environmentalists

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 7:59 PM

WANNING, CHINA - One year ago, China's ruling State Council laid out a plan to transform its southernmost province into an international tourism destination, or "the Hawaii of the East," as Hainan island was dubbed.

The result has been a 12-month frenzy of construction - lavish resorts, seaside villas, spas and a helicopter landing pad, still being built, for well-heeled visitors with no time to waste.

And then there are golf courses - plenty of them. By one local estimate, as many as 300 golf courses are being planned for the tropical island about the size of Belgium. Twenty-six are complete, and 70 others are underway. They include the Mission Hills resort, which will boast 10 courses and 162 holes, spread over more than six square miles.

"Nearly every city and county is engaged in development of a golf course," said Liu Futang, 63, a former chief of Hainan's Forest Fire Prevention Bureau. "No golf course has actually earned money. Few of them have people coming to play."

The dizzying pace of construction has forced thousands of indigenous farmers off their land, driven property prices up tenfold and higher, and has many residents asking the question: How much development is too much?

"Hainan is a real-life example of that film 'Avatar,' " said Liu, who moved here 22 years ago to work in the island province's forestry ministry. "Except in Avatar, they could organize together to fight back." On Hainan, he said, "I don't have much hope - nothing can stop this change."

Exposed to nature's fury

Hainan residents and environmentalists say the rapid development is damaging the island's ecosystem, and they are mostly concerned about the destruction of the coastal forests, which for centuries has served as a natural bulwark against typhoons, tsunamis and soil erosion. They are particularly worried about the mangroves of Australian pine and rare indigenous Vatica mangachapoi, which has been a protected resource since the Qing dynasty.

"They never cut these trees down because they protect the people from typhoons," said Chen Zuming, 63, who grew up in the coastal forests in Shimei village on Hainan's east coast.

Chen, a farmer from the indigenous ethnic Li minority, recalls how these mangrove forests also played a role in China's recent history, providing a redoubt for the guerrillas battling the Japanese occupation during World War II and later for the Communist forces battling the Chinese Nationalists.

Now, huge tracts of the mangroves have been chopped down, to make way for seaside hotels and apartments and the paved highways to connect them. Three thousand villagers, including Chen, have been told that they have to relocate to a town more than 18 miles away, giving up their homes, their farmland, even the burial grounds of their ancestors. As farmers and fishermen, they worry that they won't be able to make a living in the town.

Chen becomes animated, and visibly emotional, when talking about the trees he has been working to protect since 1970. "I grew up on this land, and my father, and my grandfather," he said. "They are destroying the area and turning it into roads."

The Beijing office of the environmental group Greenpeace has warned of an increase in natural calamities because of the destruction of the mangrove forests. Of Hainan's 950 miles of coastline, Greenpeace forest campaigner Yi Lan said, more than 621 are being developed.

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