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

By Keith B. Richburg
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.

"Development and conversion of forest to real estate projects will damage the coastal forest and increase the region's vulnerability to natural disasters," Yi said. "They are turning this island into a tourist destination for rich people and foreigners, not for local people. They are not benefiting from it."

Frenetic development

The rich and famous have started coming. In late October, Mission Hills, which has four of its 10 courses open, hosted a celebrity golf tournament featuring actors Matthew McConaughey, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Hugh Grant teeing off alongside golfing greats such as Nick Faldo and Greg Norman.

The locals said they can feel the impact. Floods from heavy rains in early October destroyed thousands of acres of farmland, washed out roads and caused the temporary evacuation of more than 400,000 people across Hainan. Shimei residents said the destruction of the forests exacerbated the flooding.

The story is being repeated across Hainan, where development is underway at breathtaking speed.

In Haikou, on the northern coast, Chen Rendong, 78, a former chief of Hainan's forest protection stations, recalled how he helped plant mangrove trees on the coast in the early 1990s. Now, the sandy area is largely barren of trees, and resorts have popped up.

The coastal town of Sanya in the south is rapidly emerging as a combination of Waikiki and Miami Beach, perhaps with a dash of Las Vegas thrown in.

A 36-year-old hiker and nature enthusiast, who asked that his name not be used, described his shock at going to an area in Sanya where he used to camp, the Yalong Bay mangrove nature reserve, and finding it transformed into a virtual construction site, for a resort due to open next year.

The hiker wrote about this on an Internet discussion forum, under the name Tiger Sowing Through the Forest, and attracted hundreds of supportive comments.

"Foreign countries protect nature to attract tourists, but the Chinese government has a different idea," he said, staring out over the white sandy beaches at construction cranes. "Now if we want to go camping in Hainan, we'll have to pitch a tent on the roof of our apartments."

Staff researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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