Living treasure

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am

The 'Gold Cross' must surely be one of China's greatest treasures. It's neither a historical relic, like the terracotta warriors in Xian , nor a piece of ancient imperial jewellery. And it's real, rather than an imaginary Shangri-La. The term Gold Cross was coined by Professor Hou Mingming of Kunming University of Science and Technology, who continues to argue for its protection.

It is a vast, precious and remote area in northwest Yunnan , and Myanmar. It has three arterial waterways running from north to south - the Jinsha River in the upper reaches of the Yangtze; the Nu River in the upper part of the Salween; and the Lancang River at the start of the Mekong. These rivers, forming the image of a cross, flow through a series of mountains. They also flow side by side for nearly 170 kilometres.

The area has a dramatic and biologically diverse landscape straddling various climate zones and ecosystems. It was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, and is recognised as one of the world's most precious biodiverse hot spots.

What is not appreciated is its strategic and security value. Its extraordinary biodiversity plays an essential role in safeguarding the region's ecological stability. Its eco-strategic position at the upper reaches of several major rivers, its rich forest ecosystems and its numerous plateau lakes are critical factors in climate regulation, carbon sequestration, oxygen release, nutrient cycles, and soil and water conservation, among other functions. Together, they protect the ecological security of the 2.93 million sq km downstream, an area that encompasses several countries.

Ignorance about its true value can be seen from how people generally talk about this area. It is often described in terms of being rich in minerals and water resources, and as a tourist spot. Rather than being protected, this exceptional area faces the usual sort of threats - insensitive design and construction of dams and roads, deforestation and mining - all in the name of economic development.

News in the past week indicates the central government is planning to dam the Nu River after all, a decision delayed for several years as experts pointed out the risks involved. Experts are worried there will be no recognition of the Gold Cross as a compound eco-economic system composed of human communities, economic activities and natural environments. But it is necessary for policymakers to take all elements into account.

Any human use of its natural resources should have to be within certain sustainable biocapacity limits to prevent depletion. And, given that sustainable development is a national policy, exploitation of natural resources should also respect and preserve the equal rights of future generations to develop.

Moreover, it should also preserve equity between people today so that all share in the benefits of resource use and bear the costs of environmental protection. People downstream benefit from the preservation and protection of the upper reaches of rivers and important areas of biosecurity - therefore they should help with the cost of maintaining the health of these sensitive zones.

The residents of the Gold Cross in effect safeguard the region for the greater whole and they should be compensated for the loss of their traditional economic development opportunities. Compensation should be calculated based on the value of ecological protection and restoration, and the loss of economic opportunities for individuals and the region.

The central government should regard protection and social development of the Gold Cross' resources as the ultimate goal, and establish a long-term mechanism of ecological compensation for the area. The 12th five-year plan should adopt these ideas to ensure the Gold Cross is properly protected and restored where damage has been done.

Unfortunately, things seem to be going in the opposite direction with the renewed interest in damming the Nu River.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange