Chinese drive to create vast vineyards spark concern

Planners' dreams of rivalling overseas wine industries could be soured by environmental damage and poor products, critics warn

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 5:22am

Shenzhen businessman Peng Weijian has an insatiable curiosity when it comes to wine. For more than a decade he has travelled the globe tasting the products of grapes from many regions.

But when it comes to wine produced from a vineyard located in the natural habitat of the giant panda, Peng passes.

He also has no desire to taste the product of Tibetan farmers who have been asked by the government to plant and grow foreign grapes.

"No offence to pandas or Tibetans, but grapes planted in the wrong place by the wrong people can produce only the wrong type of wine with the wrong taste," he said.

His expression of aversion comes as the provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi - homes to more than 1,600 wild giant pandas - have rolled up their collective sleeves to produce wine-yielding grapes.

In January, authorities in Shaanxi released a plan to build 18,000 hectares of vineyards at the foot of Qin Mountain.

And last year Sichuan invited winemakers from countries such as France, Spain, Australia and the United States to visit Chengdu and take a tour of prefectures such as Liangshan , Aba and Ganzi - all regions that are officially recognised as natural habitats of giant pandas.

These prefecture-level governments are being even more ambitious about wine production than their provincial counterparts.

Aba plans to expand its vineyards six-fold, to more than 6,600 hectares, by 2020 and convert more than 40,000 farmers, mostly Tibetans, into vineyard workers.

"We will turn Aba prefecture into the Bordeaux of China," the Aba government said online.

Meanwhile, in Liangshan, a government employee with the prefecture's Investment Promotion Bureau told the South China Morning Post that the creation and cultivation of vineyards was at the top of their agricultural to-do list, and they had already signed contracts with domestic and overseas investors.

The size of the vineyards in these regions might be small compared with grape-production centres in the Americas, Europe and Australia, but to local farmers the lands are vast and precious. In these mountainous areas, farmland is scarce and the labour supply is limited.

And some researchers say that, without careful research and planning, the sudden influx of vineyards could not only harm local ecosystems, but profoundly affect the lives of local residents.

Dr Lee Hannah, a senior fellow in climate change biology with the US-based Conservation International's Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science, discovered in a recent study into the potential impact of climate change on the cultivation of grapevines, that suitable wine-growing regions of the future alarmingly overlap with the natural habitats of giant pandas in China.

He noted in an email to the Post that even though the Chinese government set up reserves for the giant pandas, the animals' movements may not be restricted to them.

"Vineyards [placed] around a panda reserve can definitely affect the animals. Pandas move outside of reserves, so the forest outside is an important habitat," he said.

"If wine grapes go into an area that is currently used for other crops, there is little impact. However, if forest is cleared to plant wine grapes, there may be direct loss of panda habitat. If wine grapes [are grown] on land used for grazing, livestock may be displaced into panda habitat."

Clearing forests, Hannah said, would have the most serious consequences for pandas.

But a government employee in the administrative office of Danba county, Ganzi, said that while the protection of pandas was important, the benefits of vineyards were immediate and irresistible.

The county has a large Tibetan population, many of whom are farmers with household incomes of less than 1,000 yuan a year, the official said, declining to be named.

There is a wide wealth disparity between most Chinese and Tibetans, and the issue has generated ethnic tensions that put pressure on the local government.

Tibetans who work in vineyards could see their income increased tenfold, the official said.

But not all Tibetan farmers are keen on the idea of moving into an industry they're unfamiliar with. According to a report on Newssc.org, the official news portal of the Sichuan government, an undisclosed majority of Tibetan farmers have refused to plant grapes on their farms, despite visits by government employees to the farmers' families.

As a result, the government had to clear forest area for the vineyards. Professor Pu Biao, an oenologist with Sichuan Agricultural University, said that numerous local governments had sought him out for advice on their development.

"Their enthusiasm is high and their ambition is big," he said. "To many officials, growing wine grapes seems to be a perfect shortcut to economic development.

"But I told them that big-scale plantations are inappropriate in the mountainous regions of Sichuan. Whether they listen is beyond my control."

Most of the valleys in Sichuan that are suitable for grape planations are difficult to access, as transportation options are limited in remote areas.

And when it rains, roads are often blocked by mudslides.

The existing land area that may be used for growing vines is also limited, so authorities have eyed the clearing of natural forests to make way for grapes, Pu said.

Professor Liu Yanlin, with the College of Oenology at Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, said that in Sichuan and Shaanxi there were indeed some small areas that resemble the Rhone river valley in France and Tuscany in Italy, where the days are warm and nights are cool, with dry conditions and sufficient sunshine.

But wine recently produced from these regions did not taste as good as she had expected.

"Compared with the best [wine] produced overseas, the quality gap is still significant," she said, adding: "I don't think the vineyards will have an immediate impact on the giant pandas, but the issue will need some serious research."

Businessman Peng said his biggest concern was that Sichuan and Shaanxi would follow in the footsteps of Hebei and Shandong, where massive vineyards were hastily created with little concern for the final product.

"For Chinese wines, there is too much quantity but too little quality," he said.

"I've always dreamed of a good wine from my own country, but I am always disappointed."