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In China, Planting Trees to Make a Difference

Tori Zwisler, founding executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai.

Tori Zwisler, founding executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai.

NS: What do you think is the biggest environmental challenge that needs to be addressed in China?

TZ: The fundamental challenge for China environmentally speaking is overall enforcement of environmental rules and regulations. China has by far the most comprehensive and far-reaching environmental laws of any country in the world. The enforcement of the said laws is sporadic at best. People need to start believing in and obeying these environmental laws. If China could enforce the environmental regulations that exist, China would become a lot more environmentally acceptable as an industrial country.

Decision makers should believe in what they are planning and enforce it. Once students (high school and university students) get involved with Roots and Shoots and start to see the small cause-and-effect relationship by doing something that is more environmentally appropriate, they will … understand the relationship that has to the rest of the world. China being the most populated country in the world, every decision makes a huge difference. If these students get to be in positions of authority and can make decisions that China needs to make to clean up the country [then progress is made.]

NS: Are China’s people ecologically in tune with their environment?

TZ: I think it is a process and the trend of being ecologically sensitive is beginning to catch up. Society in China is not nationally environmentally conscious. The media doesn’t help and does not really educate or report too much. Unfavorable environmental activity and what Chinese people read from the outside Internet (which may be completely true and valid) is viewed with some nationalistic suspicion.

For example, China is a country that litters. I have been in China for 18 years and people continue to litter on the street. The mindset has still not changed to stop doing that.

NS: Being one of the first foreign-affiliated nonprofit organizations in China, can you tell us the process for an NGO to get registered?

TZ: It just happened. We started in 1999 and did not get registered till 2004. We were vetted in 2002 by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in China, which at that point we were not aware of. By 2003 the ministry asked us for articles of association, list of board members, mission statement, project summaries, and ten months later we were presented at a high-level government meeting. It is that unclear. We have to get our registration renewed every year; we have been doing that for the last five years.

Getting an NGO registered in China is extremely difficult. They opened the doors for a few years for NGOs to get registered. They let us in and then they closed the doors. Today it is impossible to get registered. Local NGOs especially struggle to get registered because of the issue of government sponsorship. In the current political environment in China there are very few government groups that are willing to align with NGOs. If you can’t find a government partner, you can’t register, effectively closing the door on local NGOs. There are no regulations for international NGOs yet, as they are in the process of being written.

NS: The recent crackdowns on foreign funded NGOs like the Open Constitution Initiative in July 2009 demonstrate the control and caution the government exerts on civil society. In such an environment, what are the challenges to operate for a foreign-funded NGO in China?

TZ: NGOs that got in trouble were not legally registered in China. That’s why they are easy to control. Roots and Shoots is the only foreign-affiliated, legally registered NGO in China. We are non-confrontational, non-religious, non-political, so it is easy for us to work in China. We work with youth in a proactive and positive way and are acknowledged by Civil Affairs Bureau and work with them, but they don’t control what we do. It is always an open dialogue between us.

We do exercise caution while working on projects and want to stay on the path that works. “Environmental activism” defines two different aspects of environmentalism. We are creating environmentalists who can work within the system and go on to get great jobs in the government, universities and work with NGOs. That’s how you change society, change attitudes and directions in China from inside out and not from the outside. Activists are viewed positively by the government as long as they stay within the government’s positive side. The minute their cause is no longer advocated, they go to jail. We will take slow, small positive steps forward in the environmental arena within the system and this approach is more sustainable.

NS: How do local NGOs work in such a challenging environment of not being registered?  

TZ: It’s a China thing! There is a lot of commendable work going on in China at the grassroots level. Government views NGO work by sector - some are favourably viewed and some are not. With the lack of ability to get registered you are always at risk of being shut down and sent away. If you are doing something that at some level which the government disapproves of, it ultimately translates to the issue of control and the Chinese authorities do want to be in control.

Next: "Having a foreigner like me leading the charge is actually an advantage."