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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: How do you inspire students in rural Kulun Qi to become involved in outdoor activities and environmental education?

TZ: In Kulun Qi our main focus at the Kulun elementary school is to teach students environmental education and lessons on why trees are important to their lifestyle or future. Traditionally, there was no inherent respect for the need to grow trees on their land and children were failing to understand the connection between trees and the growing desert.

We encourage students at Kulun High School to be our quality control inspectors at the tree planting sites. The forestry manager hired by us works with the students to audit the plantation sites. This is a great way for them to get involved and feel responsible for the program.

NS: How do you inspire students in urban Shanghai?

TZ: It’s easy! Students in China are looking for an outlet for their passion which does not involve lessons, memorizing. We give them projects that will have immediate effects on them. We mentor them to be environmentalists.

For example, a project we did was in 2001 where we recycled yellow pages. In China, people were keeping them or dumping them in wrong bins. We managed to recycle 85,000 phonebooks in three weekends.

Some fun success: Taking plastic bags out of use. Shanghai government passed an edict in June 2007 to remove thin plastic bags from use and we got on board. We managed to remove 21 million plastic bags out of circulation in less than one year. Now we do this every year and effectively discontinue 25 million bags every year out of population of 2 million.

NS: What other practices are incorporated while working with students?

TZ: When we engage kids, we know that their primary care unit is their family and we are aware that their parents listen to them about what they are learning in school. Education is important in China, and opening an environmental dialogue our sphere of influence automatically increases.

NS: Tell us about the Eco audit program. What incentives are there for companies to participate in such a program?

TZ: It is one of our premier programs. The program links student groups with companies to develop awareness of green workplace practices through an auditing process. We team up students with corporate offices and let them perform the audit and work with staff to help them change their habits and practices to lower their carbon footprint by reducing energy consumption, recycling more. These are all simple improvements in work place practices which do not cost the office extra, and rather helps them save energy costs. The highlight of this audit is that it is simple, free and can be done in two hours.

It is a great bilateral experience. Usually corporate offices are impressed and they like to hear this from young people. We would also promote them as best-case practices in the industry if they fare well. For our students it gives them great self confidence, training and also gain exposure to how international business operate. We even conduct audits for homes as well.

NS: How do you encourage people to be more eco-friendly in their daily lives?

TZ: Simple message: Environmental conservation. Chinese people are very frugal so environmentally we work with them simply to be aware of using less water, energy, less private transport, because that’s the way for the future.

NS: NGOs in China, particularly unregistered, grassroots organization are typically very small, volunteer-based, and have limited funding. How are they surviving and working to become more sustainable?

TZ: Grassroots movements are good. There are literally millions of grassroots NGOs working in China. Problem is that they are poorly funded, poorly managed. Most grassroots NGOs work either with government funding, also referred to as government-organized non-governmental organizations, which are very common in China, or they work primarily through volunteer work. Most of these NGOs are not sustainable. So while the majority of them are working on important issues like water pollution, health benefits, human rights, there is no guarantee they will be able to sustain themselves in the future. The important point is that one needs to figure out ways on how to keep environmental activism groups focused, sustained, funded, and steering a course for the future.

NS: How successful have NGOs been in garnering public support for their causes? Does one notice a shift in public attitude towards NGO activities in the form of increased volunteering and financial contributions?

TZ: I’m assuming public response has improved over the last ten years. I am not sure if we can quantify that as of now through financial contributions or increased volunteering.

NS: How does it feel to work in China as an expat? How open are people in China to a foreigner helping them tackle environmental issues?

TZ: Living in China feels perfectly natural. It’s been that long (18 years) and it feels home. It’s that easy.

What we find with Shanghai Roots and Shoots is that having a foreigner like me leading the charge is actually an advantage to us because people in China like to be visited by a foreigner. They like to come and speak with them - the blonde-haired woman - to show up, because I am different.  Whereas I feel that it is more appropriate, honestly, to have a Chinese person to be in charge. But there is a benefit of me still being the CEO. There is a certain value I bring from the publicity and fundraising perspective, from the government interaction, where I am the outlier, where I am different, and strangely that is a positive thing in China.