In China, Planting Trees to Make a Difference

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

SAN FRANCISCO, October 20, 2009 - Tori Zwisler is the founding executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai. The Institute focuses primarily on the Roots & Shoots program, which promotes environmental concern, care for animals, and care for people among Shanghai’s youth. Roots & Shoots works with 170 schools in Shanghai with the aim of planting one million trees in Inner Mongolia by 2014 to fight desertification. It also works with offices to reduce carbon footprints, promotes poverty alleviation through education in Anhui province, works with migrant schools, and has helped coordinate the largest recycling program in Shanghai. Zwisler is a U.S. citizen and has been living in China for more than 20 years.

Tori Zwisler appeared at the Asia Society Northern California panel discussion on “The State of Environmental Activism in China” on October 20, 2009. In this interview with Asia Society Northern California's Neha Sakhuja, she discusses the Million Tree Campaign initiated by Shanghai Roots and Shoots to fight desertification in China, and the need for environmental activists to avoid antagonizing the government.


NS: Tell us about the Million Tree Campaign and how the idea came about.

TZ: Shanghai Roots and Shoots initiated the idea of the Million Tree Campaign in 2007. The program aims to plant one million trees by 2014 in Kulun Qi, Tongliao municipality which is in the far eastern region of Inner Mongolia in China to fight increasing desertification.

It all started when we were in a minivan travelling to Chomin Island with Dr. Jane Goodall. We noted that the transportation we were in was not ideal for the environment and the CO2 emissions were something we could not avoid. This got us thinking about how we could offset such a negative impact. Tree planting became an obvious choice for carbon offsets and also an opportunity for individuals and organizations to fight global warming.

We are keen to make it more personal for people in China contributing to this project in making the connection with their environment. When people see the trees they bought grow, they recognize it as an effective way of reducing carbon footprints for the next ten to 20 years and realize that they have tangibly offset their emissions

NS: How have the communities responded to the campaign? Has there been a change in their attitude toward protecting their local environment since the project began?

TZ: The whole thrust of this program is education of the community, so the first step before anybody buys  a tree is to make a commitment to change one’s habits  reduce carbon footprints by recycling more, reducing energy requirements. We want to push people towards a carbon-neutral position. We have 20,000 trees presently after three years. Every single one of them was purchased by some member of the community in Shanghai. This shows an encouraging response from the community towards this program.

We also engage with school children and farmers in Kulun Qi, educating them about the importance of tree planting and how it helps in water conservation and prevention of soil erosion. Communities in Kulun Qi are currently below the poverty level in China. They don’t have enough income or occupation to keep them busy. The weather is brutal as the winters are eight months long. We can get them to increase their income with intercropping, but also pay them to maintain the trees that help them to sustain their income for the months and we also set up a system to give them survival bonuses on year two, year five and year seven of the program. We encourage them to keep trees alive so that they can improve their incomes.

NS: Does joint forest management encourage more farmers to join this program?

TZ: I hope so! We are only in year three and things in China move slowly, and so far we have had a very positive response. Our presence is always there and we are not an NGO which visits once a year, plants a tree and never returns. People have started to see our involvement with them. We try to improve their techniques and increase their yield on the trees. We hope we are making a sustainable difference slowly and surely.

NS: Most traditional agricultural practices are sustainable, how has this disappeared over time?

TZ: The best insight about what went wrong in Inner Mongolia was the book Wolf Totem [author Jiang Rong], which tells the story about the agricultural collectivization imposed on the nomads by the settlers in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution in China, and the ecological mismanagement and disasters it caused.

The place where we are growing trees used to be forest land which was cut down to make way for farm plots. The grasslands were overused by the herders without any thought towards the historical use of the land. The grasslands disappeared due to growing number of sheep and goats and the desert encroached. This could be considered agricultural mismanagement at its worst.  

Next: "We are creating environmentalists who can work within the system."

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."

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.