Environmental watchdogs hungry for action

Officials had no answers when the International Olympic Committee in 1993 asked if China had any environmental NGOs.

But the situation has dramatically changed since China began lobbying to host the Games, with hundreds of thousands of volunteers now working to protect the mainland's threatened environment.

Lu Junmin , from the eastern province of Zhejiang , is a volunteer who recently returned home to Wenzhou city from the frozen Kekexili nature reserve on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.

Mr Lu spent almost a fortnight at the plateau, distributing environmental protection handbooks, observing and documenting wildlife, and taking part in patrols to protect fauna from poachers.

Kekexili, an Inner Mongolian word meaning Cyan Mountains or Beautiful Maid, sits about 4,600 metres above sea level and is famous for its pristine ecological environment and extremely tough conditions.

A key goal for volunteers is to protect the Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The animal mainly lives on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and its numbers have been decimated due to demand for its ultrafine wool.

I was deeply touched by the antelopes and their plight, Mr Lu says. And I also knew that Kekexili was the origin of the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers. Therefore, protecting the area benefits not only people in the west but also people in the east. That's why I went there.

Chiru numbers have dwindled from about 1 million at the start of the 20th century to less than 70,000 in the late 1990s, according to the People's Daily. The state declared the area a national-level reserve in the 1990s.

Their numbers are improving and we also occasionally saw wild cattle and Tibetan donkeys, says Mr Lu. [Tibetan] antelopes are very beautiful animals. They're always very alert ... and they can run up to 90km/h.

Mr Lu, a journalist, went to Kekexili with three volunteers from a Zhejiang-based NGO.

There are about 100,000 environmental NGOs on the mainland, according to Wang Ming , of Tsinghua University's public management school.

They are becoming more professional and mature. Compared with the situation in the 1990s, these environmental NGOs are co-operating and jointly focusing on certain issues, said Professor Wang.

They're also trying to avoid conflict with governments while using advocacy models and they're undergoing changes to adopt more democratic, efficient and systematic styles.

In recent years, several NGOs have joined forces to lobby the central government over controversial projects such as the new Dujiangyan Dam in Sichuan and hydropower stations in Yunnan .

While they have made some inroads, overall the NGOs' influence on policy is still limited and weak.

Wu Zhu is head of the first environmental NGO to be set up three years ago in Zhejiang and is based in Yueqing city .

We've done a lot in our home town, such as organising regular litter-collection activities and conducting educational campaigns about the preservation of trees, birdlife and Yan Lake, which is nearby, he says.

I'm happy to be raising the public's awareness of environmental issues. But like many of its mainland counterparts, Mr Wu's Green Volunteers' Association faces problems such as lack of funding and resources.

The organisation is actually run by two full-time staff, including myself, but I'm considering hiring another person. We're trying to manage with an annual budget of 100,000 yuan, says Mr Wu.

Such restrictions, Professor Wang says, are coupled with the complicated administrative process of registering NGOs. The system requires an NGO to be adopted by a government agency before it can even register. The agency becomes its professional leading unit.

I suggest the registration system be scrapped and there should be laws on governance and monitoring of NGOs, says Professor Wang.

Mr Lu says he gained a lot from his trip to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.

I really wish I could've stayed there longer, but I was forced to leave several days earlier than anticipated because I developed altitude sickness, he says.

The stint really brought home to me the fact that we need to cherish the natural environment and really look after it well.