A heap of concerns over Great Wall garbage

Along the Great Wall are gentle reminders of ecological responsibility, signs that China is slowly opening up to environmental activism.

The "Wild Wall" is not for the faint of heart. With hundred-foot drops below this treacherous section of the ancient barrier, climbers hug steep faces of loose stone. But it is a refreshing change from the typical photo booths, gondolas, and tour buses that exist along the more familiar stretches of China's Great Wall.

Along with spectacular views of lush farmland, this section of the Wall offers an unusual sight: Caretakers armed with hatchets and litterbags who pick up after tourists, making trails safer, and guiding lost hikers. The rangers' quiet actions often keep visitors from leaving behind newspapers, cigarette butts, and plastic water bottles. Several "green" signs ask visitors to be ecologically responsible with their litter.

Their work is just one fledgling effort in China to promote ecological responsibility. In 1998, after an 11-year absence from China, Briton William Lindesay was appalled by a Great Wall that was "drowning in trash." He started organizing cleanups, which have grown into the more self-sustaining work of the trained farmers-made-rangers, whose pay is partly subsidized by Norwegian conglomerate Norsk Hydro.

Mr. Lindesay, a Great Wall activist who has walked the 1,500-mile length of the UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site, coined the name "Wild Wall" and directs the program, called "Defending the Great Wall from Modern Attack."

Erected to protect China from outsiders, in growing ways the Great Wall is now being protected from the people. In a country with 3.7 million square miles at its disposal, many are accustomed to doing just that - using China's vastness as one big dumping ground. During one of Lindesay's earlier cleanups at the Wall, 120 volunteers collected 45 bags of garbage; one young cleaner found 15 champagne bottles left behind by banquet-goers from one of the many five-star hotels that serve guests at the wall.

But according to a recent study by the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, done to measure the public's receptiveness to the marketing of "green" products, about half of the population recognizes China's environmental challenges and may be willing to do something about them. The study concluded that any sense of personal helplessness is a legacy of both Confucianism and communism, attitudes honed from centuries of education and decades of condemnation or persecution for individualistic action. Eighteen percent of respondents believe that by making informed choices, such as buying ecofriendly products and properly disposing of litter, they can effectively address environmental problems. Another third of the respondents are considered ecobystanders - those who feel unempowered, but who could be convinced that they can make a difference.

China devotes less than 1 percent of its GDP to environmental protection - compared to 2.5 percent for the US and 5 percent by Australia - and is paying the price. According to the World Bank, water scarcity and pollution alone annually cost China about $14 billion in lost industrial output and about $24 billion in crop loss.

Like most developed nations that once relied on coal, China's economic expansion and growing energy use has resulted in air quality that ranks among the world's worst and acid rain that is damaging one-third of China's arable land.

But China is opening up to environmental activism, allowing genuine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) devoted to the environment, who with unusual openness criticize and expose poor protection efforts. The oldest environmental NGO in the country, just seven years old, this year won what's often called the Nobel Prize of Asia, the prestigious Magsaysay Award. In response, grassroots environmental groups have blossomed.

In years to come, China expects increases in tourism to be surpassed only by the cost of environmental pollution, and is gradually establishing statutes aimed at maintaining it within acceptable levels. But in the meantime, the rangers and friends of the Wild Wall are showing visitors the effectiveness of individuals, one piece of litter at a time.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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