Vineyard growth plan for 'Bordeaux of China' raises concerns for animal habitats and livelihoods of villagers who switch to grapes
In 1985, Li Hua visited a valley in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. The area was better known for its panda population, but the oenologist realised that its high altitude, hours of sunshine, sandy soil and low precipitation also offered ideal conditions for growing grapes.
Li's findings gave local authorities an idea, and over the past decade they have begun to implement an ambitious plan: to convert Xiaojin, a county in Aba prefecture, Sichuan province, into the Bordeaux of China.
There are 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of vines in Aba, but in December the local government announced a project to plant 6,700 hectares by 2020.
But as plans to enlarge the vineyards are drafted, conservationists are voicing concern. A recent reform in land tenure in the area, according to research published in the journal Science, could threaten the natural habitat of endangered species such as the giant panda, red panda, golden snub-nosed monkey and Thorold's deer. The reform enables farming households to transfer the operation rights of their land to outside enterprises. This could allow logging companies or other industries, including wineries, access to 350,000 hectares of previously undisturbed forest, which represents about 15% of panda habitat.
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