Thursday, Jul 31, 2014, 5:26 PM CST – China

Environment

Anti-desertification NGO

ENTREPRENEURS FOR ECOLOGY

The Society of Entrepreneurs & Ecology (SEE), founded by nearly 100 Chinese entrepreneurs, is now one of China’s largest anti-desertification NGOs

Wang Shi (first from right), chairman of Vanke Group, visits a water-saving cotton field promoted by the SEE, 1996 Courtesy of the SEE

Liu Xiaoguang plants haloxylon in the desert, 2013 Courtesy of the SEE

Ren Zhiqiang (left) and Feng Lun (right), both real estate moguls, at an SEE meeting Courtesy of the SEE

Every morning before dawn, the instant messaging group chat of the Society of Entrepreneurs & Ecology (SEE) begins to buzz. In 2004, the SEE was founded in the Tengger Desert of the Alxa League of Inner Mongolia by 87 initial members – most of whom were influential Chinese entrepreneurs.

Among the delegation were real estate giants, investment bankers, mine owners, private educators and dotcom CEOs. Today, their ranks swelled, online debate over delegates’ pet issues rages daily. “Everyone’s serious. Everyone’s here for real,” commented Feng Lun, the current chairman of the SEE and one of China’s most famous real estate developers.

Through its open and democratic management structure, and commitment to a bottom-up mode of fostering community development, the SEE has become one of China’s largest desertification control organizations as well as perhaps the country’s most influential independent environmental protection fund.

Constituents

On October 1, China’s National Day, 2003, Liu Xiaoguang, chairman of Beijing Capital Group (one of China’s largest State-owned water utilities companies), went to the Tengger Desert for the first time. He was invited by the China Entrepreneurs Forum which was holding an entrepreneurial salon. Liu was being asked to see for himself the seriousness and speed of desertification in the Alxa League.

Data indicates that before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, there were 1.13 million hectares of haloxylon – desert vegetation – covering the Alxa League. By 2001, this area had receded to 0.2 million hectares, effectively creating a new desert. In the spring of 2000, sandstorms hit Beijing on nine occasions. On eight of these, the sand was blowing in directly from the Alxa League.

Liu Xiaoguang told NewsChina that he underwent “spiritual purification” in the desert, falling to his knees and prostrating himself before nature. Eight months later, Liu and his 86 fellow entrepreneurs gathered at the Tengeer’s Moon Lake Hotel to launch the SEE, with every member pledging 100,000 yuan (US$16,500) in funding per year for at least ten years.

However, dissent appeared from the very beginning. The preparatory group, led by Yang Ping, executive chief editor of financial broadsheet the China Times, and Yang Peng (no relation), director of the Policy Office of Environmental Economic Policy Research Center of the then State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection), drafted a nomination list for an executive committee with 15 members and a supervisory committee with 5 members. Then they called for a so-called single-candidate election – a system widely used by the Communist Party, where a certain number of deputies are symbolically “elected” from an identical number of candidates, essentially a rubber-stamp approval of executive appointments.

The proposal was rejected by the majority of the SEE’s members. They claimed the preparatory group was “playing by the rules of old games,” a reference to the management practices of State-owned enterprises. They wanted real elections – competitive elections.

The preparatory group had to compromise, agreeing to add more names to the ballot. Zhang Shuxin, the chairman of Genesis Capital, and Wang Weijia, the chairman of Mtone Wireless, were given the responsibility for new nominations. The preparatory group went on to re-structure the election and ballots, working into the small hours of the following morning.

The next day, the election was held. Liu Xiaoguang, bleary-eyed from a fitful, sleepless night, was unanimously elected chairman. Ma Weihua, CEO of China Merchants Bank, was elected the head of the supervisory board. Zhang Shuxin and Wang Shi (chairman of Vanke Group) were both elected to the post of vice chairman. Yang Ping was elected secretary general. Feng Lun (chairman of Vantone Holdings) and Shi Yuzhu (chairman of Giant Interactive Group) were elected members of the executive committee. Feng Lun would later describe the election as a “victory for the grassroots,” unusual terminology from a captain of industry.

Wang Weijia failed to be elected. However, he declared himself satisfied with the result, as “my failure justifies others’ success.” He called the meeting a “constituency assembly” of the SEE.

Twenty days later, the executive committee and the supervisory committee held a joint meeting. Hosted by Liu Xiaoguang, the meeting discussed amendments to the SEE charter as well as budget proposals for 2004.

Once again, conflict erupted. Some members accused Liu of being “bossy,” and behaving as if he were in his own office. Liu found himself forced to compromise at every turn in order to placate his critics.

Wu Kegang, the chairman of the Yunnan Red Wine Group, was one of Liu’s most vocal opponents. He banged his fist on the boardroom table, yelling at Liu, “Do you know how to host a meeting? There should be motions, proposals, discussions and voting. Your task is to organize the discussion and the voting.”

“Motion” was a new word to Liu Xiaoguang, but he accepted the criticism and quickly readjusted his strategy. “He was good at listening to others’ suggestions and criticism,” said Yang Peng. Yang believes that Liu’s openness is the only quality which has allowed him to retain his position.

Community Development

From the very beginning, the SEE adopted an inbound community development model for conducting their environmental protection projects.

Project Manager Gui Guodong has been working for the SEE since 2006. The organization aims to help rural residents to establish project management committees on a voluntary basis and through democratic elections. Projects proposed by these committees can receive funding from the SEE when approved.

In 2007, Gui’s project team worked as members of the Helan Production Team in Barun Bieli Town in the Alxa League. Their aim was to persuade herdsmen to reduce the size of their sheep herds in order to protect grasslands from overgrazing. The team contacted Heifer International, who matched their funding pledge to provide a total of 900,000 yuan (US$148,000) to 101 local villagers, allowing them to raise dairy cows to supplement their incomes. They also lobbied milk processing giant Yili Group to help the new dairy farmers expand their market share.

In the first year, the net income of villagers who received financial support reached 310,000 yuan (US$51,000), allowing them to restore 67 hectares of grassland, and cease exploiting well water for irrigation of their cornfields. A trip to water-poor Ningxia Province funded by the SEE convinced them of the need to save water resources by switching to less intensive farming methods.

In 2008, the project team introduced villagers to new membrane-drip irrigation technology, allowing them to save some 1,500 to 4,000 tons of irrigation water per year. The project team also facilitated a switch from corn to millet, a staple which consumes less water.

Another focus of the project was convincing locals not to cut down haloxylon for firewood, as each of them were consuming some 10,000 kilograms per year, or about 3 hectares of  this essential plantlife, as well as selling even more to barbecued meat vendors.

Song Jun, chairman of Jiuhantiancheng Group and a founding member of the SEE, was one of the first advocates for the protection of haloxylon resources. He bought up entire supplies of cistanche, a medicinal desert herb similar to the foxglove, encouraging locals to protect the plants that sheltered it. Soon, agreements had been inked curtailing the exploitation of haloxylon for fuel.

“There is a forgotten tradition of not cutting down living wood in Mongolian culture,” Gui Guodong told our reporter. “We are merely reminding people of it.”

No Money in the Bank

In June 2007, the SEE held its second general election. Wang Shi was elected chairman and Ren Zhiqiang (chairman of Huayuan Property) was made head of the supervisory committee.

On the Internet, Ren is known for his candor in commenting on current affairs. Dubbed “Cannon Ren,” he is followed by 16 million people on Twitter equivalent Weibo. As Ren took office, the SEE secretariat became extremely cautious, checking and double checking financial reports to ensure that Cannon Ren did not raise “an angry wind over a calm ocean”.

However, Ren still questioned the executive committee’s use of funds in the SEE’s account, which had a balance of 20 million yuan (US$3.18m). Ren told the committee that the SEE’s purpose was “not to save money.” He suggested expanding SEE funding for other NGOs.

In December 2008, the SEE Foundation was established, with an initial fund of 8 million yuan (US$1.27m). Economist Wu Jinlian became the foundation’s chief executive. In order to fund other environmental protection organizations, the foundation established a project approval committee, which elected Tong Shumeng, chairman of Oriental Patek Investment Company, as  its president in 2011.

Since 2010, the foundation also began to fund the Public Environmental Research Center led by environmental activist Ma Jun. in 2006, Ma compiled data released by environmental, water and oceanic departments, and published The China Atlas of Water Pollution and The China Atlas of Air Pollution, in the process establishing China’s largest pollution database.

“Ma Jun’s research center is a de facto hub. Smaller NGOs give him data. The SEE funds him and he in turn funds smaller NGOs,” said Tong Shumeng. On Tong’s advice, in August 2013 Ma Jun introduced his five-year plan to the SEE: upgrading his pollution atlas, promoting a green supply chain and enhancing team building.

“We now have a database of 100,000 companies. That’s a lot of leverage. But we ourselves are too small,” says Ma Jun. In response, Tong brokered a deal between the SEE’s approval committee and Ma Jun, whereby the fund agreed to provide 20 million for Ma’s research center over the next five years.

By November 2013, 267 entrepreneurs were listed as members of the SEE. From the beginning of 2012 to November 2013, the SEE received donations of some 54 million yuan (US$8.6m), of which, 7.18 million yuan (US$1.14m) were spent immediately.

While NGOs in China often face opposition from regulators and government agencies, the SEE has set the example that, with enough money at your back, genuine, long-lasting change is achievable.

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