SDD Member Laura experiences China during her 4 month internship at Beijing Forestry Society

Why China? – Many people have asked me this question and I still don’t have a simple answer to this seemingly easy question. In fact, various reasons formed my interest to go to China for my internship. First, those severe environmental problems in China attracted me as an environmental sciences student very much. Second, China has a very different political system and I was eager to experience such differing circumstances, especially I wanted to find out how NGOs, which are relatively restricted in their operational fields in China, are contributing to solve environmental issues and how they collaborate with the Chinese government. Third, I wanted to combine my internship with learning a new language and Chinese seemed to be perfect for this goal, although it sounds crazy.

I have been to many places worldwide, but I must say China has been by far my most different experience until now. Some experiences or knowledge that I gained during my 4-months-stay in Beijing I would like to share with the SDD-community.

Beijing – the capital of China – is such a rapidly changing place. In the last decade, the city expanded dramatically with a population increase of almost 50%. Just to give you an impression: Its current population of 21 million only differs by 2 million to the population of whole Australia, counting 23 million people! This expansion is also visible physically: Numerous grey high-rise buildings are rising up in the air outside of Beijing’s city waiting to be filled with its 500,000 new residents annually (The Huffington Post 2014). Experiencing such a mega-city really impressed me, but also shocked me at the same time. As an environmental sciences student I might see such mega-cities through very different eyes… I was wondering whether the extension would ever reach a limit – well, eventually it will since the Beijing area is already faced with a severe water shortage. Since half of the world’s population are already living in urban areas the management or transformation of such urban areas to sustainable cities will be one of the major challenges of this century (UN, 2014).

Non-governmental organisations seem to play a crucial role as ‘intermediary agents’ in China as they are helping to balance unequal social and environmental developments in communities. Also the Beijing Forestry Society (my internship place) was dealing with such issues in Beijing and its surrounding area. They were supposed to be a local ‘non-governmental’ organisation (at least this is what they said), but in fact they were working quite closely with the Chinese government, especially with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Forestry and Parks. Founded in 1955, the BFS actually acts as a ‘middle platform’ between local citizens and the Chinese government and is concerned with diverse forest related issues and is involved in various projects regarding watershed and sustainable forest management, forest landscape restoration, technology promotion, the mega-city water fund, climate change mitigation, community development, livelihood improvement, capacity building, environmental education and public environmental awareness raising. By building networks with local and international stakeholders and by participating in international forestry dialogues, the BFS is facilitating international communication and cooperation. The BFS also gives advice to government policy-making by providing scientific data and experts’ recommendations in forestry related fields (The BFS, 2016).

During my internship, I was responsible for improving the BFS’s international stance and extending the BFS’ international cooperation network through establishing new cooperation partnerships for the BFS, mainly in Germany. I was also involved in research activities and best management collection regarding ecotourism, participatory forest management, environmental education, water funds and more. Having had my internship place as an inspiration, I also drafted a research article about the role of NGOs in general and the BFS’ role in the Beijing area. Apart from those activities, I also attended some environmental awareness raising activities as well as a Forest Forum organized by the BFS.

Most community-development-projects the BFS is conducting, are taking place near the Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s largest drinking water provider, which is situated around 100 km northeast of Beijing. Due to its vast importance, the Beijing municipal government has imposed stringent water conservation regulations and established water protection zones (forest buffer zones) in the areas around the Miyun Reservoir. Those measures interfered with land use activities and economic development efforts in that area and led to the impoverishment of local communities. The BFS is trying to tackle this contradiction by pursuing an integrated approach of watershed management, by fostering sustainable forest management and ecotourism.

The Miyun Reservoir


Ecotourism has been a very effective tool in many places of the world for not only long-term biodiversity and culture conservation, but mostly for improving local livelihoods and generating alternative incomes (Fennell, 1999; WWF, 2015). However, since it is a quite new concept in the Miyun area many obstacles need to be solved first, including the construction of ecotourism facilities and the provision of capacity building. Currently, an education and nature experience centre is being established. As a multi-purpose site, this centre should be a place for research, forestry training sessions, nature education, and a recreation and forest therapy opportunity for urban citizens. It is hoped that through the presence of this centre more tourists will be attracted to that area which will improve and foster local livelihood developments.

In October last year, as I already mentioned, I was able to attend the Forest Forum organised by the BFS every two years. The topic of this conference was ‘Forest Therapy’  (Chinese: 森林疗养) – a currently rapidly emerging forest ecosystem service in Asia. Japan seems to be the pioneer in the field of forest therapy or forest bathing as it is called in the Japanese language (shinrin-yoku, 森林浴). Forests are used as therapy centres and forest products as medicine in order to heal psychological or mental disorders, like burn-out and depression. Forest therapy includes the simply being in the forest combined with diverse forest therapy activities, such as barefoot walking, yoga, and meditation. The aim is to reconnect mind and body with nature (the concept of ‘mindfulness’ is closely related to forest therapy) and to create positive health benefits (Shin et al. 2010). Originally, the idea of forest therapy comes from Germany, where medical experts have noticed since a long time faster recovery in patients when exposed to a natural environment. Many sanatoria were therefore built within forests (Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, 2016).

In China, experts distinguish between another form of forest therapy, which does not necessarily serve the medical purpose. This form is called ‘forest wellness’ (Chinese: 森林康养), which refers to various outdoor recreational activities performed in the forest.

The second form of forest therapy seems to be playing a more important role for China in the future due to the promise of a bigger market. Due to China’s rapidly aging population, the older generation of Chinese people are expected to form a large consumer group for the emerging forest wellness industry. At the conference many different speakers from various backgrounds were presents, including speakers from the Beijing University Hospital, the Traditional Chinese Resource Centre at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Yamanashi Health Farm in Japan, the National Recreation Forest Management Office in Korea, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and many more. Forest therapy and wellness in China is still in its infancy, but until now it seems to be a promising concept to combine the sustainable forest management with medical therapy purposes.

Me and my colleagues from the Beijing Forestry Society during a special Lunch. The food is just amazing!


I really liked my internship at the BFS. I was working quite independently and was very free to choose what I wanted to learn about. My colleagues were very caring and helped me especially with daily issues. Most of my colleagues could not speak any English or their English was not very well. I was attending Chinese languages classes 2-3 times per week after work, which enhanced my language progress in Chinese.

My accommodation was organised by my host-organisation and I was first living with 4 other Chinese people, around my age, later with 6 other (when the apartment owner divided the living room) in one apartment. Those 4-months haven’t been the most comfortable ones in my life, but I definitely learned so much about the Chinese culture & habits and about China’s multi-faceted problems.

Typical picture in the Subway of Beijing – Chinese seem to be quite mobile-addicted…

China is a country of contrasts and contradictions. In the last decades, China has obtained influence and power through economic developments, international outreach, and foreign (infrastructure) investments. As currently the second largest economy, it is said that in a couple of years, China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy (The Telegraph, 2014). However, it still seems debatable whether China already entered the category of developed countries. China seems to be divided among rich & poor, East & West, and city & countryside. Within 20 years, China developed from one of the most egalitarian to one of the most unequal societies worldwide (The World Bank, 2012). From the early 1980s to 2008, China’s Gini coefficient grew from around 0.3 to 0.49 due to the shift from a planned economy to a market-oriented one in the late 70s. Even though this shift fostered rapid economic development and prosperity within China, it also created environmental destruction, societal shifts, and regional developmental imbalances (Zeit Online, 2012). In their 11th 5-Year-Plan (2006-2010) the political leadership made adjustments to the previous economic model that fostered ‘economic growth at any price’, neglecting social and environmental requirements, towards a more ‘harmonic development’. More assimilation between incomes in cities and in the countryside and stronger efforts to improve the environment have been made (BPB, 2006). Still, I was very shocked when I experienced the huge air pollution in December in Beijing.

Mostly, I was one of the few people with a mask…

It looks like China still has a long way to proceed in order to guarantee healthy living conditions for its people. Also, I am also very excited how China will solve this contradiction between its political and economic system. How will the political leadership reconcile their ideas of a socialist political system with a market-oriented economy?

But many people around the world already noticed this rising hegemony of the vast rooster-shaped country in the East. This year, 2017, has started very troublesome with the inauguration of the USA’s new president. Since this year is also the year of the rooster according to the Chinese lunar calendar, it seems like a sign for China to demonstrate its leadership and its strength, especially in Climate related issues.


China in Rooster-Shape. Source:

China, even if burdened with many internal misbalances and challenges to overcome, definitely acknowledged the USA’s current attitude towards climate change and boosted its efforts to demonstrate their global leadership regarding last year’s established Paris Climate Agreement.

Although China currently remains the world’s largest carbon emitter, it aims to make quick progressions in transforming to renewable energy (The Atlantic, 2015). Just this year, China plans to establish the world’s largest carbon trading market in the framework of a national carbon-trading scheme. Just this months in February, China opened its first elevated bicycle path in Xiamen, Fujian Province. Beijing plans to cut the use of coal by 30 % this year, to take out old vehicles from the traffic, and to establish more charging stations for electric vehicles (Scientific American, 2016; Xinhua, 2017 (1, 2, 3)).


First Bicycle Path in the Air in Xiamen, Fujian Province. Source:

It is apparent that the USA’s retreat from climate change responsibilities gives an opportunity and ambition for China to take the lead, especially climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Working for the BFS, a Chinese NGO (I would call it a ‘semi-NGO’), really nourished my interest for the role of NGOs in international politics and global policy-making in order to contribute to sustainable development. As already acknowledged by Bas Arts, non-state actors, especially the private sector and NGOs, are emerging in global environmental governance (Arts 2006). They play a crucial role in facilitating the implementation of international treaties and especially of the UN Sustainable Development Goals from 2015 on the ground.

At the beginning of my SDD journey, my main interest lied in the role of participatory approaches as a method to find suitable local solutions for water issues all around the world. During the course of my internship and my stay in China, my focus changed. Participatory approaches are still at the beginning, especially in China. One challenge when using such approaches, which also the BFS faced, was that mostly local people from rural areas were not educated sufficiently in order to contribute meaningfully to participatory approaches. However, it is very crucial to educate those people to make relevant contributions.

But not only local people from rural areas but also citizens in urban places seem to lack sufficient understanding of our current environmental issues. Education is the fundamental requirement to be able to solve environmental challenges of the 21st century. In my thesis, I would like to combine my interest for NGOs and education by examining the contribution of NGOs in environmental education and awareness raising, more specifically the ways NGOs are facilitating Article 13 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and therefore SDG 4 Target 7.

Who knows what this is? (Hint: It is a part of an animal and it is something to eat)

Who knows what this is? (Tip: It is a part of an animal and it is something to eat.)

A book that I would recommend you to read (for the ones that speak German or want to practice their German language skills) is: “Fettnäpfchenführer China – Der Wink mit dem Hühnerfuß” by Anja Obst. It describes many situations that I experienced the same way during my stay in China. It is very entertaining to read!



 Arts, B. (2006). Non-state actors in global environmental governance: new arrangements beyond the state. In New modes of governance in the global system (pp. 177-200). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (2016) “Brief introduction to the science of Forest Therapy: a curated collection of journalism and research“.

BPB (24/11/2006) ‘China – Die soziale Kehrseite des Aufstiegs’.

Fennell, David A. (1999). Ecotourism: An Introduction. London, England: Routledge.

WWF (24/02/2015) ‘Community-based ecotourism: improving livelihoods for better conservation’.

Scientific American (16/05/2016) “China Will Start the World’s Largest Carbon Trading Market“ by John Fialka.

Shin, W. S., Yeoun, P. S., Yoo, R. W., & Shin, C. S. (2010). Forest experience and psychological health benefits: the state of the art and future prospect in Korea. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 38-47.

The Atlantic (25/09/2015) “China, the World’s Biggest Polluter, Commits to Cap-and-Trade Carbon Emissions“ by Robinson Meyer.

The BFS (2016) “About BFS”.

The Huffington Post (29/12/2014) “Beijing’s Incredible Subway Expansion In One GIF“.

The Telegraph (09/10/2014) “China is about to overtake the US to become world’s largest economy“ by Szu Ping Chan

The World Bank (2012) “Inequality in Focus” by Olinto, P. & Saavedra, J.

UN (10/7/2014) “World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas“.

Xinhua (07/01/2017) (1)

“China Focus: Acting mayor of Beijing vows to tackle smog“ by Ying.

Xinhua (26/01/2017) (2)

“China to build more charging points for electric vehicles“ by Ya Mei.

Xinhua (09/02/2017) (3)

“China to build more charging points for electric vehicles“ by Meng Jie.

Zeit Online (28/02/2012) ‘Ritt auf dem Tiger’.



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