Every spring, the traditional nation-wide holiday Qing Ming (“Tomb-sweeping festival”) puts tens of millions of people on the move in China. They begin their journey to family grave sites to pray for their ancestors, make offerings, drive away evil spirits, and clean the grave sites.
“As a sign of respect, many burn paper money and other paper products or debris cleaned from the grave site,” says Tao Shan, Head of Land Management at Stora Enso’s forest operations in China. “Unfortunately, the risk of fire spreading from the Qing Ming activities into nearby forests and villages is very big.”
Fighting fire with knowledge
While Qing Ming is a national holiday in China, the tradition of setting off fireworks and burning paper money is particularly strong east of Beihai City, in a part of Guangxi where Stora Enso manages eucalyptus plantations.
“In the past, we’ve had to be more reactive and put out fires as they threatened the trees and local villages,” says Shan. “Many Stora Enso employees have been trained over the years to put out and prevent fires. Even though they are all thoroughly and regularly trained by professionals, firefighting of course always poses a safety risk – to our employees but also local communities. We also risk losing valuable trees that store carbon and could be used to make renewable products.”
“2019 is the first year that we’ve been able to work with the local and regional governments and have a more proactive response,” says Ian Blanden, General Manager of Stora Enso’s forest operations in China. “We worked very closely with local schools and communities to build awareness of the environmental damage and safety issues that come with wide-spread fires.”
Stora Enso employees volunteered their time to build awareness by communicating with township and village residents and by creating materials such as signs, brochures, and videos. Volunteers also visited local schools and children were asked to share the information with their parents.
Big impacts – and long-term solutions
The Qing Ming festivities can last for months as people visit grave sites on different days in different parts of the country. In this part of Guangxi, there is about a 20-day period in March and April when the risk of wide-spread fires is particularly high. But this year, thanks to the joint awareness-building efforts, there were almost no fires at all.
“Less than 10 hectares of plantation land was affected by fire this year,” Blanden says. “That’s about a 90% reduction compared to the annual 1 000 hectares that have been affected in previous years.”
“The biggest learning for us has been that preventing a problem is always better than fixing one,” says Shan. “Working together – internally but also with so many external stakeholders – is the best long-term solution. My colleagues and I feel very inspired by how big the impact has been, and we look forward to contributing to a safer Qing Ming again next year.”
Tao Shan (first from left) and Ian Blanden (fourth from right) with Stora Enso employees volunteering to raise awareness of fire prevention.