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Rubber Forest Destroying Xishuangbanna Ecosystem
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Pi Gang, a 20-year-old man from the Hani ethnic group, is forced to wash his hat by the well in his native village in Yunnan's region of Xishuangbanna. He sadly explains that he cannot do otherwise due to the putrid state of the tap water in his house.

Water resources for some 300 farmers in Pi Gang's village now come solely from wells, after the local reservoir was poisoned by pesticide sprayed onto rubber trees, rendering their running water undrinkable. In the neighboring village of Manha, the situation worsened when even their groundwater ran out and villagers had to make do with bottled water.

The tropical rainforest eco-system in Xishuangbanna is understandably a jewel in the crown of one of China's most naturally beautiful areas. It contains tremendous flora and fauna reserves with one quarter of the wild animal species and one-fifth of the wild plant species in the entire nation, despite only occupying 0.2 percent of China's landmass. The importance of environmental protection in Xishuangbanna can thus not be underestimated.

"How could Xishuangbanna noted for tropical rainforest have become short of water? This is partially due to uncontrolled exploitation of rubber forests," said Yang Deming, an official with Jinghong City of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

Driven by the hiking price

Pi Gang resigned his job in the city of Jinghong about two months ago to become involved in the rubber tapping business, a career move which allows his family to earn as much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,250) a month by selling latex.

A local rubber farmer Mei Kang exemplifies the economic boom the latex trade has brought. His some 2 hectares of rubber forest bring in over 100,000 yuan a year after he converted the land from farmland to rubber forest in the mid-90s. Mei Kang said: "Now we don't do farm work nor raise pigs and cattle. Everything we eat, such as rice, vegetables and meats, are bought from the town."

The price of latex has risen nine-fold in 23 years from 2 yuan per ton in 1994 to 18 yuan now. This craze has prompted the illegal felling of vast swathes of natural and state-owned forests.

Massive rubber forest planting in the area since 2000 has taken over some 20,000 hectares of land. There is now irrefutable proof that the local ecology is suffering irreparable damage from the new arrivals.

Negative ecological impact appears

Hou Mingming, head of the environmental science department of Kunming Engineering College, said that latex is made up of 70 percent water and that since rubber forests do not store water naturally, they are becoming a massive drain on the region's water resources.
This has signified not only forestry devastation but is also causing permanent damage to water supplies, and shifting weather conditions which are negatively impacting on the balance of natural life in Xishuangbanna.

Researchers from the Menglun Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have proven that natural forests can store 25 cubic meters of water and 4 tons of soil annually per mu (1 mu=0.0667 hectares), while rubber forest causes 1.5 tons of soil to erode per mu each year while tagged rubber forest consumes 9.1 cubic meters of groundwater annually per mu.

While forests can always be replanted, the loss of biodiversity will be a permanent blot on the region. The rubber forest is a hostile environment for other plants to grow in, with even weeds killed by herbicides. Pi Gang fondly remembers a time when the dense and alive forest around his village was source of mystery, love and folklore. Now, even the birds have moved on to greener pastures.

Meanwhile, the local weather also has been affected with the famed Xishuangbanna fog, a by-product of its luxuriant forests, was reduced to 22 days a year near Jinghong City in 2005, from 184 in 1954.

(China.org.cn by Zhang Tingting, June 29, 2007)

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